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

1990s

Lahougue, Jean. “Relecture et réécriture de La Méprise.” in La Réécriture. Ed. Claudette Oriol-Boyer (Grenoble: Ceditel, 1990), pp. 109-124.

Jean Lahougue is a French writer who in 1980 was awarded (and refused) the presitigious Prix Médicis for his novel Comptine des Height, a “rewriting” of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. In this article he offers an author’s rereading of Nabokov’s Despair.

He begins by noting that in 1977, an anonymous reviewer saw in his novel Non-lieu dans un paysage a “remake” of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Unfamiliar with Nabokov’s work, Lahougue read Despair in French translation. Initially he was disappointed with the book, but a rereading revealed “l’insistence de multiples digressions sur l’art du text” [the insistence of multiple digressions on the art of the text] which invited closer study. He lists examples of what he calls “une métatextualité galopante” [a rampant metatextuality] in which the artist is compared to the criminel and the perfect crime to a work of art: “les préoccupations strictement littéraires alternent avec les préoccupations criminelles, s’y confondent” [strictly literary concerns alternate with criminal concerns, blend with them]. The fundamental problem, for Hermann as for “tout écrivain qui se donnerait un projet de représentation” [any writer who would take on a project of representation] is one of identity. Lahougue lists facets of this problem (identity between the real and the remembered event, between what is and what one perceives, between what one says and what is perceived by others, etc.) and concludes that “chaque fois que le problème de l’identité ou de la ressemblance est posé à propos de l’écriture, son éventualité est toujours mise en doute, pour ne pas dire invariablement réfutée” [each time that the problem of identity or resemblance is posed with respect to writing, its possibility is always called into doubt, not to say invariably refuted]. Thus, “les mots ne sauraient renvoyer qu’aux mots, et le roman qu’à lui-même pour une perpétuelle mise en abîme” [words can refer only to themselves and the novel to itself in a perpetual mise-en-abîme].

Lahougue goes on to discuss the importance of colors and mirrors in the book, and elucidates the subtly constructed parallels between Hermann’s silver pencil, the yellow signpost marking the scene of the crime, and Felix’s walking stick.

In the last part of the article he describes the uncanny series of coincidences that led him to write “La ressemblance,”8 a short story that subverts Despair by partially inverting it.

Legoune, Geoffroy. “Une brouette vide: l’espace et l'extase chez Vladimir Nabokov,” in Cahiers de la Faculté d’études anglophones, no. 1, avril 1990, pp. 47-69.

Probably one of the finest articles on Nabokov in French. Legoune begins with Pale Fire, and, working backwards towards Mary and forwards towards Look at the Harlequins! simultaneously, weaves a tangled but lucid web of correspondances that seem to reveal a hidden intertextuality in Nabokov’s work that goes well beyond what has hitherto been elucidated in the critical literature. Open space, both actual and textual, are linked to ecstacy as experienced by writer writing and reader reading. Legoune sets out to show that Nabokov “tient à mêler le lu au vécu pour créer un royaume au-delà de l’espace et du temps” [strives to blend the read with the lived to create a realm beyond space and time]. Colors, objects, and the meter of the prose itself are shown to be remarkably consistent throughout Nabokov’s entire œuvre in passages where the characters experience epiphanies or the sudden feeling of belonging to a larger unfathomable whole. Legoune asserts that as a young poet making the switch from verse to prose, Nabokov laid out in his notebooks a master plan for his novels (in the same way that he diagrammed poems) that would ensure them an overarching coherence when read carefully in the order they had been written.

“Vladimir Nabokov,” Legoune contends, “était le seul écrivain de notre siècle à hasarder une telle aventure” [was the only writer of our century to hazard such a venture]. The conclusions Legoune draws may seem untenable and too fantastic for some, but his arguments are eerily compelling and superbly researched.

Couturier, Maurice. “La banalisation de la sexualité á l’ère postmoderne,” in Revue française d’études américaines, vol. 15, no 44, avril 1990, pp. 49-63.

Reference to Nabokov is made twice in this article. Couturier mentions Lolita in a section on la fin de la censure and later notes that “Nabokov a été le premier, avec Lolita, à conférer véritablement une légitimité poétique au sexe dans le roman” [Nabokov was the first, with Lolita, to have truly conferred on sex a poetic legitimacy in the novel], a point argued at much greater length in his 1993 book, Nabokov ou la tyrannie de l’auteur.

Kouchkine, Eugène. “Nabokov ou le don de la transcendance,” Dalhousie French Studies, 19 (1990), pp. 33-42.

Kouchkine considers Nabokov “l’un des plus grands écrivains du XXe siècle” [one of the greatest writers of the 20th century]. In this article he discusses The Gift as a manifestation of its authors transcendance, his “élan vers un autre monde” [bound towards another world]. For Russian expatriates, the 1930s were a particularly desperate time. Stalin’s terror had reached its apogee and the possibility of return to a restored Russia had evaporated. For Nabokov there was “Une seule issue: la création artistique” [One way out: artistic creation]. According to Kouchkine, N’s poetry of exile was based on nostalgia—not the banal variety, but “celle des maîtres [qui] bascule dans l’éternité, dans l’indicible, dans les racines de l’être” [that of the masters [who] totter in eternity, in the inexpressible, in the roots of being].

For Nabokov, as for Fedor, “dans son exil, tout ce qui compte, c’est son art de poète” [in his exile, all that counts is his art as a poet]. The novel is written against Chernyshevsky, but also against the primacy of of dogma over art, “contre tout ceux qui en exil aussi bien qu’en Russie soviétique érigent … leur art sur une philosophie du monde, qu’ils n’ont jamais, en fait, connue, et qui est toujours plus riche et plus complexe que tout système rigide auquel ils veulent bien le subjuguer” [against all those who, in exile as well as in Soviet Russia, erect … their art on a philosophy of the world that they have never, in fact, known, and which is always richer and more complex than any rigid system to which they would very much like to subject it].

Dupessay, Max. “Au delà du fantastique: La naissance douloureuse à l’écriture: ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’ de Vladimir Nabokov” in Dupessay, Max, ed. Du fantastique en littérature: figures et figurations... (Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 1990), pp. 161-165.

In this brief but dense article, Dupessay describes the story “Cloud, Castle, Lake” as a sort of fable “située entre le témoignage, le reportage … et la parabole portant jugement sur l’humanité” [situated between the eyewitness account, reportage … and the parable passing judgment on humanity], noting that “Il est à la frontière de l’humour noir” [It borders on black humor]. Vasili Ivanovitch’s adventure can be defined as a series of dichotomies: “fragilité/épaisseur / finesse/grossièreté / humanité/animalité / convivialité/promiscuité / liberté/coercition” [fragility/denseness / finesse/coarseness / humanity/animality / conviviality/promiscuity / liberty/coertion]. Behind its bitter playfulness and its tragic plot, the story can be read as “une énigme dont la clé serait en forme d’épiphanie : le meurtre de l’artiste et la naissance à autre chose” [an enigma whose key would be in the form of an epiphany: the murder of the artist and the birth of something else]. As in many of Nabokov’s works, “le texte opère une essentielle substitution en reléguant la réalité quotidienne du récit dans la distance et en imposant l’utopie et l’absence comme son seul réel” [the text effects an essential substitution in consigning the tale’s everyday reality to the distance and in imposing the utopic and absence as its sole reality].

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story Dupessay mentions is the recurrence of triads. Like Korol’, dama, valet (cf. Nora Bukhs’ article above), “Cloud, Castle, Lake” is replete with threes, here constrasted with the hapless hero’s unicité.

Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. “La transparence métaphore du double dans Transparent Things de V. Nabokov" in Cahiers du Groupe de recherches anglo-américaines de Tours, no. 8, 1991, pp. 205-219.

Not seen.

Clancier, Anne. “Vladimir Nabokov et les affres du biographe” in Revue des sciences humaines, t. 98, no. 224, oct.-déc. 1991, pp. 127-137.

This amounts to a psychoanalytical reading of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. A lengthy summation of the novels’ action is interlarded with fatuous questions (“Ce thème des violettes serait-il un écho de souvenirs personnels de Nabokov?” [Would this theme of violets be an echo of Nabokov’s personal memories?]) and observations that will seem naive to most Nabokov specialists: “La mise en abyme du thème de la biographie témoigne de la subtilité avec laquelle Nabokov joue des techniques littéraires” [The mise en abyme of the biography theme displays the subtlety with which Nabokov plays with literary techniques] or “Nabokov aborde ici … le problème de la solitude du créateur, des affres de la création…” [Here Nabokov tackles … the problem of the creator’s solitude, the throes of creation]. The latter half of the article discusses the double theme, the methodology of biography, and Nabokov’s professed dislike for biography as a genre. Clancier argues that because biography requires the identification of an author with his subject and because this doubling results in fear (for “Le double est l’un des avatars de la possession diabolique” [The double is one of the avatars of demonic possession]!), Nabokov, passionate champion of individuality, is hostile to biography.

We are also treated to some analysis of Nabokov. Clancier concludes from his use of preprepared answers to Bernard Pivot’s questions on French TV: “Ceci témoigne d’une peur de l’improvisation et d’un souci de se contrôler” [This indicates a fear of improvisation and a concern for controlling oneself]. In explaining Nabokov’s distaste of Freud and his progeny, Clancier blandly observes that “Nabokov craignait la psychanalyse probablement parce que c’est une méthode de déchifrement des messages de l’inconscient” [Nabokov feared psychoanalysis probably because it is a method of deciphering the messages of the unconscious]. In conclusion, Clancier writes that the best way to know a writer is through his work: “S’il s’agit d’un écrivain c’est grace à l’étude de son œuvre que son véritable figure se dégagera” [If a writer is involved, it is thanks to a study of his work that his true face will emerge].

Fraysse, Suzanne. “Nabokov et la langue américane,” Europe v. 68, no. 733, May 1991, pp. 25-28.

A brief article about Nabokov’s switch from Russian to English.

Teyssandier, Hubert. “Couples et doubles: configurations corporelles dans Ada de Vladimir Nabokov” in Bernard Brugière, ed., Les figures du corps dans la littérature et la peinture anglaises et américaines (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1991), pp. 257-264.

Teyssandier reads Ada as “un jeu érotique aux figures mouvantes, un «mating-game»” [an erotic game with moving figures, a “mating game”] in which “les relations réciproques permettent une infinité de relations spéculaires et le jeu d’une réversibilité sans limites” [the reciprocal relationships allow an infinity of specular relationships and the game of a reversibility without limits]. He discusses the prevalence of couples and doubles in the novel in terms of bodies (romantic pairs and twins); specular structures and images (citing the “picture window” scene in which Ada and Van make love for the first time—a scene that Maurice Couturier also examines in detail); and intertextuality, the characters’ being modelled on or referring to the characters of preexistent works.

Teyssandier’s conclusion that “Dans ce monde de reflets, le signifiant verbal peut sembler n’avoir d’autre référent que lui-même ou son double iconique, textualité et graphisme se trouvant enfermés dans la rélation spéculaire qu’ils entretiennent” [In this world of reflections, the verbal signifier can seem to have no other referent than itself or its iconic double, textuality and writing finding themselves enclosed in the specular relationship they maintain] is very close to Maurice Couturier’s ideas on the “poerotic” nature of Nabokov’s texts.

Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. “Pouvoir, tyrannie et création littéraire chez V. Nabokov,” Alizés (La Réunion), no. 2/3, déc. 91-janv. 92, "Pouvoirs," pp. 57-68.

Not seen.

Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. “C.O.->L.D. (Camera Obscura-> Laughter in the Dark de V. Nabokov) d’un texte à l'autre" Cahiers de Stylistique Anglaise (Paris), no. 13, 1992, pp. 37-55.

Not seen.

Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. “Sens et essence du texte de Vladimir Nabokov,” Écriture et modernité, (Les années trente no. 15), 1992. pp. 43-55.

Raguet-Bouvart here argues that the sensitive reader of Nabokov’s work is compelled to pass beyond “la surface du texte” [the surface of the text] and that the author places both obstacles (spatial, temporal, linguistic) and the means for overcoming them in the reader’s way. The passage from surface to lower layers is effected by means of “la dissolution, la transparence, et le reflet” [dissolution, transparency, and reflection]. Dissolution is described as “glissements linguistiques, visuels, ou auditifs … qui engendrent la confusion et la fusion d’un sens dans un autre” [linguistic, visual, or auditory glides … that engender confusion and the fusion of one sense into another]. Transparency is achieved by means of “procédés plus fragmentaires, jouant sur les mots, les syllabes, et les lettres … elle permet l’élucidation, la mise au point, donc la quête du sens, sur un mode parfois ironique” [more fragmentary devices, playing on words, syllables, and letters … it permits elucidation, bringing into focus, thus the pursuit of sense, at times in an ironic way]. Reflection “évoque duplication et multiplication” [evokes duplication and multiplication] and leads to “la découverte du plaisir du jeu intellectuel de la création littéraire que l’on perçoit comme l’essence même des romans de Vladimir Nabokov” [the discovery of the pleasure of the intellectual game of literary creation, which is perceived as the very essence of the novels of Vladimir Nabokov].

Raguet-Bouvart has written extensively on Nabokov in both French and English and has translated Laughter in the Dark and two volumes of Nabokov’s letters.

Chassay, Jean-François. “‘Traduit de l’américain’,” Études françaises, 28, 2/3, 1992-93, pp. 69-81.

In this essay Faulkner and Nabokov are discussed as examples of American authors who “expriment dans leurs textes la même difficulté à s’identifier à la terre qu’ils habitent” [express in their texts the same difficulty in identifying with the land they inhabit].

Focusing on Nabokov’s experience of “l’étrangeté de la langue” [the strangeness of language] a result of his unprecedented switch from Russian to English, Chassay sees Lolita as first and foremost “un roman sur le territoire” [a territorial novel]. (In support of this claim he cites Alain Robbe-Grillet’s brief article on the novel that appeared in L’Arc in1964 [v. supra].) Humbert Humbert’s evocation of America is read as a “satire de la vie américaine” [satire of American life] which tranforms the United States “en une série de cartes postales” [into a series of postcards]. America through the eyes of the European Humbert is “un pays sans cesse redécouvert” [a country ceaselessly rediscovered], a territory that “n’est jamais une certitude, plutôt une étrangeté, et demeure un lieu de passage” [is never a certainty, rather an oddity, and remains a place of transition].

Chassay concludes that Nabokov’s status as an outsider lead to a strange paradox: “Alors qu’il ne pouvait se concevoir comme membre à part entière de l’institution littéraire américane et n’imaginait jamais trouver sa place dans la tradition romanesque de ce pays, il jouera un rôle décisif dans l’évolution de celle-ci” [While he could not conceive of himself as a full member of the American literary establishment and never imagined finding his place in the novelistic tradition of that country, he would play a decisive role in its evolution].

Couturier, Maurice. Nabokov ou la tyrannie de l’auteur (Paris: Seuil, 1993). 415 pp.

For a lengthy, well-argued and, to my mind, somewhat overly harsh review of this excellent work, see Brian McHale’s article in Nabokov Studies 2 (1995), pp. 277-289.9 As McHale testily points out, Couturier’s approach to Nabokov’s texts is explicative rather than interpretive. This book, and its 1979 predecessor, are essential reading for any serious student of Nabokov’s poetics.


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

Notes

8. The French text of “La ressemblance” is to be found in Jean Lahougue, La Ressemblance et autres abus de langage (Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 1989); for an English translation of the story, as well as an excellent article by Michel Sirvent on Lahougue’s rewriting of Nabokov and others, see Nabokov Studies 2 (1995), pp. 235-250 and 251-276.

9. I feel compelled to correct here what I believe is a misreading of Couturier’s that McHale reinforces. Both writers make much of the fact that a certain passage from Transparent Things seems to undermine Ann Banfield’s theory of free indirect discourse as set forth in her 1982 book Unspeakable Sentences:

An adjacent customer, comically resembling Person’s late Aunt Melissa, whom we like very much, was reading l’Erald Tribune. Armande believed (in the vulgar connotation of the word) that Julia Moore had met Percy. Julia believed she had. So did Hugh, indeed, yes. Did his aunt’s double permit him to borrow her spare chair? He was welcome to it. (TT, p. 45)
Couturier is troubled by the we, which “renvoie manifestement à la voix collective de la famille de Person” [evidently refers to the collective voice of Person’s family] (Couturier, 58). McHale does not dispute this, concluding only that “this sentence seems to double up Hugh’s interior voice with, successively, the collective voice of his family and Armande’s voice” (McHale, 285). But isn’t it much more probable that the we in the passage is simply the “royal” we favored by the disembodied narrator who begins his tale “Here’s the person we want …” (emphasis mine) and whom the careful rereader reasonably suspects is, like Person’s Aunt Melissa, also “late” and thus in a position to “like [her] very much”?

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


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