What about Nabokov's German? 

© by Dieter E. Zimmer

30 May 2016


ONCE IN A WHILE somebody comes along and says it was all a fib: Nabokov's German was actually much better than he ever admitted. Usually this happens with a purpose: somebody has found a word, a phrase, a theme in a German book which reminded him of something in Nabokov, and promptly he suggests that VN's German was good enough to borrow it from an unacknowledged German source.

     I believe it was Nabokov's first biographer Andrew Field who started the game. He found that in one of Nabokov's short stories (The Reunion, 1931) he had passingly mentioned Leonhard Frank's novel Bruder und Schwester (Brother and Sister, 1929), arguing that because it was about incest it might somehow have contributed to Ada. To prove that Nabokov surely had read Frank, Field produced a whole paragraph in The Defense that, if you didn't look too closely, concurred with a paragraph in Bruder und Schwester. In Field's mind, Nabokov's claim that his German was poor and that Frank's novel just was "philistine tripe" was nothing but a subterfuge to cover up that he had somehow derived Ada from Frank. So the assertion that Nabokov's German was much better than he admitted always tended to carry a vague reproach of dishonesty.

     Now neither Nabokov himself nor his serious biographers and critics ever maintained that he wouldn't have been able at least to skim Bruder und Schwester in German—and to dedicate some "quality reading" to it with the help of a dictionary. In 1929 and 1930, he might even have had a reason to take a look at Bruder und Schwester. The German version of his King, Queen, Knave was out in the bookstores and plodded along poorly. One of the bestsellers of the season was Bruder und Schwester. It appears Nabokov wanted to have a look at his more successful competitors. In 1932, he called another superseller of those years "ghastly stuff": Vicki Baum's Menschen im Hotel (People at a Hotel). Brian Boyd doesn't think he read it in German, if at all: "It was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1930, translated into English in 1931 and of course made into a Hollywood film in 1932; so by the time he implicitly dismissed her in 1932, he had ample ways to know about her novel other than in German (he may not have been able to see the play, but he could have seen reviews)." (Boyd, pers.  comm., 2 June 1916.) Anyway, he must have concluded that he himself would not want to produce anything like Frank's or Baum's philistine tripe and ghastly stuff. In later years, he closely followed the Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago competing with his Lolita on the American bestseller charts.

     That one paragraph in The Defense which to Field seemed to prove that Nabokov copied it straight out of Brother and Sister actually may serve to prove that he did not. At one point both authors described the window of a Berlin stationary shop (Frank even says where, on Friedrichstrasse, a central Berlin shopping street), noting an advertising manniquin for Mont Blanc fountain pens, one side of its vest blotted with ink, the other one miraculously protected by a Mont Blanc pen. In Frank's description, the figure has two heads and two faces. In Nabokov's, it has but one head with two faces. Perhaps both authors had noticed the same figure on Friedrichstrasse but remembered it differently. Or they had seen different versions of the manniquin in different shops. If I take the historical Mont Blanc poster (reproduced in my book Nabokov's Berlin) to be a picture of the figure in question, Nabokov's description was right and Frank's was simply wrong. But that much is certain: a one-headed figure cannot be derived from a two-headed one; nor can a two-headed figure be derived from a one-headed one. Both descriptions must be independent of each other.

     I corresponded with Nabokov and his wife for more than thirty years about my German renderings of his books. When I visited him in Montreux for two tv interviews in the 1960s, he out of politeness spoke a few sentences in German with me. So I probably happen to be one of the last Germans alive who have heard him speak German. Maybe this gives me a right to attest that his German was not better than he himself claimed. I never had any reason to doubt that he spoke the plain truth when he talked about his "childish German".

     Everybody at all familiar with his biography should know what his German was like. He had German in Tenishev high school for about two years until the course was canceled at the beginning of World War I. It will have been sufficient to learn the basics of German grammar and to aquire an elementary vocabulary. Also, he might have had to remember by heart some of the same German ballads German Gymnasium students like me had to remember. From those years he may have retained a memory of two German poems he cited and quoted several times: Goethe's marvelous Elf-King and Bürger's much more questionable Lenore (which Humbert quotes in Lolita). "Und jetzt hopp-hopp-hopp, Lenore," says Humbert. Nabokov told Alfred Appel, Jr. of this source, adding that there "you will also find the irresistible line: 'Und außen, horch! ging’s trapp, trapp, trapp'" (letter dated 2 April 1967).

     In those years he also avidly consulted German butterfly "atlases" like those by Hofmann, Lampert and Seitz which he later, when his aversion to everything German mounted, came to dislike. Consulting an entomological handbook does not require great linguistic skills. The terminology is standard and small (wingspan, color, size, range, hatching time), you know what information you are after and will soon pick it up without even noticing what language it comes in. His high school German along with a small dictionary should have been sufficient to browse those butterfly guides and also to re-translate a few short Heine poems from Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe for the countess Panin when the Nabokovs stayed as her guests on the Crimea in 1918.

     When he moved to Berlin in 1922 to live among Germans for 15 years, his German will have been perfectly up to the needs of everyday life: renting a room and paying his rent, buying stamps or cigarettes, ordering scrambled eggs and ham, buying a tram ticket or hiring a cab or getting battered by rough German soccer players. More he did not need. The Russian émigrés in Berlin (numbering up to 400,000 between 1922 and 1923) formed a segregated community, with countless clubs and associations, newspapers and journals, book stores and theaters, restaurants and cabarets, churches and cemeteries of their own. As a Russian in Berlin, you only needed a few stock phrases of German to get along. All your intimately private and intellectual intercourse could be confined to Russian. Nabokov did not join any German or German-Russian club or literary society, almost never went to German language theaters (though somehow he seems to have taken note of the leftist director Erwin Piscator whose productions were playing just around the corner, on Nollendorfplatz), did not subscribe to any German newspaper or literary journal. In the letters to his wife he mentions hundreds of Russian, French and English friends and contacts but no Germans except for the officials at all kinds of bothersome offices where he had to apply for residency permits, passports, visas and a marriage license. He did go to German cinemas but up to 1930 all films were silent. Most of the people he tutored in English and French and tennis were Russians.

     Knowledge of a language is a relative skill. If an average interlucutor had heard him uttering a few standard sentences in German, he might have thought: Well, that's not bad at all. It wasn't bad for many everyday purposes. But as soon as he had to leave safe terrain, he was lost. His own linguistic demands were of the highest kind, and he was perfectly aware that his German could not in the least cope with his Russian, English and French. So he did not lie when in some application form he included German as one of the languages he spoke, nor did he lie when he called his German "childish."

     Unintentionally, Nabokov himself provided an impartial view of his fluency in German. In his letters to his wife, there was no need to be diplomatic either way. She worked in German offices for many years, and her German was much better than his. That's why it was she who checked my translations most of the time, only consulting him occasionally. His letters to her were written in Russian, the majority between 1923 and 1937, that is at a time when they were living in Germany and German was spoken all around them. As usual in all of his prose, a great number of words and phrases from languages other than Russian are interspersed. There are hundreds of chunks of English and French, all of them meticulously correct. But there are only eight bits of German, and six of them are faulty in some way: "Gotter-knows-where", "Sauer-jurken", "Arme Dichter" (plural, for Spitzweg's well-known painting The Poor Poet), "kommt in Frage", "Teppich, tepst du" (a poor pun supposed to mean "I walk on a carpet"), "Finanzamt", "Ich hab gedacht dass ich bekomme ein Brief von Dir heute", "Geh zu deine Kabine: ich bin müde." Now these were casual private letters. But in his elaborated works, proof-read professionally many times, many chunks of German are wrong as well. Which tells us that in the case of German, Nabokov just did not care.

     He started to care only much later, when his own books were being translated into German. Early in 1948 he was presented with a German translation of his novel Bend Sinister which the American army had commissioned for re-education purposes. He was aghast and said that this absolutely horrible translation may never, never be published. He even went so far as to suggest they ask Thomas Mann if he could not recommend an acceptable translator. He detested Mann but obviously was aware that his German was okay.

     I don't see that he either glorified or diminished his command of German. He just spoke the truth when he at length summarized his negative attitude in 1971 for a German TV interviewer, Kurt Hoffman, who had asked him for an explanation: "['Mary' and] my next seven novels were written in Berlin and all of them had, entirely or in part, a Berlin background. This is the German contribution to the atmosphere and production of all my eight Russian novels written in Berlin. When I moved there from England in 1921, I had only a smattering of German picked up in Berlin during an earlier stay in the winter of 1910 when my brother and I went there with a Russian tutor to have our teeth fixed by an American dentist. In the course of my Cambridge University years I kept my Russian alive by reading Russian literature, my main subject, and by composing an appalling quantity of poems in Russian. Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed émigré circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the routine necessities of shopping: Ich möchte etwas Schinken. I now regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a cultural point of view. The little I ever did in that respect was to translate in my youth some Heine songs for a Russian contralto—who, incidentally, wanted the musically significant vowels to coincide in fullness of sound, and therefore I turned Ich grolle nicht into Net, zloby net, instead of the unsingable old version Ya ne serzhus'. Later I read Goethe and Kafka en regard as I also did Homer and Horace. And of course since my early boyhood I have been tackling a multitude of German butterfly books with the aid of a dictionary."[1]

     The question of what German literature he actually knew is a difficult one. Over the years, he certainly read some, in German, French, English or Russian or en face. He certainly read some Goethe, at least Faust I, including the ballad Der König von Thule, partly to grasp Pushkin's high opinion of him. In 1932, he even translated the Zueignung into Russian.[2] But if there was admiration, it must have waned soon, for in his book on Gogol (1944), he wrote, "It takes a super-Russian to admit that there is a dreadful streak of poshlust running through Goethe's Faust."[3] Two years later, in a Wellesley interview dated 1946, he topped that by saying that Goethe had "fundamental flaws in character, flaws which seem also to be inherent in the type of German in power now."[4] That is, he thought he had discovered the Nazi in Goethe.

     Several times he dismissively mentioned Rilke, but it is unclear whether he had read anything by him. His bête noire among contemporary German authors clearly was Thomas Mann. Many times he mentioned him disparagingly. In a Wellesley interview he said that Mann, Faulkner and Gide were the writers he most detested.[5] But what had he read by him? And in which language? In 1950, he delivered a short lecture on the Railway Accident, a mere trifle he studied in an English translation. Otherwise, there are various mentions of Death in Venice ("asinine", "a supreme example of poshlost"). He seems at least to have been familiar with the subject of the Magic Mountain, just as one would expect from somebody who spent delightful summer weeks collecting butterflies in Davos. (The quick and harsh dismissal of many a contemporary writer became one of his hallmarks. Personally, I feel much more at ease with these pronouncements when there is evidence that his dislike was based on familiarity.)

     The only German speaking writer whom Nabokov admired unreservedly and whom he studied closely was Franz Kafka whose Metamorphosis he selected for one of his major Cornell Lectures on European Literature in Translation. He was sometimes reproached for having imitated Kafka's manner in his 1934 novel Invitation to a Beheading, but he countered the charge by affirming that he had become acquainted with Kafka's writings only in 1936, and that he had first read him in French. (Brian Boyd draws my attention to the fact that he may have read The Metamorphosis earlier, as a French translation had appeared in NRF in 1928.)

     Thus while it is evident that he knew some German literature, it remains open whether he read it in German or in some translation. And as the careful preparation of his lecture on The Metamorphosis shows, he needed a thorough en face study with a large dictionary at hand to feel safe about a German text.

     Still, the rumour of Nabokov's excellent German persists, and it still serves the same purpose. In March 2016, nobody less than the noted German writer Daniel Kehlmann revived it once more, in an interview[6] with Michael Maar, the originator of the »Lichberg Myth. He meant to lend it support by offering new evidence for Nabokov's command of German. And what singularly stunning evidence it was! "'Some Nabokov scholars have been quite steadfast in their claim that the great man didn’t speak German, and if that’s true, he couldn’t have read Lichberg. But you just need to ask around a bit and you find out that’s not true.' 'Who did you ask?'", Maar asked his interviewer. "'Gerhard Bronner, a famous Austrian comedian and nightclub owner who died in 2007, told me how, years ago, the Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg brought Nabokov and his cousin Nicolai to Gerhard’s bar in the center of Vienna. Gerhard remembered Vladimir speaking very decent German, albeit with a heavy accent." It is interesting to hear that "just asking around a bit" is the way to produce evidence that cancels all other evidence.

     But it is all flimsy hear-say. Somebody who has been dead for nine years once told Kehlmann something he had heard from somebody dead for 37 years ... Now it is true that in 1953 composer Nicolas (!) Nabokov visited Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg in Vienna.[7] They had business together. Nicolas Nabokov was Secretary General of the recently founded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) which was secretly funded by the CIA (a fact Nabokov did not know at that time). In Vienna, Nabokov installed Torberg as the editor of the CCF's Austrian cultural magazine Forvm. It is perfectly possible that some of their meetings were held at Bronner's Marietta-Bar and that Nicolas Nabokov brought somebody along. But this person certainly was not Nicolas' cousin Vladimir Nabokov who was not in Europe between 1940 and 1959. Shortly after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Nicolas may have been in Vienna again to help establish a group of exiled Hungarian musicians (the later Philharmonia Hungarica) somewhere in the West.[8] In 1959, he asked Vladimir by letter if he had an idea for an opera both could cooperate on.[9] Nothing came out of this, but the letter makes it clear that they had not seen each other for years. All this was before Vladimir Nabokov's return to Europe on November 5, 1959. Vladimir's biographers have no record of any trip to Vienna at all.

     Two ghosts where reporting on a third ghost who had been somebody else. There couldn't have been a more fitting substantiation of the Lichberg Myth.


[1] Nabokov, Vladimir: Strong Opinions, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973, p. 188-189.

[2] Iz Gete. Posvashchenie k Faustu, in Paris: Poslednie novosti, no. 4285, 15 Dec 1932, p. 3.

[3] Nabokov, Vladimir: Nikolai Gogol, New York: New Directions, 1944, p.64.

[4] Boyd, Brian: Vladimir Nabokov—The American Years, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991, p. 90.

[5] Boyd, op. cit., p. 122.

[6] Kehlmann, Daniel: Ich fühle mich von diesen Leuten betrogen [Interview with Michael Maar], Berlin: Cicero, no. 3, March 2016, p. 102-105.

[7] Giroud, Vincent: Nicolas Nabokov—A Life in Freedom and Music, New York: Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 198ff.

[8] Giroud, op. cit., p. 309f.

[9] Giroud, op. cit., p. 313.