The Dream of Mademoiselle as Jezebel

Submitted by Jim Buckingham on Mon, 07/29/2019 - 19:25

The Dream of Mademoiselle as Jezebel

Getting to the Root of the Scene in Drugie berega / Other Shores

An Examination of Vladimir Nabokov's Russian semi-autobiography regarding his governess, Mademoiselle, in Chapter 5. Correlating the Dream of Mlle as Jezebel, the Bible, Racine's "Athalie" and the Potemkin Stairs into Nabokov's possible deep psychological cause to his deep distaste to the writing of Jean Racine.

Attached: 15 pages = Title Page + 12 Pages of Text + 1 page of Pics (3) + Endnotes Page (15)



Between the Bible and Racine, these two combined into a bedtime horror story for two little boys, both with highly imaginative minds. Mademoiselle is a very interesting character and there still are other dimensions left to explore. 

If nothing else is learned, it is that one needs to be fully aware of the constant possiblities throughout Nabokov with the interconnections in his writing. The fear Mlle has of Lensky trampling her lifeless body is not a random sentence. This is why VN's work is a semi-autobiography, due to its many fictional elements. The real questions are, more likely never to be truly known: 

1) How much is true?

2) How much is embellished? and

3) How much is more a "story" than anything else?



Yes. I was being a bit facetious. Mademoiselle is such a greatly realized character, much to read into. Getting the fuller picture of her "dark" side, as you have done, enriches appreciation of the titanic image she clearly was for Nabokov.

I really liked the ending of Mademoiselle, where he considers that there might have been more to her, "...something akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness..." In other words, a soul or divine spark - an ironically divine spark within the tragically flapping swan. Have you read the short story "Easter Rain," where it seems Nabokov imagines a character very much like Mademoiselle has a transcendental epiphany?

I would add a "4)" to your list:

4) How much was Nabokov willing to be abstruse?

How many subtleties did he allow to slip by in his cat-and-mouse game with the Reader, or how much was simply for his own amusement? I think insights like yours are so valuable, because it could just as well otherwise go on forever unnoticed. 

Speak Memory seems to have a lot of planted clues to clues in his other works, esp. Pale Fire. He apparently was disappointed that readers were not picking up the many allusions in Conclusive Evidence - "It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself." I think his comment, "Reviewers read the first version more carelessly that they will this new edition" should be taken as an admonishment to pay close attention.


I did realize that your "gruesome" comment was being facetious. But those gruesome details contained in the Bible and Racine’s Athalie would be enough to scare the bejeebies out of any little kid.

When comparing the end of Chapter 5 in Speak, Memory (SM) to Drugie berega (Db) / Other Shores, an interesting contrast arises. Whereas, Nabokov goes on to reflect on Mlle as one with a “radiant deceit” in SM, as you mentioned, none of that is in Db. Rather than softening somewhat his final take on Mlle, the Russian text ends on three curt words: “лодка, лебедь, волна. boat, swan, wave.” With that ending, one has a very different take then from SM’s conclusion. No ballet mention in Db is present to soften the harsh description of Mademoiselle in that final image of her as the fat swan.

Yes, I have read “Easter Rain” and currently am picking out the Mlle referenced parts contained in The Luzhin Defense and Ada.

As to your suggestion of adding a #4 onto the list of examining Nabokov’s intent, purpose or result in his semi-autobiographies in his being abstruse or obscure, I might proffer that one might take that as a given for VN. That is why I call him the Dahl-y Lama of Obscurity. Vladimir reminds me of a quote from Romeo and Juliet when Juliet complains to Romeo that “You kiss by th’ book” (1.5.110). VN writes by the book, his favorite ones, in the sense of dictionaries. As an avid consumer of both Dahl’s Russian Dictionary and the Webster Dictionary (or other dictionary volumes) of English, Nabokov delighted in using obscure and archaic forms of words. One can never fault him for helping to build one’s vocabulary. The drawback though can be that the writing can suffer when using these old, outdated or obtuse forms. [It is also murder for any translator.] Use of these words can be a personal preference of course as to style. And yet, most of us would admit to one of the reasons why we relish, enjoy and are up for the challenge of Nabokov is due to his very use of word obscurity in adding another layer to those puzzles of his that are so intricately designed.

Lastly, I completely agree that Speak, Memory (and even more so, Drugie berega) has oodles and oodles of references and meanings within its text that are expanded upon and referenced further in his later works, just as there are earlier works of VN’s that are directly or indirectly referenced in SM and Db.

Best as always,


From Mr. Buckingham's endnotes: "Did not plan on translating the original French text, but after a quick scan of the atrocious translations on the Internet, I really had no choice."

And from his own translation: "But I no longer have found that one horrible mixture / Of bones and of bruised flesh, and dragged through the mud, / From shreds full of blood and from rubbish limbs / That devouring dogs were fighting over among themselves."

This dog's breakfast line, as it were, has been translated word for word without a basic understanding of the language (e.g. conjunctions, negations, articles). The original "je n'ai plus trouvé qu'un" would be, word for correct word, "I (have) found no more than a" — a far cry from "I no longer have found that one," as if for years she kept chasing that first high. After a quick scan of the available translations on the internet, J. Donkersley's "But only found confusion horrible" is a fine choice, if a little "house beautiful".

I understand the desire to emulate a favourite author, and the endnote is almost lifted straight from the Lectures on Literature, but Nabokov grew up with French: probably best not to come out swinging at translators if you're unfamiliar with the language.


First, show one the common courtesy of addressing someone directly, rather than using the 3rd person address as if someone is not present.

As to Translations and the French of Racine’s Athalie, in particular:

Never did I say I was proficient in French. I only maintained that what I found quickly on the Internet did not satisfy my purposes (perhaps these words are better than the one I used: atrocious). Rather than rely on someone else’s translation, I spent a great deal of time in doing the translation myself. One cannot appreciate another’s words when those words go through someone else first.

Of the two translations I looked at, one translation was way off. I didn’t even retain a copy of it. The other version I found was a translation in rhyming verse to match Racine’s rhyming verse. While this is a valid effort for translating, I wanted the actual words that Racine used. Translation is its own tempest in a teapot from those who adhere strictly to the words (Literalists) to those who freely amend the original (Interpretists, Free Translation). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Nabokov himself covered both extremes with his more literal translation of Eugene Onegin to his quite free Russified translation of Alice in Wonderland. While approaches and likes may vary as to translation types (and sometimes the best approach is a balance between the two extremes), what matters most is content.

What I find noteworthy is that you focused on the one most problematic line, Line 503, I encountered from Racine’s text. In short, your approach was to critique the weakest point (which after more research, I have since corrected). Then you go on to extrapolate your criticism into the hyperbolic sarcasm of “as if for years she [Jezebel] kept chasing that first high.” Where is this coming from? Constructive criticism? Hardly. More like unwarranted pettiness. Why such vitriol?

 You offer a more valid, in your mind, translation available on the Internet, being J. Donskerley’s dated 1873 translation as a better model than the one I wrote. So I looked into your example. Posted, as an attachment, is a line-by-line breakdown of the verse in question [Racine’s Athalie Translation Comparisons]. While again, I have never put forth my translation as the only one of any validity, in comparison it does stand up to the other two examples, which both tend to be more interpretive.

Yet then you claim that my Endnote, explaining my reason in the first place for doing a French to English translation, “is almost lifted straight from the Lectures on Literature.” Be specific. You are accusing me of plagiarism? This from one (being me) who does his own translations in order to learn the original words himself? One who spends hours doing so is hardly one who lifts texts from someone else. You are accusing me of plagiarism? That is both an insult and an unfounded accusation. And you go further with me having “a desire to emulate a favourite [British, not American spelling] author.” Who? Racine? Nabokov? Where the hell does this come from? I am my own person and to my own writing am true.

Where is/should be the bigger focus here, Alain? On some 10 pages of posted content regarding the connections found in the Bible, Racine and Nabokov’s original Russian text on the scene portraying Mademoiselle as Jezebel, you focus on one translated French to English line specifically, which automatically expands to a critique on the entire French translation and ignores in toto all the points put across in the paper itself.

One does not need praise for their posts, but the expectation is for a dialogue, not a diatribe. If errors or disagreements are to be put forth, then do so in context or with some subtlety. This type of rude attack and accusation does nothing but generate a toxic atmosphere. Others have wondered why there are so few posts on this site. Perhaps a look in the mirror and on the page will quickly tell why this is so, Alain. Why would anyone wish to post on this site, when they see others quickly dismissed in a very sharp and un-collegial fashion?

Alain, where is your criticism of my Russian to English translations of Drugie berega? What do you have for a comparison? NOTHING! There are none – at least none that I am aware of or have been told exists. In short, I am ADDING to the Discussion, the Conversation here. What are you adding? You add a NEGATIVE, a SUBTRACTION. It seems your aim is simply to silence others and then complain when no one dares to venture forth and break said silence anymore.

I have been restrained in the past, but will no more.

You owe me, and this website, an apology. Period.

Regards from a non-emulator,

Jim Buckingham

My sincerest apologies. Please accept this second of two private French lessons as a favour — a $150 value (CAD not GBP).

“De/du/des” can act as prepositions or articles. Continuing where we left off in our translation, the “d’” and “de” in “d’os et de chair meurtris” you’ve correctly translated as the prepositions “of.” (Though note: while “chair” is singular, “meurtris” is plural and thus must apply to both “bone” and “flesh.”) In the next line however, the two “des” are in fact articles, not the prepositions “from”, which have left your literal translation desfigured.

Allow me to take a stab at it, too:

"But I found nothing more than a foul mixture / Of murdered flesh and bones, and dragged through mud, / Some blood-soaked tatters and atrocious members / Over which fought ingurgitating dogs."

I hope this is received as the positive contribution I intend it to be. And that verb tense is left unmentioned (there is no time).



Mais je n'ai plus trouvé qu'un horrible mélange

Now no longer anything but one horrible mix

D'os et de chair meurtris, et traînés dans la fange,

Of bones and bruised flesh, dragged through the mud,

Des lambeaux pleins de sang, et des membres affreux            505

Shreds full of blood and some rubbish limbs

Que des chiens dévorants se disputaient entre eux.

That devouring dogs were fighting over among themselves.


This is far better. Thanks for your help.