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

1980s (cont.)

Magazine littéraire, no. 233, septembre 1986.

Contents of Magazine littéraire:

Barbedette, Gilles. Présentation
Barbedette, Gilles. "Entre l’exil et la parodie"
Nivat, Georges. "Les premiers pas de Lolita"
Savitski, Dmitri. "Victor X. et Humbert Humbert"
Gattegno, Jean. "Entre Alice et Lolita"
Eco, Umberto. "Nonita"
Couturier, Maurice. "L’effet Lolita"
Nabokov, Vladimir. "Cher Bunny," deux lettres inédites à Edmund Wilson
Pleynet, Marcelin. "Professeur Nabokov"
Kis, Danilo. "Une riche nostalgie"
"Pour Nabokov," par Edmund White, John Updike, Erica Jong et Philippe Sollers
Karlinsky, Simon. "Les jeux russes"
Savitski, Dmitri. "Du côté des Soviets"
Nivat, Georges. "Un lecteur intransigeant"
Nabokov, Vladimir. "Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable"
Bibliographie [Brief; lists the French translations of Nabokov’s books and critical monographs on N, all but two (Arc and Couturier’s Nabokov) in English.]

This superb assortment of texts (half of which are translations—from English, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, and Russian), is presented by Gilles Barbedette, the translator of the French version of Volshebnik, L’Enchanteur. In addition to a concise introduction to Nabokov, Barbedette supplies a detailed chronology of the author’s life and an excellent article on Nabokov as exile in which he argues that VN’s status as the ultimate outsider logically led him to parody as his preferred form: “la littérature devient la véritable source de la littérature” [literature becomes the true source of literature]. Nabokov’s parody is defined and distinguished from pastiche and satire, Barbedette concluding that with Nabokov “le roman parodique a accédé à une forme de maturité qu’il n’avait jamais eue auparavant” [the parodic novel attained a form of maturity that it had never previously had].

In his first article Georges Nivat introduces the French reader to the newly appeared L’Enchanteur, describes the novella’s genesis and its relationship to Lolita, and reveals a few of the book’s literary references—to Dostoevsky, to Annenskii. Jean Gattegno discusses the parallels between the nameless “hero” of L’Enchanteur and Lewis Carroll, noting that “tous deux sont terriblement mal dans leur peau, en dépit, ou à cause, précisément, d’une certaine lucidité qui leur fait voir l’impossibilité de toute solution harmonieuse, respectable et durable” [both are terribly uncomfortable with themselves, despite, or precisely because of a certain lucidity that makes them see the impossibility of any harmonious, respectable and lasting solution]. In a sidebar to the same article, Dmitri Savitski talks about The Confessions of Victor X., the sexual autobiography sent to Havelock Ellis in 1908 to which Humbert Humbert’s tale bears an uncanny resemblance.

Umberto Eco’s “Nonita” is an amusing bagatelle that spoofs Lolita by inverting it—here it is a case of an adolescent boy obsessed with elderly ladies.

In “L’effet Lolita,” Maurice Couturier examines Nabokov’s impact on American literature, pointing out that Lolita opened the way for other controversially racy books to be published in the United States (most notably Lady Chatterly’s Lover [1959], Fanny Hill [1963], and The Tropic of Cancer [1964]), and that “pour la critique américaine, Nabokov est souvent considéré comme la référence absolue” [for American criticism, Nabokov is often considered the absolute reference]. In the years following Nabokov’s rise, so-called postmodern American authors returned to language as a treasure-trove to be revelled in: “Jamais le roman américain n’avait été aussi «écrit» que chez Barth ou Barthelme ; jamais il n’avait inventé tant de mondes magiques et troublants” [Never had the American novel been so “written” as it was in Barth or Barthelme; never had it invented so many magical and disturbing worlds].

“Cher Bunny” presents two of Nabokov’s letters to Edmund Wilson from The Nabokov-Wilson Letters 1940-1971, which did not appear in French (ably translated by Christine Raguet-Bouvart) until 1988.

“Professeur Nabokov” is an introduction to VN as lecturer on literature in which Marcelin Pleynet emphasizes that Nabokov always endeavored to “maintenir son auditoire au seul plan de l’expérience concrète” [keep his audience soley on the plane of concrete experience].

Danilo Kis’ article is an insightful and well-written characterization of Nabokov the man and artist. Kis describes Nabokov’s decision to remain aloof from the trials of émigré existence as a choice of art over shabby reality—”cette Grande Illusion et son attraction somnabulique” [this Grand Illusion and its somnabulistic attraction]. For Nabokov, “l’histoire est une apparence d’apparence” [history is a semblance of semblance], and if he chose not to squander his creative talents in vain engagement, it was “parce qu’il n’a pas parié sur l’instant mais sur l’étérnité” [because he bet not on the moment but on eternity]. Kis concedes that given their apparent atemporal nature, Nabokov’s books can seem anachronistic, but argues that charges of the author’s haughty indifference notwithstanding, “Toute son œuvre, ses nouvelles et ses romans, ses essais, ses cours et ses interviews, toute son attitude, ne sont qu’un violent plaidoyer pour la sauvegarde des valeurs spirituelles, une lutte contre le chaos de l’esprit, contre la bêtise du siècle, contre les fausses valeurs, contre la critique qui juge les œuvres artistiques selon des critères non esthétiques…” [His entire œuvre, his stories and novels, his essays, his lectures and his interviews, his entire attitude, are but a fierce plea for the safeguard of spiritual values, a struggle against chaos of the mind, against the century’s imbecility, against false values, against criticism that judges artistic works according to non-aesthetic criteria].

“Pour Nabokov” consists of answers to the question “Qu’aimez-vous chez Nabokov?” [What do you like in Nabokov?] from four novelists: Edmund White, John Updike, Erica Jong, and Philippe Sollers. The responses are unremarkable except for Updike’s observation that Nabokov “a perdu quelque chose à aller en Suisse” [lost something in going to Switzerland] (cf. Gabriel Josipici’s similar comments in his recent review of Michael Wood’s book on Nabokov), Jong’s comically self-important reply (“le poète-romancier (race rare à laquelle je suis fière d’appartenir)” [the poet-novelist (rare breed to which I am proud to belong)]), and Sollers' interestingly European take on Lolita (“Nabokov a touché deux centres nerveux américains : la santé metale et la petite fille” [Nabokov touched two American nerve centers: mental health and little girls]).

In “Les jeux russes,” an essay that originally appeared in English in The New York Times Book Review in 1971, Simon Karlinsky contends that Anglo-American assessments of Nabokov’s work are weakened by critics’ lack of knowledge of the Russian literature to which Nabokov continually refers. Karlinsky gives examples of flawed or incomplete readings, notes that Nabokov’s books are so rich that even readers who miss the Russian references find much to enjoy, but adds that for three works, Ada, The Gift, and The Event, “les références à la littérature russe constituent un élément tellement important que les laisser échapper équivaut à perdre une grande partie du sens de ces livres” [the references to Russian literature constitute such an important element that to miss them means losing a large part of the meaning of these books]. He discusses Demon Veen’s literary forebear, Lermontov’s Demon, argues that even sensitive English and American readers of The Gift did not realize that the novel “appartenait à un genre hybride totalement nouveau mêlant la traditionnelle narration romanesque à de longues séquences de critique littéraire et d’histoire culturelle” [belonged to a totally new hybrid genre blending traditional novelistic narration with long passages of literary criticism and cultural history] and cites Fedor Sologub, Andrey Bely, and Alexei Remizov as Russian writers whose work was both innovative and well-known to Nabokov and who are under-appreciated by critics outside Russia.

Dmitri Savitksy’s “Du côté des Soviets” is a personal account of Nabokov’s popularity among his underground readers in the Soviet Union. He observes that Nabokov’s prose pointed to the path that might have been followed by Russian letters were it not for the Revolution and subsequent police state. He also emphasizes how Nabokov’s muse, Memory, was particularly intoxicating to his Soviet readers, since she “rompit le sortilège derrière lequel s’abritait la falsification délirante du passé” [broke the spell behind which the raving falsification of the past took shelter].

Georges Nivat’s second contribution focuses on Nabokov as scholar, critic, lecturer on literature, and man of strong opinions. Nabokov’s views on literature are discussed, with attention given to his book on Gogol, his translation of and commentary to Eugene Onegin (which Nivat laments is “un singulier chef-d'œuvre, hélas à jamais interdit à ceux qui ignorent l’anglais, car traduire une traduction n’aurait aucun sens” [a singular masterpiece, alas forever forbidden to those who don’t know English, for to translate a translation would make no sense]), and his epistolary exchanges with Edmund Wilson. Versed in the literatures of three cultures, Nabokov created works that fall outside any of their three traditions. Noting how integral Nabokov’s trilingualism was to his artistic temperament, Nivat writes that “C’est là peut-être la meilleure définition de Nabokov lui-même : sur les terrains de jeux des langues et des cultures européennes, il est un cas qui defie tout calcul” [There perhaps is the best definition of Nabokov himself: on the playing fields of European cultures and languages, he is a case that defies all reckoning].

“Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable,” one of the few texts Nabokov composed directly in French, is here reprinted for the first time since its appearance in La nouvelle revue française in 1937 on the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death. Nabokov emphasizes Pushkin’s colossal importance to Russian letters and the (nearly?) insurmountable difficulty of translating his poetry. After expressing his distaste for “biographie romancée,” Nabokov lays out a series of vivid imaginary instants from Pushkin’s life to demonstrate how impossible biography is: “la pensée même, en dirigeant son rayon sur l’histoire d’un homme, la déforme inévitablement” [thought itself, in directing its beam on the story of a man inevitably deforms it].

Abandoning the man, Nabokov moves to his work, providing several very deft French versions6 of his verse. Nabokov writes that in translating Pushkin he was trying “non pas de rendre Pushkin en français, mais de me mettre moi-même dans une sorte de transe pour que, sans ma participation consciente, un miracle se produisit, la métamorphose complète” [not to render Pushkin in French, but to put myslef in a kind of trance so that, without my conscious participation, a miracle would occur, the transformation complete]. (It is interesting to compare this approach to translating Pushkin to the one Nabokov embraced twenty-five years for Eugene Onegin.) The undeniable flair of his French versions notwithstanding, Nabokov concedes that “C’est du Pouchkine assez vraisemblable, voilà tout : le vrai est ailleurs” [It’s rather plausible Pushkin, that’s all: the true is elsewhere].

The essay concludes with typically Nabokovian optimism: “Si la vie semble quelquefois bien brumeuse, c’est parce que l’on est myope. Pour qui sait regarder, la vie quotidienne est aussi pleine de révélations et de jouissances qu’elle l’était aux yeux des grands poètes de jadis” [If life sometimes seems hazy, it is because one is myopic. For him who knows how to look, daily life is as full of revelations and joys as it was to the eyes of the great poets of yesteryear]. Already as intransigent as his much later strong opinions would reveal him to be, Nabokov extols the lone artist: “Aujourd’hui plus que jamais le poète doit être aussi libre, sauvage et solitaire que le voulait Pouchkine il y a cent ans … Non, décidément la vie dite sociale et tout ce qui émeut mes concitoyens n’a rien à faire dans le rayon de ma lampe : et si je ne réclame pas ma tour d’ivoire, c’est parce que je me contente de mon grenier” [Today more than ever the poet must be as free, wild and solitary as Pushkin so desired one hundred years ago … No, so-called social life and everything that moves my fellow citizens has decidedly no business in my lamp’s light: and if I don’t demand my ivory tower, it’s because I’m content with my garret].

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


6. For a discussion of these translations, see Monnier, André “Un miroir pouchkinien pour Nabokov” in Vladimir Nabokov et l’émigration, ed. Nora Buhks. Cahiers de l’émigration russe 2 (Paris: Institut d’études slaves, 1993).

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

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