Alexander Voloshin in The World and the Flesh (1932),
playing a peasant breaking into a ritzy restaurant
during the Russian Revolution.
In 1941, a year after he and his family escaped Europe by the skin of their teeth, Nabokov began his Anglophone career in earnest at Wellesley College and published one of his best known poems, “Softest of Tongues,” in The Atlantic. A farewell to Russian, the language in which Nabokov first proved his mastery, the poem also demonstrates, with characteristic irony, the speaker’s mastery of the new language’s “clumsy tools of stone.”
To many things I’ve said the word that cheats
the lips and leaves them parted (thus: prash-chai
which means “good-bye”) — to furnished flats, to streets,
to milk-white letters melting in the sky;
to drab designs that habit seldom sees,
to novels interrupted by the din
of tunnels, annotated by quick trees,
abandoned with a squashed banana skin;
to a dim waiter in a dimmer town,
to cuts that healed and to a thumbless glove;
also to things of lyrical renown
perhaps more universal, such as love.
Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly … And so that’s that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.
To all these things I’ve said the fatal word,
using a tongue I had so tuned and tamed
that — like some ancient sonneteer — I heard
its echoes by posterity acclaimed.
But now thou too must go; just here we part,
softest of tongues, my true one, all my own …
And I am left to grope for heart and art
and start anew with clumsy tools of stone.
There’s a minor but significant macaronic touch to “Softest of Tongues,” which underscores the fact that, for Nabokov, the poem marks a moment of transition. In it he introduces into English the Russian word “прощай” — which he spells phonetically, “prash-chai” — suggesting that, to him, it means more than its Anglophone counterpart, “good-bye.” Ironically, at around the same time, another Russophone émigré, the White Army officer-turned-Hollywood extra Alexander Voloshin, used the same device in the brief first “chapter” of the second part of his mock epic, On the Track and at Crossroads. He too rejects the English “good bye,” which he introduces in Latin script, in favor of the Russian “прощай.”
There the similarities end. Whereas Nabokov’s poem is, despite its author’s distaste for sentimentality, a rather sentimental affair, Voloshin’s is light and buoyant, though also — in its broader context — ironic. Unlike Nabokov, Voloshin readily cottons to the unsophisticated materialism and rampant consumerism of Yankee life. And why shouldn’t he? Isn’t there some truth in the proposition that we all want a bit of comfort, even if that’s not all we want? The rest of Voloshin’s epic will show that the equal treatment he celebrates at the end of this chapter is in some very crucial ways illusory. And yet, although he’s painfully aware of the human imperfection and of the terrors all around, he remains at least half-convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds. He’s not quite Pangloss or Leibniz, our Voloshin, but neither is he Adorno and Horkheimer, his LA neighbors in the early 1940s. So, are you with Nabokov or with Voloshin? Heck, why choose?
Thus ended our nomadic days.
“Good-bye,” dear Europe: we part ways …
In fact, this is no mere “good bye” —
that’s right, dear Europe, it’s “prash-chai” …
Enough of wandering round and round.
We’ve finally found solid ground.
For in the end, our fondest wish is
to settle down, acquire dishes
of different kinds, and forks, and knives —
in other words, live bourgeois lives
the way the Yankees seem to do.
Oh, there’s hard work ahead, that’s true,
but our past grief is out of sight:
the sky is blue, the sun shines bright.
And also — most importantly —
here we’re all treated equally! …
Итак — окончены скитанья!
Good bye, Европа! … До свиданья! …
А впрочем, даже не good bye
Европе скажем, а — прощай! …
Довольно по миру мотаться,
Поря уже обосноваться,
У каждого желанье есть,
Как говоря — “на землю сесть”! …
Обзавестись посудой разной
И образ жизни буржуазный
Вести, как “янки” здесь ведут …
Пусть впереди тяжёлый труд,
Но в прошлом горести отныне, —
Нам светит солнце, небо сине,
А главное — Руси Сыны
Со всеми здесь уравнены! …