Nabokov, ou le vrai et l'invraisemblable
Desanti, Dominique. Vladimir Nabokov: essais et rêves (Paris: Julliard, 1994).
This is neither literary criticism nor biography, but we are not explicitly so informed until the book’s end (p. 225): “Ce livre n’étant pas une biographie mais un voyage à travers la transformation des faits vécus en roman, je n’ai pas fait de recherche biographique : c’est un essai fantasmé” [This book being not a biography but a voyage across the transformation of lived facts into a novel, I did no biographical research: it’s a fantasized essay].
Essai fantasmé or not, there is much about Desanti’s book that will rile the scholar, while that mythological creature, the general reader, might find it innocuous. Desanti addresses Nabokov throughout as vous, an irritating second-person cosiness not justified by the author’s very limited contact as a young woman with her hapless subject. She is fixated by what might be termed the romantic aspects of Nabokov’s life: his father’s murder, his brother’s homosexuality, and his affair with Irina Guadanini—the book opens with the Paris soirée at which VN and Irina were introduced and at which Desanti was also, apparently, present. She describes Irina thus: “Elle ouvrait grands ses yeux rêveurs que le rire transformait en feu d’artifice” [She opened wide her dreamy eyes which the smile transformed into fireworks]—a cartoon image that prefigures saccharine silliness still to come. Nabokov’s seductiveness is a fixation in itself: “vous, le poète Sirine qui plaisait tant aux femmes…” [you, the poet Sirin whom women liked so much] (99); “vous, poète grand et beau auquel les femmes s’offraient ouvertement…” [you, tall and handsome poet to whom women offered themselves openly] (107); “vous êtes un seducteur mûr…” [you are a mature seducer] (171); “où les femmes vous environnent d’adoration…” [where the women surround you with adoration] (191).
Nabokov and his family members are conflated repeatedly with characters from his fiction: Nabokov with Sebastian Knight (86), Sergei with V. of RLSK (53-54), Nabokov with Humbert Humbert (with Desanti calling VN “Volodia-le-faunlet”! [71-73]), and Véra with Clare Bishop: “Le roman porte à Véra—qui refusa toujours bien sûr de s’y reconnaître—un hommage bouleversant. Le personnage de Clare est sans doute le plus «clair», le plus sympathique de toute votre œuvre” [The novel offers to Véra—who always refused of course to recognize herself there—a staggering tribute. The character Clare is without a doubt the most “clear,” the most likable in all your work] (162). One suspects this bold claim is made only to allow the weak pun.
Desanti puts words in Nabokov’s mouth, attributing to him opinions that are demonstrably not his: “Vous répondriez sans doute …«et ne parlons pas de cette petite garce sans cœur ni entrailles, de cette perverse de Lolita, victime dépouillée de son enfance, mais cynique, intéressée et dure…»” [You would doubtless reply—there are a lot of sans doutes in this book—and let us not speak of that heartless, unfeeling little trollop, that perverse Lolita, a victim stripped of her childhood, but cynical, calculating, and callous] (162-163). In fact, when asked in 1959 “Dans «Lolita», quel est le personnage qui vous est le plus sympathique?” [In Lolita, which character is most likable to you?] Nabokov replied “C’est Lolita. C’est pour elle que le bon lecteur doit se prendre d’amitié” [It’s Lolita. The good reader should take a liking to her].12
Because, as cited above, Desanti did no biographical research, she is compelled to insert fictionalized biographical events, the most sustained and amusing of which is VN’s hypothetical first meeting with Véra, his future wife. In the course of three pages (113-115) we have:
Elle vous a sans doute parlé… [She doubtless spoke to you…]The introduction to Desanti’s book is titled “Vladimir Nabokov, pourquoi vous?”
Roth-Souton, Danièle. Vladimir Nabokov, l’enchantement de l’exil (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1994).
An excellent study of the relationship between Nabokov’s life and art. A full review of this title appears in the Slavic and East European Journal (Winter 1995), pp. 627-629.
Jean Blot (whose father’s cousin Roman Grynberg was one of Nabokov’s language students in 1939) is a novelist and scholar whose work includes monographs on Goncharov, Yourcenar, Mandelshtam, and the Bloomsbury Group. He brings to his newest book, titled simply Nabokov, a knowledge of his subject’s three languages (Russian, English, French) and, sometimes less auspiciously, a novelist’s imagination. His book blends biography with literary criticism, the former tending towards biographie romancée and the latter often astute but sometimes marred by the overgeneralization that seems sadly inevitable in a book on Nabokov intended for the general reader. Blot’s poetic approach to Nabokov’s life is reflected in the titles of the book’s five parts: Du côté de Nabokov; Une tragédie en 4 actes et 30 volumes; Devenir un autre pour demeurer le même; Le patriarche de Montreux; Le dimanche de Nabokov [Nabokov’s Way, A Tragedy in 4 Acts and 30 Volumes, To Become Another in Order to Remain the Same, The Patriarch of Montreux, Nabokov’s Sunday]. The tenor of the criticism is revealed by the titles of sections in which individual Nabokov works are discussed: “Si le vent du destin pour en rire…”; “Le drame de l’artiste stérile”; “Une nouvelle invitation au supplice” [If the Wind of Destiny in Jest…, The Drama of the Sterile Artist, A New Invitation to a Beheading] to cite but three.
Like Danièle Roth-Souton in her 1994 book (v. supra), Blot emphasizes the impact of exile on Nabokov’s life and work. He discusses not only the obvious exiles (from one’s past and from one’s homeland) but Nabokov’s self-imposed exile as an artist beyond and above the world around him. By examining at length the years leading up to Nabokov’s decision to become an American writer, Blot conveys more successfully than anyone else (except, of course, Nabokov himself) the agony and unprecedented scope of VN’s switch from Russian (through French) to English. Blot justifiably concludes that Nabokov, like his creation Sebastian Knight, “va démontrer qu’une vision du monde peut emprunter différentes langues et rester, cependant, fidèle à elle-même” [will go on to demonstrate that a vision of the world can assume different tongues and nevertheless remain faithful to itself] (151).
The book’s relative brevity (221 pages, but sumptuously illustrated with dozens of black and white and color photographs—many taken by the author) and chronological structure allow Blot to establish and maintain a coherent continuity absent from Andrew Field’s first two VN books (because of their achronological arrangement) and sometimes lacking in Boyd’s biography due to its sheer volume and level of detail. In this respect, Blot’s effort provides a readable overview of VN’s life and work and fills a small but palpable void in French Nabokov criticism.
How well that void is filled is another matter. Although French students and scholars new to Nabokov and readers with a casual interest in the author may find it a useful resource, veteran Nabokovians will discover little of note and may be unpleasantly distracted by the book’s peculiarities, among them Blot’s tendency to prefer vague poetical pronouncements over citation of texts, his repeated equation of Nabokov with his characters, and certain unsubstantaited claims about the author’s personal views.
Blot’s knowledge of Russian does not prevent him in his first chapter (Du côté de Nabokov) from offering a charming but only two-thirds correct deconstruction of the Nabokov family name: “Car bok, c’est le côté, na bok, sur le côté, Nabokov, le genitif de cette position latérale” (12). A pretty phrase, but the last part is pure invention—as Blot knows, na bokov is a linguistic impossibility.13 The same fondness for euphony over facts is evident in aphoristic but unhelpful claims like “La beauté est l’écho de l’innocence ludique de l’univers” [Beauty is the echo of the universe’s playful innocence] (216) and “Van Veen est une figure de la haine de soi” [Van Veen is a figure of self-hatred] (191). (These formulae are doubly frustrating in that they more than once abort otherwise interesting arguments.) At one point the aphoristic is elevated to the mystifying: “Du héros qui domine les récits, on pourrait dire qu’il hésite entre l’absence et la présence, ou encore qu’il n’est présent qu’à demi, ou enfin que pour lui et bientôt pour le lecteur, l’absence est plus réelle que la présence ou même que cette dernière a pour seul but de designer et de nommer l’absent” [Of the hero who dominates the tales it could be said that he hesitates between absence and presence, or that he is only halfway present, or finally that for him and soon for the reader, absence is more real than presence or even that the latter has as its sole point to designate and name the absent] (89). It seems to me that statements of this ilk do a disservice to beginning students of an author whose primary advice to readers was to “notice and fondle details.”
The sins of equating an author with his creatures and of deducing an author’s mental state based upon a “fact” from “real life” are committed several times: “...Nabokov a pu craindre de devenir Loujine. Le roman (La Défense Loujine) répond à cette angoisse…” [Nabokov could have feared becoming Luzhin. The novel (The Defense) responds to this anxiety] (111); [on the lukewarm reception of émigré critics in the 20’s and 30’s:] “Cet accueil réservé blesse sans doute Nabokov. Il n’en laisse rien paraître” [This reserved reception doubtless pained Nabokov. He didn’t show it] (85). Supporting evidence would be welcome. At times Blot the novelist gains ascendancy over Blot the scholar, with amusingly melodramatic results: “L’auteur se cherche. L’Europe agonise” [The author feels his way. Europe declines] (142).
Twice Blot alludes to what he claims is Nabokov’s misogyny. In reference to Korol’, dama, valet, he writes that Martha’s character condenses “la misogynie de Nabokov et la justifie” [Nabokov’s misogyny and justifies it] and he sees Pnin’s Liza as permitting Nabokov to “satisfaire en même temps sa haine de la psychologie, des femmes légères et de la poètesse Anna Akhmatova” [satisfy at the same time his hatred for psychology, loose women, and the poetess Anna Akhmatova] (173). The latter claim is doubly tenuous. It is true that Liza’s poems in Pnin are intended as parodies of Akhmatova’s verse (whose pernicious influence on other women poets Nabokov had bemoaned in Rul’14), but Nabokov loathed Freud, not psychology;15 and an author’s hypothetical “hatred” for loose women can hardly be deduced from one unpleasant female character.
With the first volume of Boyd’s biography available in French, and the second soon to follow, Blot’s effort will be of limited usefulness to French Nabokov scholars.
12. “Tandis que Lolita fait le tour du monde, l’entomologiste Nabokov, l’agronome Robbe-Grillet échangent leurs pions sur l’échiquier littéraire.” Arts, lettres, spectacles, musique, no. 746, octobre 28-novembre 3, 1959, p. 4.
13. For a much more extensive and convincing examination of the origins of the Nabokov family name, see Jacques Ferrand and Serge Nabokov, Les Nabokov: essai généalogique. (I leave it to the reader to apply Blot’s method to his own surname.)
14. Specifically, in a review of Zodchii, a collection of émigré poetry, on November 23, 1927, and in a review of Snesareva-Kazakova’s book Da sviatitsia imia tvoe on October 24, 1928. I am indebted to Alexander Dolinin for providing these details in response to a query posted to the NABOKV-L list on December 12, 1995.
15. To Alfred Appel, Jr.’s question “You once said that Robbe-Grillet’s shifts of levels belong to psychology—’psychology at its best.’ Are you a psychological novelist?” Nabokov replied “All novelists of any worth are psychological novelists, I guess” (Strong Opinions, p. 174).
Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.