Friday, September 21, 2012

Plyushkin's garden

In May 1922 Vladimir Nabokov sat his finals at Cambridge and was relieved to find that one of the questions asked him to describe Plyushkin's garden in Gogol's Dead Souls.  As Brian Boyd says, this 'perfectly suited his preference for exact knowledge, precise visualisation, detailed recall.' (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years).  It was a subject Nabokov would return to in the book on Gogol he published in 1944, which opens by describing his great predecessor as 'the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced.'  Before Gogol, Russian writers described the natural world in conventional eighteenth century language: 'that the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called "classical" writer.'  Nabokov doubted 'whether any writer, certainly not in Russia, had ever noticed before, to give the most striking instance, the moving pattern of light and shade on the ground under trees or the tricks of colour played by sunlight with leaves.'  Gogol's description of Plyushkin's garden shocked Russian readers 'in much the same way as Manet did the bewhiskered philistines of his day.'

Gogol's own cover design for Dead Souls

Nabokov offers his own translation into English of Gogol's description, criticising the poor quality of earlier efforts: Isabel Hapgood (1885) 'heaps blunder upon blunder, turning the Russian "birch" into the non-endemic "beech," the "aspen" into an "ashtree," the "elder" into "lilac," the "dark bird" into a "blackbird"...'  The book has been translated more recently by Robert A. Maguire, who gets the trees right but does use the word blackbird rather than dark bird - does Nabokov mean it should be 'a dark bird'? It's probably not OK to reproduce the whole description here, but I'll quote an extract from the Maguire translation below.  In Dead Souls, the character Plyushkin is a miser whose estate has become overgrown, but in a way that would please Picturesque garden theorists.  Gogol's whole approach to writing has been likened by Susanne Fusso to this garden.  In her book Designing Dead Souls she quotes a friend of the writer who recalled Gogol saying, "if I were a painter, I would choose a special sort of landscape.  What trees and landscapes they paint today! Everything is clear and sorted out; the master has read through it, and the spectator follows him haltingly.  I would enchain tree with tree, entangle the branches, let light show through where no one expects it, that is the kind of landscape I should paint."  So, here is Gogol painting in words to describe Plyushkin's garden:
'...In places green, sun struck thickets parted to reveal a hollow between them, untouched by light and gaping like a dark maw, it was cast all in shadow, and its black depths afforded but the faintest glimpse of a coursing narrow path, the ruins of a railing, a tumbledown gazebo, a hollow, decayed trunk of a willow, and from behind the willow a gray thicket which thrust out a dense bristly of leaves and twigs, entangled and enmeshed, withered by the fearsome wild, and finally the young branch of a maple that had stretched from one side its green paw – leaves beneath one of which the sun had made its way. Lord knows how, and was turning it suddenly transparent and fiery, a wondrously shining thing in this thick darkness. Off to one side, at the very edge of the garden, several high-reaching aspen, taller than the others, raised enormous crows’ nest on their tremulous crowns. From some of these, branches, broken but not fully detached, hung down with their withered leaves. In a word, all was somehow desolate and splendid, as it is given to neither nature nor art to devise...'

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