On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue 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.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

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