Losing a Language
Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
Toward the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s kaleidoscopic memoir, we see the young writer arrive in Cambridge, fresh from a lengthy trip across Europe—his aristocratic childhood now conclusively over, a mob of executioners having just missed him.
At a bookstall in the Market Place, I unexpectedly came upon a Russian work, a secondhand copy of Dahl’s Interpretative Dictionary of the Living Russian Language in four volumes. I bought it and resolved to read at least ten pages per day, jotting down such words and expressions as might especially please me, and I kept this up for a considerable time.
Already fluent in English, the language of his new country wasn’t a shock. The sounds of his birthplace, however, were receding behind him. Nabokov, now twenty years old, would never again set foot in Russia.
My fear of losing or corrupting, through alien influence, the only thing I had salvaged from Russia—her language—became positively morbid and considerably more harassing than the fear I was to experience two decades later of my never being able to bring my English prose anywhere close to my Russian.
You might recognize these undulations if you’ve ever struggled with a new language. An unwanted symbiotic relationship comes to your lips: the structure of your native tongue infects the new language, and, startlingly, the new language infects your native tongue.
I used to sit up far into the night, surrounded by an almost Quixotic accumulation of unwieldy volumes…It would have horrified me at the time to discover what I see so clearly now, the direct influence upon my Russian structures of various contemporaneous (“Georgian”) English verse patterns that were running about my room and all over me like tame mice.
Sentences do, in fact, have this rather unfortunate tendency to echo. What’s heard in your ear is soon transferred to your mouth. You see this best with children, who acquire those first birth-cries of language through a stuttered mimicry of what’s around them. But you can also catch it with your own speech. Where did that slogan come from? Why did I just repeat that cliché? And most people have a careless nature when it comes to picking up phrases along the way—mirroring the accents of friends, regurgitating the expressions they hear at lunch. Any sufficiently focused writer will realize that it takes determination to resist the speech patterns of those around you.
For Nabokov, however, the trouble pertained to the sentences already in his mind. Could he discriminate among his languages? Or would the ooze from one seep into another? Each of his languages (Russian, English, French) has its own cadence, each has a distinct sense of timing, and each leaves its own reverberations on the page. How could he possibly keep them separate?
Languages aren’t, it’s worth remembering, a mere collection of words and a few bits of grammar. Only the superficial aspects of a language land in a dictionary. All the undertones and nuances and lyricisms are hidden somewhere else. And if that weren’t true, then acquiring a language wouldn’t require anything more than a good memory.
A curious detail about Nabokov’s languages comes from those who met him in person. Many people were surprised to discover that the famous author had a sluggish and stilted voice. He addressed this incongruity in a 1962 interview.
I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
If you’ve ever been entranced by a Nabokov sentence, the quote above might also surprise you. Especially if you consider the usual link between thinking and writing and speaking, which aren’t discrete abilities, confined to separate compartments. Your knack for one reflects in the others. So how can we explain Nabokov, the graceful writer with the clumsy speech?
Perhaps there’s a clue in his description of endless revisions—the worn down erasers, all the rewritten passages, the “long Russian shadow” of his style. There’s an obsession with creating truly original sentences.
During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered fruit to the synthetic jam.
Imagine his obsession. Try to imbibe his goal. Or simply relate to the desire of dancing with a language. Wouldn’t it require a bit of care? Even caution? Hesitation before you speak? When you meet a friend for a stroll, wouldn’t you temper your desire for needless words, or to pick up all the loose phrases lying around? And won’t your writing now require endless revisions while your speech begins to slow? You strain to focus. To be thoughtful with your words. To avoid mixing the edges of your Russian with the ballet of English around you. What’s the purpose? After all that labor you just might have a chance to create sentences which are truly your own.