Even though I am told that my writing does not show signs of rigor mortis, it is a fact that I write slowly and laboriously, pausing after every word I set down. I change it countless times and repeat the process with each sentence and paragraph before I can move forward. The vision of Trollope composing the Barchester novels in a railroad car, traveling desk balanced on his knees, with hardly an erasure or addition needed before the manuscript went off to the publisher, fills me with admiration, envy, and dull despair. I too can perform on the high wire when I write a legal text or an essay; writing fiction I need to keep my feet on the ground. Perfectionism and perennial dissatisfaction with everything I do are not alone to blame: it seems to me that when I write in English I lack normal spontaneity, let alone the unbeatable self-assurance a writer needs to soar or to be outrageous. I know that I do manage from time to time to be outrageous in my fiction, but the stress falls on the verb “manage.” Nothing about those effects is instant. The truth is that even today, after an immersion of more than fifty-five years in the English language, I am never completely confident that I have gotten right whatever it is that I write down, certainly not on the first try. Knowing objectively that often—perhaps most often—in fact I do, is not a consolation. In that respect only, I am not unlike my great countryman, Joseph Conrad. But Conrad had more of an excuse: he began to learn English only at the age of twenty-one; he was thirty-eight when his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published, and he had spent most of the intervening years on the high seas. Vladimir Nabokov’s command of the English language is a different case altogether. English was in effect Nabokov’s first language: he learned to read it before he could read Russian. Becoming thoroughly proficient in a “civilized” tongue, usually the French, and leaving the vernacular for latter, to be absorbed as a part of growing up, was usual in the nineteenth century among Slavic upper-class families. There was a series of English and French governesses who took care of the Nabokov children, and it wasn’t until Vladimir was seven that his father, alarmed by his sons’ backwardness in their native language, engaged the schoolmaster from the village adjoining the family estate to teach them to read and write in Russian.To go back to the torment I experienced revising the manuscript of my most recent novel, its immediate cause was the number of times my editor was in essence questioning my diction, the correctedness of the way I expressed myself in English. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t always right. What hurt was the contrast between his instinctive grasp of how one would normally say whatever it was that I wanted to express and my doubts: my need to grope to find the way, to test each sentence by reading it aloud. He had kept his birthright—the ability to use his mother tongue in his calling—and I had lost mine.
The Polish language has been a source of undiluted joy for me, and it pains me to make an admission that may make me seem unfaithful to my first love. But the plain truth is that I consider myself also supremely lucky to be an American novelist, using a language of incomparable beauty and access to readers, a language that for all the difficulties I have described is totally my own. In this respect as well, my case is very different from Nabokov’s, as he described it in an afterword to Lolita:
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
Tragedy, surely, but one that was embedded in triumph. (…) I follow Nabokov’s advice, and take the tragedy seriously only because Nabokov’s intimate wound was surely very real, as is the wound inflicted by every exile, whatever its circumstances and aftermath. The wound is one that never heals, even if one can say with Nabokov, as I do, quite heartlessly: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.”