Nabokov, ou le vrai et l'invraisemblable
by Jeff Edmunds
page ten of twelve

1990s (cont.)

Europe, ed. Christine Raguet-Bouvart, no. 791, mars 1995 (Paris: Europe, 1995).

Contents of Europe:

Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. "La visible nature de Vladimir Nabokov"
Nabokov, Dmitri. "Retour à la pièce de mon père"
Fraysse, Suzanne. "La création du lecteur"
Johnson, D. Barton. "'L’inconnue de la Seine' et les naïades de Nabokov"
Nabokov, Vladimir. "L’inconnue de la Seine"
Kempf, Marie-Françoise. "Les yeux errants du voyageur"
Levy-Bertherat, Ann-Déborah. "Le dilemme du bilinguisme"
Pifer, Drury. "Le théâtre et le monde"
Pifer, Ellen. "De la Russie à Lolita"
Toker, Leona. "L’éthique du camouflage narratif"
Gass, William H. "Debout parmi les poissons ébahis"
Citati, Pietro. "Le roman des gloses"
Raban, Jonathan. "Sentiments arides"
Braffort, Paul. "Nabokov oulipien"
Boyd, Brian. "L’art et l’ardeur d’Ada"
Berge, Claude and Paul Braffort. "La défense Sirine"
Burgess, Anthony. "A Vladimir Nabokov, pour son 70e anniversaire"
Laansoo, Mati. Entretien avec Vladimir Nabokov
Kreise, Bernard. "Nabokov critique"
Parker, Stephen Jan. "Au cours de littérature russe du professeur Nabokov"
Luquet, Gérard-Christian. "Les publications scientifiques de Nabokov"
Nabokov, Vladimir. "Découverte"
Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. "Repères chronologiques"
[Also includes Raguet-Bouvart’s brief, generally favorable review of Roth-Souton’s Vladimir Nabokov, l’enchantement de l’exil.]

Fifty-six years after the appearance of Sartre’s dismissive review of La Méprise in Europe, the same journal devotes nearly an entire issue (157 pages) to Nabokov. Thirteen of the twenty-three contributions to this issue, part criticism, part tribute, are translations of items written in English, Russian, and Italian. Editor and translator Christine Raguet-Bouvart introduces the collection by noting that Vladimir Nabokov “nous est resté très mystérieux” [remains mysterious to us] and that “L’œuvre, quant à elle, déroute parfois par sa diversité et sa nature expérimentale” [The work, as for it, at times disconcerts by its diversity and experimental nature]. She describes Nabokov as a passionate chaser of butterflies and compiler of chess problems, a multilingual magician for whose ideal reader “le texte n’a d’autre objectif que de lui procurer du plaisir” [the text has no other object than to furnish him with pleasure].

Dmitri Nabokov’s contribution is a translation16 of “On Revisiting Father’s Room,” the wonderful essay that originally appeared in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute.17 A brief postscript, composed in Montreux in January 1995, has been appended.

Suzanne Fraysse argues that the model reader is none other than “un alter ego de Nabokov lui-même” [an alter ego of Nabokov himself] and demonstrates how Nabokov compels his readers to “joue un rôle que le texte lui destine” [play a role the text destines him for]. She identifies three roles Nabokov himself plays as author to create the ideal reader: conteur, professeur, enchanteur [storyteller, professor, enchanter]. The storyteller, by means of “La multiplicité des allusions intertextuelles” [the multiplicity of intertextual allusions] invites us to “partager le même espace intertextuel” [share the same intertextual space]. The professor repeatedly instructs us how to be good readers, and Fraysse points out that Nabokov’s definition of the “good” reader applies “non point au lecteur de n’importe quel texte, mais au lecteur de textes nabokoviens” [not to the reader of any text, but to the reader of Nabokovian texts]. Finally, as the enchanter, Nabokov seduces us into reading lovingly. His creation of the ideal reader, however, “ne relève pas des fantasmes de toute-puissance d’un artiste impregné d’une conception surannée de l’Auteur-Dieu comme origine et justification du sens” [is not ascribable to fantasies of omniscience of an artist imbued with an outdated conception of the Author-God as the origin and vindication of meaning]. Rather, it is the tension between “l’aveu de l’impuissance de l’auteur et le désir de contrôler le lecteur” which gives his work its “dynamique tragique” [admission of the author’s powerlessness and the desire to control the reader].

D. Barton Johnson discusses the poem “L’inconnue de la Seine” written by Nabokov in Berlin in 1934 and published in Poslednie novosti. A French translation of the poem by Bernard Kreise accompanies the discussion.18

Marie-Françoise Kempf sees “promendades, flâneries, trajets” [promenades, strolls, journeys] as essential components of Nabokov’s fictional universe: “Tout bouge donc, tout est en mouvement autour d’un personnage central” [Thus everything moves, everything is in movement around a central character]. One consequence of Nabokov’s eloquent and evocative descriptions of place (“un jeu de mirages narratifs qui sont moins un reflet poétique de ces paysages fantomatiques qu’une reconnaissance de la dissolution de toute réalité vue” [a game of narrative mirages that are less a poetical reflection of these phantasmal lanscapes that a recognition of the dissolution of any seen reality]) is to make of the reader “un voyageur errant dans son propre parcours du texte” [a voyager wandering on his own course through the text]. Movement through space, equated with the creation of continuity, is paralleled by movement through time, “un autre trajet, celui de la mémoire” [another journey, that of memory] and all of these displacements “sont des variantes infinies … du motif de l’exil” [are infinite variations … on the motif of exile]. Both writing and walking thus “relève de la même quête au-delà du visible et du souvenir” [depend on the same quest beyond the visible and the remembered].

Ann-Déborah Lévy-Bertherat reads Pnin as exemplary of the dilemma of bilingualism. Pnin’s broken English, “pour lui la langue du déracinement” [for him the language of uprootal] is compared and contrasted with “la musique intraduisible du russe” [the untranslatable music of Russian]. The author notes that the relationship of the two tongues is more than a simple dichotomy: “C’est plutôt du tissage, de l’interaction des deux langues que ressortent la nostalgie de l’exil, le déchirement du bilinguisme, le drame d’un héros partagé entre deux mondes inconciliables” [It is rather an interweaving, an interaction of the two tongues brought out by the nostalgia of exile, the wrench of bilingualism, the drama of a hero divided between two irreconcilable worlds]. Although Pnin’s hopeless English marks him as a misunderstood outsider plagued by uneasiness, “Nabokov prête … à l’anglais de son personnage une sorte de puissance poétique paradoxale” [Nabokov lends … to the English of his character a kind of paradoxical poetic power]. The rupture of passing from one language, literary or spoken, to another, is “à la fois douloureuse et féconde, périlleuse et fascinante, à l’image de l’exil” [At once painful and fruitful, perilous and fascinating, in the image of exile]. As Lévy-Bertherat poetically concludes, “les larmes de l’exilé … prêtent à l’image brouillée du monde une merveilleuse iridescence” [the exile’s tears lend a marvelous irridesence to the world’s blurred image].

Drury Pifer discusses the plays The Event and The Waltz Invention, in which Nabokov “défie l’héritage d’Ibsen et les lois du naturalisme” [defies the heritage of Ibsen and the laws of naturalism] to attack “la convention d’un monde solide, stable, objectif” [the convention of a solid, stable, obhective world]. For Nabokov, the world is stage upon which each generation builds its own sets and writes its own scripts. Reality is subjective, to be created by each individual: “Aucun monde n’est vraiment monde s’il n’est ordonné selon un point de vue” [No world is really a world if it is not ordered according to a point of view]. We are free to create the world as we choose, but Pifer questions to what extent this freedom is real. A thoughtful spectator may perceive that “sa propre situation n’est pas sans points communs avec celle de l’acteur …. Ses expressions et ses gestes sont ceux d’un automate; il se rend compte que lui aussi est un acteur qui joue un rôle” [his own situation is not without points in common with that of the actor …. His expressions and his gestures are those of an automaton; he realizes that he too is an actor playing a role]. Like his novels, Nabokov’s plays are written against this automatism: “En enracinant la création du monde dans le théâtre de l’imagination humaine, tout en minant les piétés de l’existence collective, l’art de Nabokov restitue son pouvoir à la personne” [In rooting the creation of the world in the theater of human imagination, Nabokov’s art restores to the person his power].

Ellen Pifer begins with a reference in Glory to Gumilev’s poem “Otkrytie Ameriki” (The Discovery of America), proposing that the presence on several levels of the theme of America in the novel may indicate that “l’auteur avait peut-être déjà le pressentiment de son voyage aux Etats-Unis” [the author perhaps already had a presentiment of his trip to the United States]. There follows a discussion of the accusations of anti-Americanism made against Lolita, which, Pifer notes, were infinitely more troublesome to Nabokov than charges that Lolita was a pornographic book. The hellish world Humbert imposes on his victim “est un monde entièrement dépourvu de liberté” [is a world entirely devoid of freedom]. For Nabokov, who “identifia l’amour de la liberté et de la justice à l’idée même de l’Amérique” [identified love of freedom and of justice with the very idea of America], it is Humbert’s destruction of Lolita’s freedom that makes him the monster he is. Pifer concludes that “Résonnant du chant funèbre d’une enfance avortée et d’une innocence bafouée, Lolita reflète les idéaux démocratiques de l’artiste qui l’a créé” [Resonant with the funereal song of an aborted childhood and flouted innocence, Lolita reflects the democratic ideals of the artist who created it.]

Leona Toker posits that one of the most significant aspects of Nabokov’s work is its provocation of “une sorte de retour sur soi” [a kind of return to oneself] on the part of the reader, “qui passe de la contemplation du texte à la contemplation de soi” [who shifts from contemplation of the text to contemplation of self]. By means of “camouflage narratif,” Nabokov compels us to reread the text, to reassess its significance in light of details previously missed or unappreciated, and to re-evaluate our responses to it. In developing an ethical explanation of Nabokov’s method, Toker begins from “les expériences douloureuses, sinon complexes, que traversent certains des personanges de Nabokov” [the painful, if not complex, experiences encountered by certain of Nabokov’s characters] and from “toute la subtilité des images et des réseaux de motifs qui n’appartiennent pas nécessairement à la souffrance humaine” [all the subtlety of the images and of the web of motifs that do not necessarily appertain to human suffering]—both features that tend to be missed during a first reading. In forcing us to reread and notice our lapses of attention, Nabokov exhorts us to educate our senses, to “apprendre à percevoir précisément ce qui n’est pas d’importance immédiate, à percevoir les détails pour eux-mêmes” [to learn to perceive precisely that which is not of immediate importance, to perceive details for their own sake]. We realize how facile indifference to human suffering can become. In minimizing its initial impact, “Nabokov prépare le lecteur à reconnaître une dureté, une répugnance de l’imagination à s’investir dans la compassion” [Nabokov prepares the reader ro recognize a hardheartedness, a loathness of imagination to invest itself in compassion]. Toker concludes that Nabokov’s art “s’érige en protestation contre la quasi-universalité de l’indifférence à la souffrance, que cette indifférence soit inconsciente ou réfléchie, et qui, par delà toutes les frontières nationales ou autres, constitue l’arrière-plan des atrocités caractéristiques de notre époque” [rises in protest against the near ubiquity of indifference to suffering, whether this indifference be unconscious or intentional, and which, across all national or other borders, constitutes the backdrop of the atrocities characteristic of our era].

In his tribute to Nabokov, William H. Gass, who was a philosophy graduate student at Cornell during Nabokov’s tenure there, describes his increasing appreciation for N’s books: “Petit à petit, j’ai compris en quoi ils étaient artistiquement justes : c’est qu’ils étaient eux-mêmes, et non des imitations; qu’ils étaient des constructions destinées à rejouir le cœur et à stimuler l’esprit” [Little by little, I understood how they were artistically sound: they were themselves, and not imitations; they were constructs intended to gladden the heart and stimulate the mind]. Once we learn to see as Nabokov sees, to adopt his books’ way of life, “les crayons oubliés, les souvenirs égarés, les personnes écartées, tous les moments sans signification qui font une vie (chaque jour n’étant qu’une giboulée d’accidents, comme un sac qu’on vide) sont transformés, car maintenant chaque élément est un passage… un trou de voyeur où l’on peut voir des yeux ébahis fixer d’autres yeux ébahis” [the forgotten pencils, the mislaid memories, the scattered people, all the moments without significance that make up a life (each day being nothing but a shower of accidents, like a sack being emptied) are transformed, for now every element is a passageway… a voyeur’s peephole where one can see startled eyes fixing other startled eyes].

Pietro Citati’s brief article, translated from the Italian, is a celebration of Pale Fire. No definitive interpretation of the novel is offered or championed. Citati notes that “Nabokov a tué le temps continu du roman : l’histoire est fragmentée en mille parcelles, le temps est brisé en milliers de minutes, d’heures ou de semaines qui ne sont pas jointoyées—et nous devons tout recomposer dans notre esprit, comme avec un puzzle” [Nabokov killed the continuous time of the novel: the story is fragmented into a thousand particles, time is broken into thousands of minutes, hours and weeks that are not conjoined—and we must recombine everything in our minds, as with a puzzle]. The most provocative statement regards Charles Kinbote, of whom Citati says “je crois que Nabokov n’a jamais donné vie à un personannge aussi proche de lui. Ce nouveau Monsieur de Charlus … incarne mieux que personne la figure nabokovienne du «roi en exil»” [I believe that Nabokov never gave life to a character so close to himself to himself. This new Monsieur de Charlus … embodies better than anyone the Nabokovian figure of the “exiled king”]. In Citati’s opinion, Pale Fire is a masterful construct of words, and even were we to erase John Shade and Charles Kinbote, the book’s entire framework, its intentions, meanings and allusions, “nous ébranlerions à peine ce château baroque, cette citadelle rococo, ce palais liberty … il resterait debout, éblouissant” [we would hardly disturb this Baroque castle, this Rococo citadel, this Liberty palace … it would remain standing, dazzling].

The English original of Jonathan Raban’s contribution first appeared in Encounter in 1973. Raban discusses Transparent Things, finding it dry and lifeless: “Les idées autrefois présentes dans ses romans sont désormais traitées avec une irascibilité ennuyée” [The ideas once present in his novels are now treated with bored irascibility]. Anticipating John Updike’s comments published in the Magazine littéraire in 1986 (v. supra), Raban judges that “La Transparence des choses révèle un romancier qui finit par être fatigué et fâché de sa propre intelligence. … L’immersion fatale de Nabokov dans ses occultes poursuites privées ne traduit pour finir, toute bravoure cérébrale mise à part, qu’un manque de discernement, une aridité de sentiment” [Transparent Things reveals a novelist who ends up being tired and annoyed by his own intelligence. … Nabokov’s fatal immersion in his arcane private pursuits expresses, in the end—all mental bravora put aside—a dryness of sentiment].

Paul Braffort, self-described “oulipien de longue date” [veteran Oulipian] argues that, although having no direct links to Oulipo (the Ouvrir de Littérature Potentielle group), “Nabokov utilise—avec un brio exceptionnel—des techniques d’écriture et sytèmes de contraintes typiquement oulipiens” [Nabokov uses—with exceptional verve—typically Oulipian writing techniques and systems of constraint]. Examples of Nabokov’s devices are cited from Transparent Things, The Gift, Ada, Bend Sinister, and Look at the Harlequins! and are compared with similar devices in the work of the Oulipo authors Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, and Georges Perec, among others. Braffort’s observations, many of which may be of interest to Nabokovians unfamiliar with Oulipo, serve to highlight Nabokov’s originality. Belonging to no group or school, Nabokov independently invented, personalized, and perfected techniques that would later become typical of literary movements such as Oulipo or the so-called Nouveau Roman.

Brian Boyd contends that “L’art et l’ardeur furent dès le début des thèmes nabokoviens” [Art and ardor were from the beginning Nabokovian themes] and that “dans Ada, Nabokov élève ces thèmes à la puissance suprème” [in Ada, Nabokov elevates these themes to their highest power]. So as not to repeat the discussions previously developed in his book on Ada and in the second volume of his Nabokov biography, Boyd limits himself to Ada’s second chapter. The story of Demon and Marina’s liaison during the intermission of a play in which Marina acts the starring role leads us from the relationship between art and life to a second favorite Nabokov theme, the relationship between a work of art and its sources of inspiration, “ce que René Girard calls “le «désir mimétique», le caractère imitatif de l’amour érotique” [“mimetic desire,” the imitative character of erotic love]. Parallels are drawn between Ada and Madame Bovary, War and Peace, and A la recherche du temps perdu, with special attention given to a passage in the latter work that Boyd suggests is a source for the incident involving the drawing by Parmigianino that reminds Demon of Marina on the clepsydrophone. Boyd concedes that “Ce chapitre d’Ada est sans doute très complexe par sa structure et ses allusions” [This chapter of Ada is undoubtedly very complex in its structure and allusions], but argues that “ici, comme ailleurs dans ce roman, les artifices compliqués, loin de gêner l’ardeur de l’action, en augmentent la vitesse infernale” [here, as elsewhere in this novel, the complicated artifice, far from hindering the action’s ardor, increases its infernal speed].

Claude Berge and Paul Braffort begin their article with a series of quotes by Nabokov about chess and conclude that “Le thème des échecs (comme celui des papillons) est donc présent dans toute l’œuvre de Nabokov” [The chess theme (like that of butterflies) is thus present in all Nabokov’s work]. They add that the chess theme is sometimes far from obvious and thus “réclame parfois de l’analyste beaucoup de perspicacité” [demands at times from the analyst a good deal of perspicacity]. There follows a short list of Nabokov’s works in which chess plays a role, from the 1923 poem “Solnechnyi son” to Ada. The final part of the article is devoted to Poems and Problems, a work which, in the authors’ opinion, has not received enough attention from Nabokov scholars. Berge and Braffort contend that “Poésie et problèmisme échiquéen sont deux voies—parmi d’autres—qui donnent accès à la complexité spatio-temporelle des univers (le nôtre, où nous sommes affectés, volens nolens, et ces univers, possibles ou non, que nous imaginons)” [Poetry and chess problems are two paths—among others—that give access to the spatiotemporal complexity of the universe (ours, where we are affected, unwilling or willing, and those universes, possible or not, that we imagine)]. Of Nabokov’s struggle to blend the precision of poetry with the passion of pure science, “Les problèmes d’échecs offrent … une saisissante miniature” [Chess problems offer … an engaging miniature].

Anthony Burgess’ birthday poem for VN originally appeared in Triquarterly in 1970. Christine Raguet-Bouvart has done a superb job in transforming the poem’s allusions, anagrams, puns, and sometimes arcane vocabulary into rhymed French.

Mati Laansoo, a correspondant for the Candian Broadcasting Corporation, interviewed Nabokov on March 20, 1973. A partial transcript of the exchange, published in English in Strong Opinions, is here translated into French.

Bernard Kreise discusses Nabokov as literary critic, focusing on the author’s reviews of poetry published in Rul’ from 1922-1940. The interest of these articles (none of which has ever appeared in French) “n’est donc ni dans le constat de ce qui pourrait sembler des erreurs d’appréciation de la part de Nabokov, ni même dans le choix des poètes qu’il critique, mais dans son exposé des principes poétiques qu’il défend avec une étonannte pugnacité…” [is thus neither in stating what might seem to be errors of appreciation on Nabokov’s part, nor even in the choice of the poets he critiques, but in his recital of the poetic principles which he defends with surprising pugnacity]. The young critic (already a master of “Le coup de griffe à travers le gant de velours” [the claw swipe through a velour glove]) values above all else “Le sens de l’observation, un sens aigu du domaine du visible dans son ensemble…” [the sense of observation, a keen sense in the realm of the visible in its entirety]. He also insists on “deux notions essentielles dans son univers d’écrivain : d’une part, rien ne doit être laissé au hasard d’une inspiration plus ou moins fumeuse et, d’autre part, il doit être intéressant” [two essential notions in his writer’s universe: on one hand nothing should be left to the chance of a more or less nebulous inspiration, and, on the other hand, it should be interesting]. Kreise supplies lengthy excerpts in French translation of many of the 35 reviews here discussed.

Stephen Jan Parker, who was enrolled in both of Nabokov’s literature classes during the professor’s final semester at Cornell in the autumn of 1958, argues that Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature give an inexact impression of Nabokov’s teaching methods. Pushkin and everything preceding him are absent from the volume on Russian literature, but Parker points out that “Le professeur Nabokov commença son survol de la littérature russe par l’histoire russe à partir de 862 et les débuts des chroniques littéraire” [Professor Nabokov began his overview of Russian literature starting from 862 and the beginnings of literary chronicles]. He devoted several weeks to The Song of Igor’s Campaign, thence passed to Avvakum and continued with Lomonosov, Derzhavin, and Karamzin before beginning a detailed study of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, one of the highlights of the class: “Cette découverte de l’œuvre de Pouchkine, enrichie du savoir et de la sensibilité de Nabokov et accompagnée par son inimitable lecture à haute voix en russe et en anglais, fut une expérience extraordinaire” This discovery of Pushkin’s work, enriched by Nabokov’s knowledge and sensibility and accompanied by his inimitable reading aloud in Russian and English was an extraordinary experience]. Contrary to Fredson Bowers’ statement in his introduction to the published lectures that Nabokov could not discuss matters of style since he was teaching the works in translation, Parker notes that “En fait, l’étude minutieuse, vers par vers, de la Geste du Prince Igor, d’un choix de poèmes d’Eugène Onéguine et d’extraits de textes de Gogol, permettait à Nabokov d’analyser avec force détails les problèmes du style” [In fact, the scrupulous study, line by line, of The Song of Igor’s Campaign, a selection of verses from Eugene Onegin, and extracts of Gogol’s texts, allowed Nabokov to analyze in abundant detail problems of style].

Gérard-Christian Luquet discusses Nabokov’s lepidopterological writings, noting that “rares sont les lecteurs au fait de sa production scientifique” [rare are the readers familiar with his scientific output]. Rather than give an analysis of the scientific articles, Luquet provides a French translation of one of them19 to demonstrate “la manière dont l’écrivain aborde la narration de l’observation scientifique” [the manner in which the writer approaches the relation of scientific observation]. Unlike common scientific English, notable for its simplicity and dryness, “la langue utilisée par Nabokov dans ce travail s’orne tout au contraire d’un vocabulaire riche et parfaitement inusité dans ce type de publication” [the language used by Nabokov in this work is, quite on the contrary, embellished with a rich vocabulary entirely unusual in this type of publication]. But, as Luquet notes, “cette touche littéraire ne minimise en rien la rigueur de la démarche scientifique. Vladimir Nabokov ne laisse rien au hasard” [this literary touch is no way lessens the rigor of the scientific approach. Vladimir Nabokov leaves nothing to chance]. Luquet concludes by reporting the subsequent adventures of Nabokov’s Lysandra cormion, which turned out to be not a new species but a hybrid of Polymmatus meleager and Lysandra coridon.

Luquet’s article is aptly followed by Raguet-Bouvart’s translation of Nabokov’s poem “A Discovery.”

A chronology of Nabokov’s life and work, compiled by Raguet-Bouvart, completes the section of this issue devoted to VN.


[INTRO]
[1930s-1950s] [1960s-1970s]
[1980s] [1990s]
[1990s (cont.)]

Notes

16. Marred by a bizarre misrendering of one line of a note to Dmitri from his father: “(Auction price of this card circa 2000 AD at least 5000 rubles)” has become “(Prix de vente aux enchères de cette fiche datant d'environ 2000 avant J.C., au moins 5000 roubles)”—Auction price of this card dating from circa 2000 B.C. at least 5000 roubles.

17. Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, ed. Peter Quennell (New York: William Morrow, 1980).

18. The somewhat longer, original English version of this article can be found in Comparative Literature 44, 3 (Summer 1992), pp. 225-248.

19. “Lysandra cormion, a New European Butterfly,” which originally appeared in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society 49 (1941), pp. 265-267.

[INTRO]
[1930s-1950s] [1960s-1970s]
[1980s] [1990s]
[1990s (cont.)]


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