By the late 1930s the second phase of Vladimir Nabokov’s life–his period of European exile from Russia–was coming to an end. Nabokov had, over the previous two decades, built up a reputation within the Russian émigré community as a gifted writer of poetry and prose. But as the 1930s came to a close, the aristocratic Nabokov found himself middle aged and destitute, unable to obtain permission to work in France. With a wife and a young son to support, and with the threat of Nazi Germany rising in the East, Nabokov could read the writing on the wall: He needed to get out.
Nabokov searched for an academic post in England or America, and began writing in English. Although he would occasionally write in Russian for the rest of his life, Nabokov basically made a clean break and was composing primarily in English by the time he and his family boarded an ocean liner in May of 1940, just as Hitler’s tanks were rolling across France. But before he made his break, Nabokov wrote a few last poems in his mother language. One of those poems is a final farewell to his younger self, a poem that would eventually be titled “We So Firmly Believed.”
In the video above we hear Nabokov recite an early translation of the poem, which he then called “To My Youth.” We don’t know the original source of the recording. It may have been made during an April 3, 1954 talk, “The Art of Translation,” which Nabokov gave for the BBC. Or it may have been made during any of several similar talks he gave around that time. The poem itself is one of the best from Nabokov’s Russian period, according to Alexander Dolinin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He wrote it on the brink of World War II when his career as a leading Russian author in emigration was coming to an end,” Dolinin told Open Culture in an email. “In a sense, all his poems from this period are farewells to Russian language, Russian literature and ‘old world’ as he knew it.” Here is Nabokov’s 1954-era translation of the poem, which he describes on the tape as “a clumsy, but more or less exact affair”:
To My Youth
We used to believe so firmly, you and I, in the unity
of existence; but now I glance back–and it is
astounding–how impersonal in color, how unreal in
pattern you have become, my youth.
When one examines the matter, it is like the haze of
a wave between me and you, between the shallows and the
drowning–or else I see a receding highway, and you
from behind as you pedal right into the sunset on your semi-racer.
You are no more myself, you’re a mere outline, the subject
of any first chapter–but how long we believed
in the oneness of the way from the damp gorge
to the mountain heather.
Nabokov retranslated the poem for his 1970 volume, Poems and Problems. It’s interesting to compare the two versions to see how the author addressed the problem of clumsiness in the earlier version, and perhaps to gain a little more insight into the nuances of the original.
We So Firmly Believed
We so firmly believed in the linkage of life,
but now I’ve looked back–and it is astonishing
to what a degree you, my youth,
seem in tints not mine, in traits not real.
If one probes it, it’s rather like a wave’s haze
between me and you, between shallow and sinking,
or else I see telegraph poles and you from the back
as right into the sunset you ride your half-racer.
You’ve long ceased to be I. You’re an outline–the hero
of any first chapter; yet how long we believed
that there was no break in the way from the damp dell
to the alpine heath.
“The poem,” writes Brian Boyd in Stalking Nabokov, “is a deeply moving reflection on the gaps in memory, the gulfs in time within the self, the sense that as you look back at yourself you realize that despite the illusion of continuous identity, you may no longer feel a live connection with your younger selves.”
The exact date of composition of the poem which was eventually translated as “We So Firmly Believed” is difficult to determine. Many accounts give 1938 as the year, but in the tape Nabokov says the poem was written “some fifteen years ago on a May morning in Paris,” and he did not live in Paris in May of 1938. He did live there in May of 1939–almost exactly 15 years before the BBC talk–so that is a plausible date. But as Boyd told us in an email, there are conflicting bits of evidence in the Nabokov archives which place the composition either before or after that time.
NOTE: Special thanks to Dr. Alexander Dolinin of the University of of Wisconsin-Madison for identifying the poem for us and explaining its significance, and to Dr. Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland for helping us with the approximate date of the recording and for guiding us into “the tangled thickets of scholarship” to explain why the simple matter of assigning a date for the poem’s composition is not so simple.