Past Tense: Nabokov and Jakobson

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”

— Harvard Slavic Professor Roman Jakobson

The scathing remark settled any dispute: Vladimir Nabokov was not to be admitted as a Harvard professor.

In 1957, McGeorge Bundy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote to the chairmen of all the departments, asking for names of scholars they would particularly like to have on the faculty. Nabokov had spent eight years in Cambridge, from 1941 to 1948, during which he taught comparative literature at Wellesley and organized the butterfly collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nine years after moving to teach at Cornell, Nabokov sought to return to Harvard, this time as a professor of Russian literature.

Several professors favored Nabokov’s appointment, writes Brian Boyd in “Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years,” including his friend Harry T. Levin, chair of the Department of Modern Languages. With the publication of “Lolita” two years behind him, the writer was already of great renown in both Russian and English.

But Slavic Languages and Literatures Professor Roman Jakobson—one of the stars of the department and the author of the quotation above—would not agree to it.

Nabokov and Jakobson had known each other, though not well; they had agreed to work together on the English translation of “The Song of Igor’s Campaign,” at less than 1,000 lines, a short ancient Russian epic. Their lives reveal superficial, structural similarities that were set against the ever-present backdrop of the Cold War. Their feud, though, reveals a more complex story: one strung between academic training, Russian politics, and the legitimacy of creative scholarship.

Art in a National Context

By the time he arrived at Cornell in 1948, Nabokov had spent years translating and writing commentary for “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” the story of the unsuccessful war waged by a prince from Kiev against Steppe marauders. Around the same time, two other Russian émigrés were working on a critical edition to the poem: Marc Szeftel, on the history faculty at Cornell, and Jakobson.

In 1949, Nabokov and Jakobson first discussed the possibility of collaborating on the definitive English edition, along with Szeftel. The project was nothing if not timely. Their proposed translation of the Igor Tale would emerge within a context of shifting Soviet ideas about the social role of art, a context all three scholars knew well.

The period following the Russian Revolution was witness to a renewed interest in the ancient Russian epic genre. According to James R. Russell, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, who taught a House seminar on Nabokov for years, such a revival can be traced to two sources. One was a remnant of 19th-century nationalism, a desire to demonstrate artistic sovereignty by turning away from the biblical tradition and towards home-grown legends.

“There was a second and, in some ways, even darker ideological impetus,” says Russell, “in the Soviet Union.”

Joseph Stalin, along with supportive members of the literary establishment, began to condemn the avant-garde art of the time: formalism, or art for art’s sake. They believed instead that art should have a practical purpose: socialist realism that would go beyond the “bourgeois” art of the 19th century. “It had to come from the people,” Russell says, “as defined by the Soviet ideology.” This meant, ultimately, the folk bards. Though long part of peasant life and embedded in oral tradition, only now were these bards championed on a political level, with recordings and publications encouraged.

In the 40s, this artistic and intellectual debate between formalism and socialist realism was more than a question for the Ivory Tower. Back in New England, such a phenomenon resonated with the Russian expat scholars in both their scholarship and personal ties.

The Writer and the Scholar

The question of how to navigate creative and national interests was especially relevant for Jakobson, who, Russell says, “was associated in a way that Nabokov refused to be with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.” He traveled to the Soviet Union several times a year for conferences and talks. To a certain extent, then, in working with Soviet scholars, he was obliged to accommodate to the Stalinist system. “

Jakobson was not even remotely a totalitarian,” says Russell. But Nabokov profoundly despised the Soviet Union and by implication was suspicious of anyone even remotely involved with it. He himself had severed all ties.

Some scholars point to this to explain the enduring antipathy between Nabokov and Jakobson. In a letter dated April 14, 1957, quoted in Boyd, Nabokov wrote: “After a careful examination of conscience, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot collaborate with you in the proposed English-language edition of [the Igor Tale]. Frankly, I am unable to stomach your little trips to totalitarian countries.” For many scholars, such ideological differences account for their feud; for others, a certain level of bitterness plays an equal role.

In fact, says Russell, “I think they never really understood each other.” There are surface-level parallels between Nabokov and Jakobson: both Russian academics, both living in the States, after both being forced to flee. The two came from well-to-do families, though Nabokov’s aristocratic, Anglophone upbringing would more explicitly shape his novels.

But the two approached academia from vastly different angles. Jakobson had been involved with an intellectual milieu of structuralists since before his emigration. When Nabokov sought to join Harvard’s faculty, Jakobson instead wanted someone with a doctorate, with a more rigorous training in the academy. Nabokov had studied ancient Russian literature at Cambridge—prompting his initial interest in the Igor Tale—but teaching, for him, provided mainly a necessary financial supplement to his creative work. Only the success of “Lolita” would eliminate this burden. As Russell puts it, “as soon as he could leave academia he was out like a shot.”

Following the incident at Harvard, Nabokov withdrew from working on the joint edition. He requested Jakobson no longer make use of his own mimeographs, short translated segments of the Igor Tale, in his classes. In 1960, Nabokov published his own version of the work—with no mention of either Jakobson or Szeftel in the notes. For the rest of his life, he lived in Switzerland off the proceeds from his novels.

Fueds and the Academy

In a university climate, where the pearly gates of tenure vindicate muddier tactics of ascent, one wonders if such professorial feuds are to be expected. Russell, for one, doubts that a verbal battle so incendiary could take place today. “I think that people are just as vicious as they’ve always been in academia,” he says. “There’s no doubt at all of that.”

“But,” he continues, “there’s a lot less that one is allowed to say.” A standard of political correctness—instated partly to defend against sexism and racism, for example—has unwittingly produced an academic culture of perhaps greater conformity than in the past.

Even 50 years ago, Nabokov found subtle ways to slip jokes about academia into his creative works. In his novel “Pnin,” a Russian émigré professor at an American university is denied tenure; as Russell relates, it ends with the protagonist—Pnin—driving off into the sunset, unconcerned with his reputation at the academy. In “Pale Fire,” published five years later, a single footnote mentions Professor Pnin, head of the Slavic Department at Wordsmith University, who has become a stodgy old professor. An allusion to Jakobson, a comment on academia, or no more than a literary whim? Perhaps none, perhaps all. According to Russell, “that’s what literature can do.”