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


Machu, Didier. “Look at the Harlequins!: L’étrange cas du docteur Moreau,” Revue française d’études américaines 7, no. 14, mai 1982, pp. 245-256.

This article begins as a coherent analysis of Look at the Harlequins! and then attempts to draw parallels between written texts and the man-beasts from H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The point de départ of this journey is the bookseller Oksman, whom Machu relates to Moreau’s creatures, referred to by the novel’s narrator, Vadim. Machu posits that Oksman is “analogue à un corps de mots mal maîtrisés” [analogous to a poorly mastered body of words] and then asks whether it is “le texte, dont ce libraire-éditeur serait métaphore, qui régresse et s’échappe ainsi, trahissant l’opérateur” [the text, of which this bookseller-publisher would be the metaphor, that regresses and thereby escapes, betraying the operator].

The article suffers from one minor error of fact: Machu quotes the passage “Dors, Médor … 1889” and then states that “1889 voit naître l’écrivain Nabokov” [1889 saw the birth of the writer Nabokov].

An article on the same theme by the same author was published in 1985.

Ferrand, Jacques, Serge Nabokoff. Les Nabokov: Essai généalogique (Montreuil, France: J. Ferrand, 1982).

This exhaustive genealogy of the Nabokov family, prepared by Ferrand (a specialist in Russian genealogy) and Serge Nabokov (VN’s cousin—his father’s brother Sergei’s son), is an invaluable resource. In addition to the customary genealogical tree (one cannot help thinking of Ada), this study includes a description of each descendant, detailed profiles of six of the more renowned Nabokovs (including VN, his father and grandfather), notes on the Nabokov coat of arms and the etymology of the family name, and a list of Nabokovs who could not be conclusively linked to the tree at hand. The book is illustrated with portraits, facsimiles of official documents, and photographs, including views of the estates at Batovo, Rozhdestveno, and Vyra.

Coste, Didier. “Nabokov, la référence et ses doubles,” Fabula 2, octobre 1983, pp. 29-47.

The article begins with a heavily theoretical discussion of the concepts of fictionalité, référence, and comparatio, which are then applied to Ada and Lolita. Some of what Coste has to say echoes, or seems to echo, arguments in chapter one (“L’illusion référentielle”) of Maurice Couturier’s 1979 book on Nabokov: “le texte se mire, ne renvoie qu’à lui-même” [the text beholds itself, refers only to itself]. Nabokov, by means of subtle narrative devices, erases our own frame(s) of reference to replace it (them) with one(s) of his own invention. Paradoxically, “la référence réelle […] ne fonctionne à plein que dans une double illusion : quand le texte se fait ou se laisse oublier et que le lecteur se laisse habiter par une doxa qui lui est étrangère” [the real reference functions fully only in a double illusion: when the text causes or allows itself to be forgotten and the reader allows himself to be inhabited by a doxa foreign to him].

Portions of this article are extremely dense and difficult to follow for the non-specialist, but the careful rereader is rewarded with some original insights into how doubles and referentiality function in Nabokov’s work.

Delta, no. 17, oct. 1983, ed. Maurice Couturier.

Contents of Delta:

Connolly, Julian. "Through a Transformation Lens : Madness and Art in Nabokov’s Fiction"
Burling, Valérie. "Nabokov et le trompe-l’oeil"
Schroeter, J. "Detective Stories and Aesthetic Bliss in Nabokov"
Johnson, D. Barton. "Don’t Touch My Circles : The Two Worlds of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister"
Morgan, Paul Bennett. "Nabokov and Dante : the Use of La Vita Nuova in Lolita"
Toker, Leona. "Pnin : A Story of Creative Imagination"
Chevalier, Jean-Louis. "Le Jeu de l’Oncle—Divertimento. A propos d’un personnage d’Ada"
Gault, P. "Ethos et nar(r)atos. Ada et ses cousines. Quête d’une syntaxe du désir"
Couturier, Maurice. "Ada, traité de l’échange poétique"
Couturier, Maurice. Bibliographie.

Valérie Burling begins by defining the concept of trompe-l’oeil and distinguishing it from realism. She quotes psychologist Pierre Charpentrat, who notes that in trompe-l’oeil, “Il y a reconnaissance, il n’y a pas illusion” [There is recognition, there is not illusion], an observation that jibes well with Nabokov’s own penchant for obvious artifice. Burling then examines trompe-l’oeil with respect to Nabokov’s work in general, closing the first part of her essay with the statement that “Comme le spectateur devant le trompe-l’oeil, le lecteur est amené à considérer l’oeuvre de deux points de vue simultanément, à l’apprécier à la fois comme univers inventé et comme production littéraire” [Like the spectator before trompe-l’oeil, the reader is led to consider the work from two points of view simultaneously, to appreciate it at once as invented universe and as literary production]. Next Burling discusses trompe-l’oeil and a few of the visual elements in the novels Bend Sinister, Pale Fire, and Ada. Whereas in trompe-l’oeil art mimics reality, Nabokov often has reality mimic art: “Les moyens mis en oeuvre dans le trompe-l’oeil ont ostensiblement pour objet de produire l’illusion de la réalité; Nabokov se sert des mêmes moyens pour exposer l’artifice du réel” [The means brought to bear in trompe-l’oeil ostensibly have as their object to produce the illusion of reality; Nabokov makes use of the same means to expose the artifice of the real]. Nabokov’s is a trompe-l’oeil à l’envers.

(In 1982 at the Université de Caen Burling wrote a thèse de doctorat de 3e cycle on Nabokov entitled Vision(s) dans l’image du réel. Une lecture des romans anglais de Vladimir Nabokov.)

Jean-Louis Chevalier’s essay is a diverting detective story which takes as its point de départ a single phrase in Ada: “next to the Russian church built by Vladimir Chevalier, his granduncle” (III, 8). After equating the fictitious Valvey, where the church stands, with Vevey, the Swiss town only minutes from Nabokov’s home in Montreux, Chevalier begins tracking his fictitious namesake, Vladimir. He notes that Vivian Darkbloom, in his Notes to Ada, supplies no gloss on the character’s surname, and adds that “Les silences de Vivian Darkbloom ne sont pas innocents” [The silences of Vivian Darkbloom are not guileless]. From here we are led to Ada’s second Chevalier, a perfume called Ombre Chevalier, a name the governess Mlle Larivière ridicules in Chapter 39 of Part One. The rest of the vertiginous ride toward a solution, or possible solution, to the riddle is much too fun to spoil here with a complete account. Chevalier’s erudite explications are saved from pedantry by his frolicsome tone. At one point he writes “Par parti-pris de laconisme, [ce pointage] ne sera pas cité in extenso.” [Out of obstinate laconism, [this listing] will not be cited in extenso].When we flip to footnote fourteen following “extenso” we find: “14. Même en note.” [Even in a footnote].

P. Gault sets out to elucidate a “syntax of desire” based largely on Ada. (Reference is also made to Bend Sinister and Look at the Harlequins!) Through extremely close readings of selected passages, Gault demonstrates how Nabokov’s texts themselves engender pleasure rather than merely describe or evoke it. Four figures of speech are identfied as integral to the effects achieved: zeugma, oxymoron, anagram, and paronomasia. Each serves in its own way to convey desire, ludic language and the pleasure of its play eliciting pleasure tout court.

In his long article on Ada, Maurice Couturier expands on the arguments developed in his 1979 monograph on Nabokov, and many of the examples given here will reappear almost verbatim in his 1993 book. He sets out to demonstrate that Ada is “peut-être le premier vrai roman poétique jamais écrit” [perhaps the first true poetic novel ever written], that the text “acquiert une iconicité poétique sans précédent” [acquires a poetic inconicity without precedent]. He begins his discussion with a close examination of the multiplicity of narrative voices and their relative temporalities, concluding that “cette cacophonie de voix complices ou antagonistes finissent par faire oublier, pour ainsi dire, que Van est le narrateur principal du roman” [this cacaphony of complicitous or antagonistic voices ends up causing to be forgotten, so to speak, the fact that Van is the principal narrator of the novel]. The aggregate effect of this and other devices is an “effondrement du discours communicatif” [collapse of communicative discourse] such that the novel operates not as a textual construct whose coherence depends upon its relation to another world to which it refers but as a poetic, self-sustained and self-sustaining thing.

Having established the total poetization of the novel that Nabokov achieves with Ada, Couturier states that “Cette poétisation généralisée change totalement le rapport du lecteur au texte” [This generalized poetization totally changes the relationship of the reader to the text]. Nabokov requires of us an extremely meticulous, creative reading of his text. Meaning, or the potential for meaning, lurks everywhere, not only in every word, but every part of every word. “Tout le texte devient dès lors suspect; il ne suffit plus de le dévider passivement come s’il s’agissait d’un film, il faut sans cesse le réinventer, ou, mieux encore, le mettre en scène, le produire.” [Thenceforth the entire text becomes suspect; it is not sufficient to passively unreel it, as if it were a film, one must ceaselessly reinvent it, or, even better, stage it, produce it]. Like Gault, Couturier posits that Nabokov does not present or represent our most intense passions, he elicits them by inviting us to engage the text sensually and immediately.

In the second half of his article Couturier defines “écriture poérotique” [poerotic writing], writing which functions rather than simply enunciates. He examines several figures employed by Nabokov to achieve this end, most notably “la métaphore lilotique et l’oxymore” [the lilotic metaphor and the oxymoron], figures in which “la notion d’écart entre comparant et comparé” [the notion of disparity between comparer and compared] disappears, in which “la différence entre langue, représentation et réel” [the difference between language, representation, and real] is annuled.

Lavabre, Simon. “Vladimir Nabokov: richesses et problèmes du biculturalisme” in Les Aspects littéraires du biculturalisme aux Etats-Unis, ed. Jeanne-Marie Santraud (Paris: Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1985), pp. 99-106.

There is not much here that will be of interest to the specialist. Lavabre gives a brief outline of Nabokov’s life, discusses his switch from Russian to English, and examines the bicultural aspects of Ada in a bit more detail. The author concludes: “Avec Ada le biculturalisme de Vladimir Nabokov atteint son apogée, les deux acquis culturels se fécondant mutuellement pour créer une oeuvre unique dans les deux traditions culturelles dont elle se nourrit, et les dépassant toutes deux” [With Ada Vladimir Nabokov’s biculturalism attains it apogee, the two cultural experiences fertilizing one another to create a work unique in the two cultural traditions that nourished it, and surpassing both of them].

Machu, Didier. “Portrait de l’artiste en vivisecteur: Vladimir Nabokov” in Nadia J. Rigaud, ed., Le monstrueux dans la littérature et la pensée anglaises (Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 1985), pp. 195-209.

In this article Machu compares the artist in Nabokov’s fiction with the creator of monsters (à la Wells’ Doctor Moreau or Shelley’s Baron Frankenstein) and equates the literary work with “un enfant monstrueux et inévitable que l’auteur expulse et abdique” [a monstrous and inevitable child that the author expulses and repudiates]. The living material upon which the writer works is memory, his tool imagination: “imaginer est animer un matériau amorphe et jusqu’alors anodin, composer un être vivant, une unité organique à partir de corps fragmentaires et éteints” [to imagine is to animate an amorphous and until then harmless material, to compose a living being, an organic whole, out of fragmentary and extinguished bodies].

(Though he cites passages from nearly all of Nabokov’s novels, Machu routinely shores up tenuous arguments with quotes taken out of context. In pursuing the metaphor of text as monster (cf. his 1982 article described above), for example, he writes that “il n’est pas exclu … que la création puisse changer ‘of its own accord’ et faire siennes des des caracteristiques imprévues (KQK, 106).” The King, Queen, Knave reference is to objects, not texts.)

Expulsing the montrous text is imperative (“Mettre hors ce monstre … est donc une nécessité vitale” [To cast out this monster … is thus a vital necessity]) and the resulting “scission est un arrachement” [split is wrenching]. In order for the creature to live, there must be a distance “entre le donné brut de l’expérience et l’oeuvre achevée” [between the raw data of experience and the finished work].

Rabaté, Laurent, Sandra Laugier. “Revue des ouvrages récents sur Nabokov: Aspects d’une industrie dynamique.” Revue des études slaves (Paris), 57, 1985, pp. 513-519.

This article, intended for the French reader unfamiliar with English, is an annotated bibliography of books and special issues in English on Nabokov.

Rabaté, Laurent. “La poésie de la tradition: Etude du recueil Stixi de V. Nabokov.” Revue des études slaves (Paris), 57, 1985, pp. 397-420.

As the author notes, studies of Nabokov’s poetry are few. In this article, Rabaté discusses the posthumously published Stikhi (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), a collection that includes nearly all the verse Nabokov ever wrote, and begins by posing the provocative question of whether “l’étonnant jugement que porte Nabokov sur Bunin—'sa poésie était supérieure aux nouvelles qui lui ont valu la célébrité'” [the surprising judgement that Nabokov made of Bunin—”his poetry was superior to the short stories that earned him fame”] should not also apply to Nabokov himself. Rabaté is well aware that Nabokov drew little distinction between poetry and prose (see, for example, Strong Opinions, p. 44), but he points out that “ces genres ne sont pas pout lui interchangeables. Au contraire, cette opposition est fondamentale dans l’œuvre de Nabokov” [these genres are not for him interchangeable. On the contrary, this opposition is fundamental in Nabokov’s work]. Rabaté’s central thesis is that “La poésie est bien, pour Nabokov, l’occasion d’un dialogue privilégié avec la tradition russe” [Poetry is very much for Nabokov the opportunity for a privileged dialogue with the Russian tradition]. In this sense poetry is more sacred than prose and thus not subject to the same distortive innovation Nabokov employed in his fiction.

Rabaté identifies themes that recur in Nabokov’s poetry (Russia lost, dreams, voyages), gives examples of each, and concludes that “La poésie de Nabokov, même si elle le paraît, n’est pas lyrique” [Nabokov’s poetry, even it it seems so, is not lyrical]. Like Blok, Nabokov prefers traditional imagery for its emotive power over innovative imagery that calls attention to its own materiality. What Nabokov discovered, however was that “ni le modernisme, ni la tradition classique n’offrent une voie artistique adaptée à l’exil” [neither modernism nor classical tradition offers an artisitic path adapted to exile]. Hence his turn to prose in the 1920s. Quite aptly Rabaté notes that “Paradoxalement, la poésie n’est pas, pour Nabokov, le genre qui correspond à ses visées poétiques” [Paradoxically, poetry is not, for Nabokov, the genre that corresponds to his poetical aims].

Dallas, Graham. “A la recherche de l’autre perdu: narrateur et personnage dans The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” Cycnos 2 (1985-hiver-1986), pp. 61-69.

Dallas lucidly discusses questions of narrative voice in RLSK, demonstrating that “La vraie vie de Sebastian Knight est la vie du texte” [The real life of Sebastian Knight is the life of the text].4 He begins by showing how the narrator is “à la fois homodiégétique-témoin et homodiégétique-personnage principal” [at once homodiegetic-witness and homodiegetic-protagonist], explaining that what he relates is situated on at least two distinct planes—the story of his half-brother’s life and the account of his own attempts to write the present book. Sebastian’s character is shown to be fluid from the outset, and the similarities between his writing style and that of V are demonstrated in both the narrative techniques employed and by the parallels in the plots of Knight’s books and V’s adventures. In closely analyzing the technique of style indirect libre, Dallas (cf. Couturier’s treatment of the same topic) shows that the subtle blending of voices in RLSK amounts to a “confusion qui n’est pas forcément clarifiable par l’identification de marqueurs syntaxiques du genre dont Ann Banfield a établi une liste dans son ouvrage Unspeakable Sentences” [confusion that is not necessarily explicable by the identification of syntactical markers of the type listed by Ann Banfield in her work Unspeakable Sentences].5

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


4. A point that Alexander Dolinin deftly made at the 1995 Nabokov conference in Nice by pointing out that Kegan, the name of the dying man whom V. the narrator mistakes for Sebastian at the end of the book, is an anagram of knega, or kniga,—the Russian word for 'book.'

5. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. One possible moral of the story being that trying to fit a prefab theory to Nabokov’s texts is like trying to knit a sweater for Proteus.

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

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