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.

The 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 wrist­watch”). 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.

But 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 of Lau­ra 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…”). 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)”. 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.

Michael Idov is the author (and the Russ­ian trans­la­tor) of Ground Up.