The Curious Case of Professor Barabtarlo

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his previous posts, Michael wrote about the reception of his work in Russia and the challenge of self-translation. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

michael idovThe plan was for me to write this post about The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s unfinished final work -– on the logic that, as a first-time self-translator from English to Russian, I might have something original to say about it. I don’t. Is it a great novel? No, because it’s not a novel at all. It’s a great diary of writing one. Should it have come out? Sure. It should have been published decades ago, quietly, tucked into the fans-only section of the novelist’s bibliography well behind the letters to Edmund Wilson and somewhere next to the handwritten recipe for “Eggs a la Nabocoque†(“Boil water in a saucepan… Consult your wristwatchâ€). As things stand now, we’ve slathered an adolescent dream of secret treasure – Swiss vault! Tormented son! The big reveal! – all over a text that cried out for dignified academic obscurity. We’ve taken a Nabokov manuscript and written a Dan Brown manuscript about it.

original of lauraBut I’ve long noticed that everything having to do with Nabokov has a tendency to turn uniquely Nabokovian. Real life begins to teem with temporal pretzels, unreliable narrators and phantom doppelgangers. And so the twisty story ofLaura continues in the most amazing case of its Russian translator, Gennady Barabtarlo.

Professor Barabtarlo teaches Russian Lit at the University of Missouri. He only dabbles in professional translation, and when he does, he translates almost exclusively Nabokov. His superb version of Pnin is, without a doubt, the most splendid act of Nabokov repatriation to date. (Western readers don’t give it too much thought, but the main irony of late-career Nabokov is that he is virtually untranslatable into his native tongue; there still isn’t a half-decent Russian Ada). So it was no surprise when Barabtarlo was hand-picked by Dmitry to translate Laura, whose first Russian chapter appeared in Snob magazine in November. This is when Gennady Barabtarlo began to exhibit signs of… well… I don’t even know how to say it without sounding ridiculous. In short, he began turning into Vladimir Nabokov.

He gave his interviews Nabokov-style, by demanding questions in advance and preparing florid, alliterative replies in the manner of you-know-who (“In the slightly salinated Moscow of my youth…â€). Mutual friends reported his rising use of archaic Russian – equivalents of “thine†or “giveth.†It all culminated in a recent Q&A with Chastny Korrespondent, which Barabtarlo insisted on conducting entirely in pre-Revolutionary grammar. The poor publishers had to re-import three long-extinct letters into their font in order to print it. Barabtarlo pulled this stunt in order to underscore a point that the only salvation for the Russian culture would be to denounce everything Soviet (no matter that the work on the grammar reform has been going on since 1911). Along the way, he also informed the reading public that “No masterpiece… has ever been, or can be, written by anything other than the desnitsa (ancient term for right hand)â€. Damn the “Remingtons and Macintoshes,†suitable only for typing drivel.

A Nabokov reader will experience a shudder of recognition here. Prof. Barabtarlo has, basically, become Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire, a deranged presence inserting itself between the text and the reader. In fact, this is all a bit too perfect, since Kinbote’s real identity is Vseslav Botkin, a Russian professor at an American university. The question remains whether Prof. Barabtarlo is doing this as a practical joke on the Russian reader or has gone genuinely bonkers. I’m afraid the former is a more upsetting proposition than the latter. God knows the publication of Laura was surrounded by enough gimmicks. That said, I’m almost sorry that the U.S. readers don’t get to experience this highly Nabokovian sideshow. Something is always lost in translation – except the fun of losing it.

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