Nabokov, ou le vrai et l'invraisemblable
Vladimir Nabokov et l’émigration, ed. Nora Buhks. Cahiers de l’émigration russe 2 (Paris: Institut d’études slaves, 1993).
Contents of Vladimir Nabokov et l’émigration:
Buhks, Nora. Les émigrations de Nabokov
Buhks, Nora. Les émigrations de Nabokov
This superb collection of articles, eight in French and three in Russian, is the outcome of a colloquy on Nabokov and the emigration held in Paris at the Institut d’études slaves on November 7, 1992. As Nora Buhks writes in the foreword, “L’émigration, ce n’est pas seulement la biographie de Nabokov, ou un thème pour sa poésie et sa prose, c’est la nature même de son art” [Emigration is not only the biography of Nabokov or a theme for his poetry and prose, it’s the very nature of his art]. (This thesis is developed in detail by Daniéle Roth-Souton in her 1994 book Vladimir Nabokov, l’enchatement de l’exil [v. infra].)
André Monnier discusses “Pouchkine, ou le vrai et le vraisemblable,” the article on Pushkin Nabokov wrote in French for La Nouvelle revue française in 1937, asserting that the text “ne peut … pas être considéré comme une véritable étude sur Pouchkine” [cannot be considered a true study on Pushkin] but that it is, rather, “fort révélateur de la personnalité de Nabokov” [very revealing of Nabokov’s personality]. Monnier emphasizes Nabokov’s identification with Pushkin and notes both poets’ interest in making time “l’auxiliaire et le complice de l’imaginaire poétique pour transformer chaque instant vécu en fragment d’éternité” [the auxiliary and accomplice of poetic imagination to transform each lived moment into a fragment of eternity]. Comparing Nabokov’s translations of Pushkin’s verse with the originals, Monnier reveals how Nabokov selectively excised certain lines to suit his needs: “le disciple admiratif tend d’une certaine manière à s’approprier l’œuvre du maître, non sans l’avoir délestée de ce qui ne lui convenait pas” [the admiring disciple tends in a certain way to appropriate the master’s work, not without having relieved it of that which did not suit him]. This is an interesting discussion in light of Nabokov’s later intransigeant insistence on literality in his translation of Eugene Onegin.
The citation in the title of George Nivat’s article is drawn from the poem “Tolstoi” published by Nabokov (as V. Sirin) in Rul’ on September 16, 1928. Here the “unthinkable end” is death and the beyond, and Nivat contends that “Nabokov a deux succédanés à l’au-delà : la mémoire et la pellicule photo” [Nabokov has two substitutes for the beyond: memory and photographic film]. In both his poetry and prose, Nabokov strives to recreate the “magie de l’éclair” [magic of the flash] by means of “jeux et devinettes qui peuplent le texte et l’«arment» contre l’oubli et l’indifférence” [games and riddles that fill the text and “arm” it against oblivion and indifference]. “Tolstoi” is discussed at length, with special attention given to the theme of artist as God and the consequent inconceivability of death: “La mort du créateur est incompréhensible, puisqu’il est l’égal de Dieu” [The death of the creator is inconceivable, since he is God’s equal]. The process of “restitution ralentie” [slowed restoration] that art allows is a means of reaching beyond death, for each artistic detail, like “la voix éraillée du gramophone, ou le sourire innocent sur la photo, détiennent une parcelle d’eternité, une pépite d’absolu” [the gramaphone’s scratchy voice, or the innocent smile on the photo, holds a particle of eternity, a nugget of the absolute]. According to Nivat, what Nabokov suggests is that “L’art, c’est Dieu sans le mot Dieu” [Art is God without the word God].
In 1985 and 1986, Nikita Struve published two articles on the novel Roman s kokainom in which he attributed the work to Nabokov. His claims caused a minor uproar. Struve and a few others were convinced by textual evidence that Nabokov had written the novella and published it under the pseudonym M. Ageev, while the Nabokov family dismissed the attribution as demonstrably absurd. In this continuation of his arguments, Struve lists some of the evidence that led him conclude that Nabokov is the book’s author and relates the tale of the novel’s publication history. The mysterious Marc Levi aka M. Ageev is tracked from Constantinople to Moscow (where, claims Struve, he attended a high school much like Nabokov’s Tenishev) thence to Berlin where he may have supplied Nabokov the details the latter needed to perpetrate the ruse. In answering the question of why Nabokov never revealed the trick, Struve explains that whereas the enemies of Nabokov (Merezhkovskii, Adamovich, Ivanov et al.) celebrated Ageev as a new great talent, his friends (Weidlé and Khodasevich) saw his book as nothing but “un intéressant et maladroit début” [an interesting and clumsy debut]. Thus “Révéler la supercherie, c’était confondre ceux qui précisément l’estimaient et lui était fidèles” [To reveal the fraud was to confound precisely those who esteemed him and were loyal to him]. By no means a proof, Struve’s article is nonetheless interesting both for the coincidences it reveals and for its author’s dogged perseverence in defending a claim which the only person in a position to confirm it, Véra Nabokov, has categorically denied.
Danièle Beaune details the history of the publication of Nabokov’s poems and prose in Les Annales contemporaines (Sovremennye zapiski) between 1922 and the late 1930s. She relates how the journal, founded in 1920 with “une nette intention politique” [a marked political intent] gradually became more literary than political, and notes that whereas Nabokov’s first publication (the poem “Rossiia”) “est parfaitement dans la ligne de la revue” [is perfectly in the journal’s line] later more experimental contributions (the story “Uzhas” and the poem “Universitetskaia poema” in 1927) are in keeping with the journal’s shift away from conservatism toward an increased interest in young writers—a change of editorial policy spurred by Hippius’ 1924 article lamenting the death of Russian literature. In an article published five years later, the critic Tsetlin, who had previously expressed doubts about the literary viability of the younger generation, listed what he believed would be defining features of the best new émigré literature, among which are to be found many aspects of Nabokov’s Russian work. Beaune concludes that “les publications de Nabokov dans les Annales ponctuent le passage de l’ancienne à la nouvelle génération émigrée à travers une riche réflexion sur l’art et la levée de nombre tabous littéraires” [Nabokov’s publications in The Annals punctuate the transition from the old to the new émigré generation across rich reflections on art and the lifting of a number of literary taboos]. For Nabokov, the publications mark three stages in his evolution (“les poèmes de jeunesse, les œuvres expérimentales, les grands romans russes” [the poems of youth, the experimental works, and the great Russian novels]) as well as “sa consécration dans l’émigration” [his consecration in the emigration].
Laure Troubetskoy, translator of Drugie berega (the Russian version of Speak, Memory) into French, here examines Nabokov’s English versions of Camera obscura (Laughter in the Dark) and Otchaianie (Despair)—both written in the 1930s—as bridges between the author’s Russian and American periods. Greatest attention is given to Laughter in the Dark, in which Troubetskoy notes the many stylistic and structural differences from the Russian original, among them an increased intertextuality in which “loin de nourrir l’illusion référentielle, les «détails» comptent avant tout par leur agencement artistique” [far from fostering referential illusion, the “details” matter above all for their artistic arrangement]. Also noted are greater emphasis on the telling of the tale, on colors, and on the protagonist’s “confusion systématique de l’art et de la vie” [systematic confusion of art and life]—all traits of Nabokov’s subsequent work in English. Troubetskoy concludes that “À un moment où se posait pour Nabokov ce problème crucial de réincarnation linguistique, Rire dans la nuit, qui affirmait d’emblée la primauté du plaisir de raconter sur l’intérêt de l’histoire, ouvrait la voie à la recherche d’un nouvel équilibre, ou plutôt d’une nouvelle énergie” [At a moment when the crucial problem of linguistic reincarnation was posed for Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, which affirmed at once the primacy of the pleasure of telling over the interest of the story, opened the way to a search for a new equilibrium, or rather for a new energy].
Marianne Gourg sees Sogiadatai (The Eye) as Nabokov’s elaboration of the unreliable narrator device as developed by Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground. Smurov is a “variante hyperbolique de l’homme de sous-sol” [hyperbolic variant of the underground man] whose (failed) suicide is the “conséquence tout autant que métaphore d’un exil intérieur matérialisé et amplifié par l’émigration” [consequence as much as the metaphor of an internal exile materialized and amplified by the emigration]. Gourg proposes that Smurov and Roman Bogdanovich (“l’un possède un prénom et un patronyme, l’autre un nom de famille” [one possesses a forename and patronymic, the other a surname]) together “forme[nt] le nom du je narrateur” [form the name of the narratorial I] (and wonders in a footnote whether Roman Bogdanovich’s declaration of love to Vania is no more than “une projection psychique du narrateur” [a psychic projection of the narrator] and a case of Nabokov’s representing “avec malice le problème du prototype” [maliciously the problem of the prototype]). His personality fragmented, Smurov (re)creates himself out of a series of parodic references to Russian literature, including Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Nekrasov, Tolstoy, Blok, and Gumilev. His theft and reading of R.B.’s letter “marquent une première et décisive étape de la réunification du moi” [mark a first and decisive stage in the reunification of the self] and Vania’s response after he implores her to kiss him “lui restitue un statut de sujet” [restore to him the status of subject] and allows the reunification of his constituent parts: “les trois cartes cesseront leur gigue diabolique et Smourov pourra être appelé par son vrai nom” [the three cards—i.e., the je, Smurov, and Roman Bogdanovich—will cease their diabolical jig and Smurov will be able to be called by his true name].
Evgueny Kouchkine’s contribution is a somwhat expanded version of his article on The Gift that appeared in 1990 in Dalhousie French Studies (v. supra).
Beginning from the general principle that Nabokov writes contre other writers, Isabelle Poulin argues that in response to Sartre’s philosophy of the absurd, Nabokov uses “l’écriture d’enchantement” [the writing of enchantment] to “combattre stylistiquement l’indifférence de l’étranger” [combat stylistically the stranger’s indifference]. She notes parallels in the two writers’ autobiographies (Autres rivages and Les mots) and then contrasts Nabokov’s recourse to what he labelled “poetic prose” and Sartre’s statement that “rien n’est plus néfaste que l’exercise littéraire appelé, je crois, prose poétique…” [nothing is more pernicious that the literary exercise called, I believe, poetic prose]. Nabokov’s 1926 story “Uzhas” (“Terror”) is compared with Sartre’s La nausée, Poulin noting that in the story “si les mots sont impuissants à signifier la chose, ils sont agencés de telle sorte que l’unité perdue du monde est en quelque sorte compensée par celle du texte” [if words are powerless to signify the thing, they are arranged in such a way that the world’s lost unity is in some way compensated by that of the text]. Sartre’s “idée de communion (de fusion) avec l’autre, avec le monde” [idea of communion (of fusion) with the other, with the world] (as experienced by Roquentin) is parodied by Nabokov in Pnin, and Chapter 4 of Ada also takes La nausée as a hypotext to be parodied through inversion. Poulin concludes that “Si l’imaginaire est un jeu pour Sartre, il est plutôt une croyance pour les «écrivains-sorciers» comme Nabokov qui pensent pouvoir créer le monde” [If the imaginary is a game for Sartre, it is rather a belief for the “writer-wizards” like Nabokov who think themselves capable of creating the world].
Alladaye, René. “Vladimir Nabokov et la ‘poésie positionelle’: deux dimensions de Poems and Problems” La Licorne no. 8: Espaces du texte, 1993, pp. 187-??.
Raguet-Bouvart, Christine. “Et si l’autre était l'auteur?" Le Mans, Actes du colloque de novembre 1991, “L’altérité dans la littérature et la culture du monde anglophone," 1993, pp. 219-228.
Les papillons de Nabokov, ed. Michel Sartori (Lausanne: Musée cantonal de Zoologie, 1993).
The bulk of this book is in English, comprising Dieter E. Zimmer’s annotated multilingual checklist entitled “Nabokov’s Lepidotera.”11 The remainder includes an introduction in French, a list of Nabokov’s literary works as well as his scientific articles, and a catalog of the exhibition of Nabokov’s collection of 4,323 bugs that took place at the Musée cantonal de Zoologie in Lausanne from 26 November 1993 until 29 January 1994.
10. In Vestnik Russkogo khristianskogo dvizheniia, no. 144, 1985, pp. 165-179 and no. 146, 1986, pp. 156-175. The articles were later combined, reworked, and published as an afterword to the Russian edition of the novel (Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1991).
11. Reviewed at length by Brain Boyd in Nabokov Studies 2 (1995), pp. 290-300. In March 1996 Zimmer privately published a revised and expanded version of his checklist, excerpts of which are available in Zembla.
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