In December 24, 1945, Nabokov wrote a letter to his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson had asked Nabokov why he thinks Hamlet remains popular on the English-speaking stage. Nabokov’s reply:
There are several reasons why Hamlet (even in the hideous garbled versions currently on the stage) should be attractive both to the caviar eater and the groundling. 1) Everybody likes to see a ghost on the stage; 2) kings and queens are also attractive; 3) the number and variety of lethal arrangements are unsurpassed and thus most pleasing: a) murder by mistake b) poison (in dumb show) c) suicide d) bathing and tree climbing casualty e) duel f) again poison—and other attractions backstage.’ (Nabokov-Wilson Letters, p.180.)
The word ‘groundling’ here refers to the low-paying audience members who in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had to watch the play standing; whom he imagines, just the same as the ‘caviar eater’ of the upper end of society, enjoys the play foremost as a kind of crime thriller. What is notable about this passage, besides Nabokov’s patronising contempt for mass culture, is that he is playing a game—that of reimagining the play as if it were as pulp fiction. In order to play the game, however, you have to know your Shakespeare.
In his fledgling years as an English-language novelist, now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife and son, and employed as a resident lecturer at Wellesley College, Nabokov would return to Shakespeare again and again in his works, parodying or paying homage to him, or playing games with his texts, or staging his ghost’s triumph over totalitarian foes. We are not so far, here, from young Nabokov’s Shakespearean romanticism that I wrote about last week; only that Shakespeare now contends with greater forces.
Nabokov’s second English novel, Bend Sinister (1947), written just after his arrival in the United States, is set in an imaginary nightmare country Padukgrad, a totalitarian regime ruled by the imbecile dictator Paduk. The protagonist of the novel, Adam Krug, is an important and well-loved philosopher who, rather like the author himself, cherishes freedom of thought and individuality: principles which are traduced by the sinister ideology of Ekwilism (a scheme for distributing human consciousness), upon which the dictatorship is founded.
Krug is also close friends with Ember, scholar and translator of Shakespeare and ‘Literary Advisor to the State Theatre’ for the absurd regime. Ember informs Krug about the regime’s plans to adapt Hamlet for the stage: the strong individualism of Hamlet (‘an insult to determinism and common sense’) will be replaced with Fortinbras, a ‘fine Nordic youth’ who will lead a ‘tragedy of the masses’ against a suspiciously Jewish Claudius. The play, then, anticipates Ekwilism, which is just how Shakespeare ‘unconsciously’ intended it.
Nabokov’s depiction of the topsy-turvy world of totalitarian art is also aimed squarely at new and fashionable academic readings of literature emerging on American campuses in the postwar era. But what this passage also implicitly acknowledges about Shakespeare is that his texts are just as much a creative resource for himself as they are to his enemies. Thus creative control over Shakespeare was crucial to Nabokov in the early years of his new life as an emigrant to the United States, having fled not just Bolshevism but the advance of Nazi Germany across Western Europe.
To know Shakespeare is to be somewhat orientated in your new home. Consider, throughout Nabokov’s English-language works, the number of times a cool, confident author outsmarts another, often an emigrant, who is not as easy, not as familiar, with the fine grains of the Shakespearean text.
The acclaimed novelist Sebastian Knight, for example, in Nabokov’s first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) plays a trick on his own biographer when he uses the plot of Hamlet to describe his unpublished debut novel. The biographer, according to the narrator V., ‘misses the joke’. In Pale Fire (1962), the poet John Shade calls upon the muse Shakespeare in order to endow his poem with a title – and is given pale fire. Charles Kinbote, emigre from Zembla, and the thief and editor of Shade’s poem, is unable to locate the phrase in his own garbled Zemblan translation of Shakespeare’s works, which bars him from the title’s implication – that he has stolen fire from a greater mass than he.
A similar dynamic, between author and clumsy emigrant, acquires a more tragic tone in Nabokov’s brilliant short story ‘That in Aleppo Once’, first published in 1943 for TheAtlantic Monthly. The title takes its phrase from Othello’s final speech after the murder of his wife, Desdemona:
‘And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.’
And thus he smotes himself. The speech is often read as Othello’s self-valorisation – ‘cheering himself up’, as T.S Eliot put it – before committing suicide.
Nabokov’s short story takes the form of a letter written by a Russian émigré who has recently arrived in the United States, and is anxious to relay to his friend and recipient, a more settled and successful emigrant living in the States (also called V.), the story of his wife’s infidelity and later disappearance.
The narrator and his wife had only recently fled Paris as the Nazis invaded Europe: ‘Dying to be described,’ he offers V. his story, and he is conscience that V. will take license with the details (which he does). The narrator, to be sure, knows his Shakespeare: he remembers the stab of jealousy he felt when he saw his young wife’s ‘almond-shaped eyes turn to her blond Cassio’. He identifies, also, with ‘swarthy Pushkin’, the great Russian poet with an African heritage, who was famously jealous of his own younger wife (and was inevitably compared to Othello).
But we become aware that V., master-author, has inserted lines from the text of Othellointo the narrator’s letter. After the narrator’s wife confesses that she spent the night with a ‘brute of a man’, the next paragraph begins with an assembly of fragments from Shakespeare’s text: ‘The time, the place, the torture. Her fan, her gloves, her mask’. These convey the narrator’s own violent thoughts; but with allusions rather different from the ones he has been making. Their implications are far direr than the narrator is willing to contemplate.
The narrator expects that V. will ‘clarify’ the story through the prism of his art. He only begs V. not to take his use of the word ‘Aleppo’ in the title, since it would imply – as of course it eventually does – that he has murdered his wife and committed suicide. If only the helpless narrator knew his Shakespeare better; if only he could escape the prism of art, then he would salvage his future.
The poor man is not alone. Ember, the translator living in Padukgrad, tinkers with his ‘favourite’ lines from Shakespeare, in order to make them scan: ‘follow the perttaunt jauncing ‘neath the rack / with her pale skeins-mate’. These appear to be genuine lines, don’t they? Some of Shakespeare’s most abstruse, headache-rending vers—yet they are fabrications by Nabokov. Why? Because Shakespeare is difficult, both for the translator rendering them in his own language (‘Like pulling a grand piano through a door’) as well as foreign and native-English readers alike.
So perhaps we can identify, in Nabokov’s letter to Wilson, an anxiety beneath the humour and the confident learning. Nabokov knew his Shakespeare; had read his works before he turned fifteen; but now he had become an English-language man of letters, leaving Pushkin’s Russia behind. New resources of language were required, or his talent was in peril. ‘I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue,’ he wrote in his afterword to Lolita,
‘for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way’.
It seems, then, that Nabokov regarded himself as both the clumsy emigrant and the master-author, the illusionist. Yet in order to secure himself as the latter, and transcend the newfound English ‘heritage’, he had to reckon with Shakespeare.