Nabokov, ou le vrai et l'invraisemblable
by Jeff Edmunds 1

Just as Humbert creates a personalized Lolita by alchemizing a real girl with memory, imagination, and words, so literary scholars fabricate simulacra--some convincing, some oddly unrecognizable, some disfigured or even missing limbs--of the writers they discuss. The growing series of French Nabokovs encompasses the invraisemblable and the nearly vrai as well as a broad range of intermediate Nabonculi.

By 1939, when Nabokov was living in Paris and Jean-Paul Sartre’s review of La Méprise was published in Europe, four of Nabokov’s novels had already appeared in French: La course du fou (The Defense) (1934), Le geutteur (The Eye) (1935), Chambre obscure (Camera Obscura) (1937), and La Méprise (Despair) (1939). The availability of his work and his involvement with the esteemed journal Mesures notwithstanding, Nabokov was not well-known in France. True renown would not come until two decades later when, in what was to be the first in a series of French world premiers for Nabokov’s work, Lolita was published by Olympia Press in 1955. The novel’s immediate succès de scandale engendered a flurry or articles and interviews, a meeting with fellow author Alain Robbe-Grillet (whose novel Le voyeur, about the rape and murder of a young girl, was published the same year as Lolita), and the appearance of L’affaire Lolita, a book published by Olympia in defense of Nabokov that included Chapters 1-6 of the novel and “On a Book Entitled Lolita” (all in French) as well as articles supporting the publication of the book and criticizing its censorship in Great Britain and the United States.

Nabokov’s first notable appearance on the French scholarly scene occurred in 1964 with the publication of a special issue of L’Arc devoted to his life and work. Eleven years later the aging master appeared on Bernard Pivot’s famous literary television program Apostrophes. It was not until two years after his death (and twelve years after the publication of the first American monographs on Nabokov--by Field and Stegner), that the first French book on Nabokov appeared, Maurice Couturier’s Nabokov (1979). The 1980s witnessed an acceleration of French Nabokov studies, beginning with a special issue of Delta in 1983 and climaxing in 1986 with publication of both L’Enchanteur and a Nabokov issue of Magazine littéraire.

The 1990s have seen a logarithmic increase in the number of French articles and books on VN. The decade began auspiciously with the publication of La Vénitienne et autre nouvelles (a collection that includes previously unpublished stories) and a special Nabokov issue of Textuerre.2 In 1992 an international Nabokov conference (considered the third, following one at Yale and another in Moscow) was held in Nice, and the first volume of Brian Boyd’s Nabokov biography appeared in French. In 1993 Maurice Couturier published his extensive study of Nabokov’s work, Nabokov ou la tyrannie de l’auteur and Nora Buhks edited a special issue of Cahier de l'émigration russe entitled Vladimir Nabokov et l'émigration; these were followed in 1994 by Danièle Roth-Souton’s engaging Vladimir Nabokov, l’enchantement de l’exil and the much less sublime Vladimir Nabokov, essais et rêves by Dominique Desanti. In 1995 Lolita was added to the syllabus of the agrégation (assuring the novel’s status in France as a classic), a second Nabokov conference in Nice was held, Jean Blot’s monograph Nabokov appeared, Europe published a special Nabokov issue, and the journals op.cit. and Q/W/E/R/T/Y featured eight articles on Lolita and Despair. 1996 saw the appearance of Christine Raguet-Bouvart’s book entitled Lolita: un royaume au delà des mers, and yet another book by Maurice Couturier, Lolita de Nabokov, is scheduled for publication. The preparation of a Pléiade edition of Nabokov’s works is under way. With the centennial of Nabokov’s birth on the horizon, the 90s promise to be a frenetic and fruitful time for Nabokov scholars both within and outside France.

A Note on the Bibliography

The list below is far from comprehensive, being in general limited to scholarly works on Nabokov that have appeared in French. Newspaper articles, book reviews, and dissertations have been included in only a few instances. In cases where collections of articles have included contributions in both French and English, or French and Russian, I have limited my annotations, for reasons of space, to those in French. As a non-specialist I have tried to restrict my comments to the descriptive rather than the evaluative, although articles I found particularly insightful or silly are characterized as such. The exceptions to this approach are the longer mini-reviews of the most recent monographs on Nabokov, which appear near the end of the bibliography. In these I have tried to evaluate the works as well as describe them. For the rest of the entries, I have allowed the quality of the article to dictate the length and level of detail of my notes. All translations from the French are my own.

[1930s-1950s] [1960s-1970s]
[1980s] [1990s]


(An earlier version of this article appeared in Nabokov Studies #3 [1996]. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors.)

1. My sincere thanks are due to the individuals who sent copies of books and articles I might otherwise have been unable to find. Especially gracious and helpful were D. Barton Johnson, Maurice Couturier, Christine Raguet-Bouvart, and Bertrand Rougé. Thanks also to the phenomenally patient and resourceful people of Interlibrary Loan at Penn State University’s Pattee Library.

2. A copy of which I have been unable to locate.

[1930s-1950s] [1960s-1970s]
[1980s] [1990s]

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.