French Echoes in "Mademoiselle O"
by Jacqueline Hamrit

In the wake of John Burt Foster, Jr.'s research on Nabokov and European modernism,1 I would like to explore, through an analysis of "Mademoiselle O," Nabokov's anchorage in and heritage of French culture. "Mademoiselle O" is one of only two texts Nabokov wrote in French, the other being "Pouchkine, ou le vrai et le vraisemblable," composed on the occasion of the centenary of the poet's death and published in March 1937 in La Nouvelle Revue Française.2 According to Brian Boyd, "Mademoiselle O" was composed in two or three days at the end of the first week of January 1936, Nabokov having been asked to read a piece in French in Brussels. That evening at the Pen Club was such a success that he was asked to read the same text again in Paris. Thanks to editor Jean Paulhan, "Mademoiselle O" was published in Mesures on April 15, 1936.

The story is based on Nabokov's childhood memory of his Swiss governess, Cécile Miauton, who came to live with the Nabokovs in Russia from 1906 to 1913. In the early 1920s, Nabokov called on her in Lausanne, Switzerland. After this visit and the announcement of her death, he took her as a model for his fiction, first in the short story entitled "Easter Rain" in 1925. He would also allude to her in the novel written in Russian The Defense (1930); and in Ada (1969) through the character of the governess Mlle Larivière. It was Cécile Miauton who taught him French and initiated him into French literature by reading aloud to him during whole afternoons in Vyra and St-Petersburg. Nabokov rewrote the text of "Mademoiselle O" numerous times and subsequently translated it into English. It appeared in the final English version of his autobiography Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited in 1967. According to Foster, however, the original French version of the story "marks his closest approach to France and French modernism and clearly ranks with Invitation to a Beheading as one of the major breakthroughs in his career."3

Given that "Mademoiselle O" is, as Nabokov notes in his preface to Speak, Memory, "the essay that initiated" the writing of his autobiography, the text raises the issue of origins and serves as evidence of how France, the French language, and French literature played an important role in Nabokov's life and works.

Even before Nabokov lived in France (from January 1937 to May 1940), his family had regularly travelled there for the holidays. In autumn 1909, they went to Biarritz, in south-western France, to spend two months. It is here that Nabokov met his first love, an event he narrates in the seventh chapter of his autobiography. At the time he was only ten years old, and the girl, whom he calls Colette in Speak, Memory, was in fact a Parisian girl named Claude Despres. The Nabokovs returned to France several times. At the beginning of the seventh chapter of Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes: "In the far end of my mind I can unravel, I think, at least five such journeys to Paris, with the Riviera or Biarritz as their ultimate destination."4 And it was also on the French Riviera that Humbert Humbert (who was born in Paris and whose father, a Swiss citizen of mixed French and Austrian descent, owns a hotel on the Riviera)5 meets his first love Annabel Lee at the age of 13.6 Nabokov must have practised the French he had been taught by Mademoiselle during the holidays he spent on the Riviera. Much later in life, to the question as to which of the languages he spoke he considered the most beautiful, he answered: "My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French."7

It was not only France and the French language that played important parts in Nabokov's life and works, but also French culture, especially French literature. In "Mademoiselle O," Nabokov mentions (in a paragraph that he was to omit from the later English version of the story) that in Russia at the time of his childhood so strong was the French tradition that French was commonly spoken, though interspersed with Russian terms. This was a distinctive variety of French that mimed Russian syntax but sometimes reached a high level of mastery, in keeping with the kind of poetic language that Russian readers esteemed. Nabokov distinguishes the French literature read by Russian readers of that era and the French literature praised by Mademoiselle from the works he himself read with pleasure and perhaps took as models. In the first category he places French romantic poets of the nineteenth century such as Prudhomme and Musset, as well as the French and Belgian poets Maeterlinck, Verhaeren and Rostand. As for Mademoiselle, she had a mania for Racine and Corneille, the great classic writers of the seventeenth century known for the purity, simplicity, and loftiness of their style. This Nabokov loathed, considering this type of writing both commonplace and poor. Unsurprisingly, Nabokov felt at ease with the baroque energy of Rabelais and Shakespeare. As for the poets he appreciates, he alludes to Verlaine and Mallarmé, both of whom belong to the nineteenth century. During interviews published in Strong Opinions,8 he also mentions Rimbaud, Chateaubriand, and Baudelaire, but he mainly values prose writers, such as Flaubert (whose Madame Bovary he taught while at Cornell), and Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time he ranked among the six best prose pieces of the twentieth century (along with Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's Transformation, and Biely's Petersburg.9) The relationship between Nabokov and Proust was studied in depth by Foster, and Maurice Couturier has considered Nabokov's admiration for Flaubert. Couturier even concludes his article by asserting: "Nabokov is considered as a metafictional writer but he belongs to a much older tradition of great fiction writers, going all the way back to Cervantes and Sterne."10 In my view, Nabokov fits in with a French literary background for two other reasons.

"Mademoiselle O" belongs to a French tradition of introspection, and its use of the autobiographical mode goes back to Montaigne's Essays and Rousseau's Confessions, which Nabokov had read. Introspection, being the art of observing oneself, is particularly characteristic of the writings of Montaigne, whom Paul de Man described as "a man who observes himself in the act of writing." In his address to the reader, Montaigne declares: "I desire therein to be delineated in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary fashion, without contention, art, or study: for it is myself I portray."11 Likewise, Montaigne adds "Thus, gentle reader, myself am the groundwork of my book."12 Montaigne explains how he wants to observe himself, to analyse his thoughts and his states of mind. He is both the subject and the object of his observation. He wrote his Essays in 1580. Two centuries later, Rousseau was to declare in his own address to the reader: "Here is the sole portrait of a man depicted from nature."13 Foster believes that in "Mademoiselle O," Nabokov has written a memoir crafted as a portrait but composed of elements from his past that create a portrait of the author himself, all the more so as "Mademoiselle O" is indeed the cornerstone of Nabokov's autobiography.

The common thread linking Montaigne, Rousseau and Nabokov is their desire to create a new kind of writing through the description, analysis and portrayal of their own selves. Both Rousseau and Nabokov treat the theme of childhood to give depth and authenticity to the construction of their selves, but Nabokov, in writing of his childhood, seems to be reacting against the encroachment of fiction-writing on his past, his memory, and his self. Such reaction has been explained by French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, who believes that when fiction writers keep diaries, it is because they want to remain linked to reality and real life. He asserts in The Literary Space: " The diary is not essentially a confession, a narrative of oneself. It is a chronicle. What must writers remember? Themselves, the ones they are when they do not write, when they live everyday life, when they are alive and true, and not dying and without any truth."14 It is precisely this problematic of life and death that allows a rapprochement with another leading writer of the French literary tradition, André Gide, since "Mademoiselle O" can be seen as having parallels with Gide's hymn for life, happiness and pleasure as expressed in Les Nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth), published in 1897 but not critically acclaimed until the 1920s.

Whereas Montaigne, in the wake of Greek philosophy, wrote in the Essays that he wanted to learn how to die, Gide could be said to be learning how to live. I would argue then that the plea for life that appeared in the second half of the twentieth century in French philosophy as expounded by writers such as Derrida had already been present in the beginning of the century in France among authors as different as Gide and Nabokov. Derrida's affirmation of life was manifest early in his work, for example in his study of Freud in The Postcard (1980), where he insists on Freud's concept of the life instinct. In a more recent study of French writer Hélène Cixous, HC pour la vie, c'est à dire (in English, HC for life, that is to say), published in 2002, Derrida insists on the particularity of Hélène Cixous's oeuvre which, according to him, emphasizes the necessity of and the plea for life, since there exists a life impulse even before the opposition between life and death. Cixous, contrary to Heidegger's being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode) insists on "the being-toward-life." In French, Heidegger's "Sein zum Tode" was translated as "être-pour-la-mort." Therefore Derrida uses the expression "être-pour-la-vie," insisting on the word pour, meaning "for." There is a being not only toward life but for life, for a certain "real" kind of life, a life which not only resists death but is characterized by its intensity, its worth and value, a will to live to use Nietzsche's phrase.

Gide and Nabokov resemble one another in their plea for life through a personal quest for happiness. In Gide's Fruits of the Earth, life is fundamental and every form of it should be tasted. For him, "life had a wild and sudden flavour" and he was glad that "happiness here should be like an efflorescence upon things dead."15 As for Nabokov, Mademoiselle reminds him of moments of happiness which he does not express literally in the story but which he was to formulate in the third chapter of his autobiography when he writes: "A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth, invades my memory . . . Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die..."16 Memory therefore entails happiness. For Gide, happiness is the result of the intensity of the pleasures he experiences in life. Thus, the narrator exclaims: "Joys of the heart, Joys of the mind - But it is you, pleasures, that I sing" (p. 65) Pleasures are to be sought because of their sensuality: "And the image of life for me, ah, Nathaniel! is a fruit rich in flavour on lips thirsty with longing."17 A similar sensuality appears in Nabokov's fiction, which is full of words such as "bliss" (complete sensuous and spiritual happiness), "thrill" (a surge of emotion and excitement) and "tingle" (a shiver). In the envoy of Lectures on Literature, Nabokov concludes his book as follows: "After all, there are other thrills in other domains: the thrill of pure science is just as pleasurable as the pleasure of pure art. The main thing is to experience that tingle in any development of thought or emotion. We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher that we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer."18 It is notable that words such as "pleasure," "thrill," "life," "learn," and "fruit" are common to Gide's and Nabokov's works. The word "experience" as used by Nabokov recalls Blanchot's commentary on Fruits of the Earth, which, according to him, represents an example of the literature of experience in the tradition of Montaigne, Rimbaud and German romantic poets such as Novalis. Literature aims at an effect that must affect the whole being. Nevertheless, death plays an important part in the story: Mademoiselle's death, for example, is presaged by and associated with the old, fat and awkward swan Nabokov had seen during his walk along the lake. "Mademoiselle O" offers a plea for life even as death, mourning and nostalgia undermine it. For Gide, on the contrary, one must live here and now, in the presence of the moment. He writes: "Put your happiness in the present moment"19 or "the smallest moment of life is stronger than death and cancels it."20 Thus, whereas one can read in Gide: "The most beautiful memory seems to me nothing but a piece of wreckage left by happiness,"21 Nabokov considers his past to be "chaud et vivant," warm and alive. For him, memory allows the past to live again but in a comforting way.

Living, for Nabokov, is equally the experience of a gift, as is writing. In the first paragraph of the story, he declares that every time he offers some part of his past to one of the characters in his books, he feels dispossessed of himself. Playing on the semantic chain of "lending, taking, giving, losing," Nabokov explains how he has the impression that his characters have "appropriated" his past whenever he lent them some portion of it. Writing is therefore associated with the act of giving something of oneself, losing it, and nevertheless feeling that it has somehow managed to survive. Survival is a term that does not appear per se in the French version of "Mademoiselle O," but it is mentioned in the last paragraph of the final version in Speak, Memory, to which Nabokov added the following information: "There is an appendix to Mademoiselle's story. When I first wrote it I did not know about certain amazing survivals."22 For Derrida, survival consists in living on but also in living more, as the German word "überleben" suggests.

Moreover, Nabokov explains how he has the strange and paradoxical impression that he has invented his governess when writing about her as if she were a mere character in his fiction and not a real person. Wondering if she really did live, he seems to answer in the negative: the story's final sentence is: "Cette existence que je lui donne serait une marque de gratitude très candide, si elle avait vraiment existé."23 ["This existence I am giving her would be the mark of a very honest gratitude if she had really existed."] His governess is true and real because he has created her, because he has given her an existence in the process of writing. He has made her exist by giving her a name and a body. Writing is not merely a mark of gratitude, the acquittal of a debt; it is beyond a mere exchange between having, giving and thanking; it is giving what one does not have, to borrow a formula of the French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan, for whom loving is giving what one does not have. Unsurprisingly, it was during the same period, the late 1930s, that Nabokov was writing a book which he was to entitle Dar (The Gift).

That Nabokov read Montaigne, Rousseau and Gide24 is not of major importance. Influence may operate in various ways, as Harold Bloom, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have suggested. My intention here has been merely to point out textual echoes of different literary texts and emphasize Nabokov's taste for life, perhaps most akin to Gide's as expressed in his Fruits of the Earth.


1. Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

2. Nabokoff-Sirine, Vladimir. "Pouchkine, ou le vrai et le vraisemblable," La Nouvelle Revue Française 48 (1937) 362-78.

3. Foster, John Burt, Jr., Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism (Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1993) 129.

4. Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. An Autobiography Revisited 1967 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967) 111.

5. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita 1955 (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1981)9.

6. Nabokov, Lolita 11-12.

7. Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1973) 49.

8. Nabokov, Strong Opinions 43.

9. Nabokov, Strong Opinions 57.

10. Alexandrov, Vladimir E., ed. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (New York : Garland, 1995) 412.

11. De Montaigne, Michel. Essays. 1580. Trans. John Florio (Amherst : Prometheus Books, 2005) 9.

12. De Montaigne 10.

13. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Les Confessions. Livre I à IV. 1850 (Paris : Pocket, 1998) 32 [my translation].

14. Blanchot, Maurice. L’Espace littéraire.1955 (Paris : Gallimard, "Idées," 1968) 20 [my translation].

15. Gide, André. Fruits of the Earth. 1897 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) 121.

16. Nabokov, Speak, Memory 62.

17. Gide 128.

18. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers 1980 (Orlando : Harcourt Brace, 1982) 382.

19. Gide 25.

20. Gide 25.

21. Gide 125.

22. Nabokov, Speak, Memory 92.

23. Nabokov, Vladimir. "Mademoiselle O," Mademoiselle O 1958 (Paris : Julliard, "Presses Pocket," 1982) 36.

24. Leonid Livak devotes almost a whole chapter to Gide’s influence on Nabokov in his book entitled How It Was Done in Paris. Russian Emigré Literature and French Modernism (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).

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