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Nabokov on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett

Tuesday, 28 April, 2015

Before the anticipation of Mayweather-Pacquiao there was the historical fact of Breitensträter vs. Paolino. The date was 1 December 1925 and the venue was the Sports Palace in Berlin. The fighters were the German Hans Breitensträter and the Basque Paolino Uzcudun. Ringside among the 15,000 spectators was the young Vladimir Nabokov. His account of the bout was published as “Breitensträter–Paolino” on 28 and 29 December in the Latvian émigré journal Slovo. It is filled with delightful observations. This bit on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, the boxers, is especially good:

“I have had the luck to see Smith, and Bombardier Wells, and Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, and the miraculous Carpentier who beat Beckett. That fight, which paid the winner five thousand, and the runner-up three thousand pounds, lasted exactly fifty-six seconds, so that someone who had paid twenty pounds for their seat had only enough time to light a cigarette, and when he looked up at the ring, Beckett was already lying on the boards in the touching pose of a sleeping baby.”

When the Times Literary Supplement published the first English translation of Nabokov’s “Breitensträter–Paolino” three years ago, Thomas Karshan, one of the translators, noted, “In our translation we have tried to do justice to Nabokov’s dashes, staccato or metaphysical, his commas, apprehensive or explosive, and his inversions, abstract or gutsy, all so important in a piece devoted to testing how far art can go in formalizing even those parts of life that might seem most resistant — even boxing, even blood and pain. We have also tried to catch those moments, so far from the oracular pronouncements of the opening, in which Nabokov mimics the brusque street-talk of the boxing fan or commentator, mixing his voice with the voices of the crowd — a democratic ventriloquism unique in his work.”


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