Vladimir Nabokov’s Enduring, Magical Lexical Flim-Flammery

Ah, words! Those of you who remember that I wrote a novel called Problems of Translation will hardly be surprised that the sounds as well as the meanings of those pesky little tools for constructing sentences are very close to my heart. Well, for all my fellow word-mavens, here’s a treat. This will be interesting if you haven’t encountered it before, or maybe it will still generate an astonished chuckle, even if you have.

Going through my files recently, I came across something I had copied down from Vladimir Navokov’s Pale Fire about a century ago (perhaps a little less).

Now, Nabokov was (and is) one of my much-loved writers (Pnin remains among my three all-time favorite novels). Chief among his attractions, of course, was his nearly unmatched facility with words. Whether in Russian or in English! And chief among the reasons for that talent was the sheer joy he took in both sound and meaning.  To my mind, nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in Pale Fire.

Here’s the passage I came across (excerpted from page 260 of my paperback edition): “There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case [of what you ask? Read on!], where not only two, but three words are involved. The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper account of a Russian tsar’s coronation had, instead of korona (crown) the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically ‘corrected,’ it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation.”

Pretty spectacular, no? Did you pick up on the part where he said this was “probably apocryphal?” Which suggests, of course, that this “double coincidence” was something that  he invented himself! Question is, does that make it less astonishing? Or more?

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