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Nabokov and His Football Poem

by John Cobley

Monday Nov 27th, 2017


Nabokov in 1919

Vladimir Nabokov was a football goalkeeper in his youth, playing in his native Russia and at Cambridge, England. He described his football (soccer) experiences in his 1947 autobiography Speak Memory and also wrote a poem in Russian about his goalkeeping at Cambridge.  Interestingly, he used the English word “Football” as the title for this poem. Presumably he chose the English title to emphasize the English origin of the game.


Several critics have discussed Nabokov’s goalkeeping, notably Brian Boyd (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years), Thomas Karshan (Nabokov and Play, an Oxford Ph. D. thesis) and  afthstewart [sic] (“The Wandering Attention of Vladimir Nabokov,” putnielsingoal.com). The latter two critics quote short passages in English translation of “Football,” but I can’t find a complete translation of the poem.


So here is mine. (Note that the poem is addressed to a woman. This is clear in the Russian: the first “you” is in the feminine form.) 



I saw you walking with a young man similar to many others;

I recognized it all: the gait, the pipe, the laughter.

And, you see, there are quite a few of them, and, okay,

    In different ways I like them all.


You and he came to where we were cavorting around

In a friendly but competitive way under a blue winter sky.

Gratifying game! An open space,

    With dazzling shirts. The lively ball


Is kicked in a lightning curve.

The sonorous shot soars, and

I leap up, blocking its rapid flight

    With a deflection.   


Catching sight of my confident and skilful save,

You asked, watching the spinning ball:

Do you know him—over there in the white jersey,

    Thin and disheveled like a violinist?


Your companion answered that it appears that I

Am from that strange country, where blood is falling on the snow,

And sucking on a pipe he remarked, incidentally,

    That I was a decent fellow.


Off you went, and your sunny voice

Became indistinct. I saw your friend

Follow, smoking, and then stop

    To tap his pipe on his heel.


The ball bounced everywhere, and you couldn’t know

That one of these carefree players here,

In silence, during the night, leisurely creates

    Assonances for different ages.


Vladimir Nabokov. Cambridge, 28 February 1920


The save was important for his team, but its effect on the woman with the sunny voice appears more important to Nabokov. Playing goalkeeper enabled him to stand out from his team members; it satisfied his inclination to be an outsider and his need to show off.

This poem is as much about Nabokov’s self-image as it is about football. His diving save is  obviously important for his team, but its effect on the woman with the sunny voice appears more important to Nabokov. Playing goalkeeper enabled him to stand out from his team members; it satisfied his inclination to be an outsider and his need to show off.


Nabokov wrote enthusiastically in his autobiography about the glory of playing in goal: “I was crazy about goalkeeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive…he vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation…. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two lying full length where he fell, his goal still intact.” (Speak Memory, p. 267)


From an early age, Nabokov had a reputation as an exhibitionist. At the Tennishev School in St. Petersburg, he was accused by his teachers of showing off. His headmaster, according to Nabokov himself, “was suspicious of my always keeping goal in soccer ‘instead of running about with the other players.’” (Speak Memory, p. 185)


But at Cambridge Nabokov felt constrained by the English “national dread of showing off.” Further, he admitted that “a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork [was] not conducive to the development of the goalie’s eccentric art.” (SM, p. 267) Little wonder then that Nabokov, unable to indulge in his taste for the flamboyant, got rather bored with goalkeeping, especially when the play was in the opponent’s half.


To compensate for this boredom, he would lean against his goal post, close his eyes and dream: “I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew.” (SM, p. 268)

What a classic image of Nabokov the outsider poet! Nabokov’s writing about his football at Cambridge, shows that his flamboyant outsider personality was already well established. We can also see how, at this stage in his life, he was a dedicated poet. Nabokov the novelist was yet to be born.







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