Maurice Couturier's “Down the Line with a Smile: What to Do with my Books?”

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Fri, 11/01/2019 - 06:57

Maurice Couturier, Nabokov scholar, writer, translator and President of Honour of the Société Française Vladimir Nabokov, ponders the fate of his collection of Nabokoviana:

Down the Line with a Smile: What to Do with my Books?

I have been a life-long learner, perhaps because I have always had a mediocre – now sadly poor – memory. To remedy this handicap, I have kept reading books and reaching for ever new knowledge, of which now I often keep scant traces but enough not to get discouraged from pursuing my quest. The hard disk in my skull isn’t a total blank but it often jams, making me unable to recover a piece of knowledge I am sure I possess or used to possess, a word here as I am writing, a name there as I am speaking – a more awkward situation, of course. 

During my national service in war-ridden Algeria, as I was patrolling our section of the road between Bougie and Djidjeli one night, I mentally conceived a very ambitious project, and not only in order to occupy my mind while on watch. There was a jackal weeping like a baby on the slope of the mountain above me, and the Mediterranean kept churning pebbles at the bottom of the cliff close by. Perhaps it was this idyllic and semi-Grecian environment that induced me to think up that ambitious plan: namely to study all by myself one by one all the historical periods along with their cultural and religious life, a bold but irrational attempt to try and collect most of the knowledge devised by man since the beginning of the world. I got all worked up conceiving this plan, still believing that I would be able to store everything I read about without forgetting a thing, a Faustian delusion. I never attempted to fulfil this plan, of course, but the dream endured in my mind and led me, a true autodidact, to explore a great variety of areas, from music, to computer programming, to economics, only becoming proficient in English language, American history, English and American literature, literary theory, and, of course, Nabokov-speak.

My life-long desire to constantly acquire new books was but the result of this crazy fantasy, as I realize now that I am trying to find a way of disposing of them, with limited success I am afraid. My father-in-law, a great connoisseur of good wine who managed to communicate part of his passion to me, still had a well-stocked cellar underneath the family house when he died of a heart attack in my wife’s arms, hours after confiding to me as we were watching television: “If anything happens to me, don’t wait too long to drink the bottles of Gigondas.” Six years later, after my mother-in-law’s death, my wife and her two siblings were left with a difficult task: to empty the big family house, to distribute the better and lesser bottles between them and get rid of the hundreds of empty ones their father had kept piling up on the shelves of his musty cellar for some reason. They were almost mortified to have to carry them up to the hired dumpster in the street under the neighbors’ eyes. 

I don’t have a cellar like my father-in-law but thousands of books that are distributed everywhere around the house. My main bookcase is in my study upstairs, a comparatively small room, but there are others in the studio downstairs, in the narrow passage between our bedroom and the entrance hall and in the small bedroom at the front of the house. There are also hundreds of books spread out among clothes and odd things in various cabinets, even in the old wardrobe in the garage. I have always been jealous of my fellow academics whose desk was surrounded by bookcases from floor to ceiling. But I so much prize my little study upstairs with its pleasant view on the trees and the sky, far from the main living quarters, the kitchen and the living room, that I never chose to move to any of the other rooms of our comparatively large house. Which means that, too often, as I am writing and need a book, I must leave my desk and my computer and repair to another room or even to the garage, wherever I seem to recollect having put it away. Too frequently, I fail to find what I am looking for. The books closest to me, those I keep in my study, are those I expect to need more frequently, like all the books written by and about Nabokov, whereas those in the garage are supposed to be of little use to me even in a remote future. The whole house is like my external hard disk. I don’t always manage to access it successfully but am confident it will stand me in good stead in the long term.

Until about ten years ago, I treasured my books as Molière’s miser did his cassette, the little pouch in which he kept his coins, though, I am afraid to say, I mislaid the first two I bought with the money my godfather gave me when I was seven. I don’t recall ever having received a book as a present for my birthday or at Christmas as a child, my parents being rather poor. I long owned only the next two books I bought again with my godfather’s money until I entered my training college. I seriously started purchasing books after I started teaching and earning a salary. I was then over twenty and had undertaken my first university year by correspondence. In the absence of good libraries near me, I had no choice but to buy books by mail. These were my first academic books. Many more were to follow, especially after I graduated and was hired by two catholic universities in the United States in 1967-68 and 1970-72 respectively. I often visited the well-stocked campus library of Notre Dame University during my second stay and bought hundreds of books I thought I might need during my academic career – some I never read, by the way. It was only when I had to organize our return to France that these books became a problem. I bought six big iron chests, distributed my books among them, filling them up with the rest of our stuff. The cheapest way to ship them back home turned out to be, paradoxically, for all of us to travel on the SS.France where the amount of luggage you were allowed on board was unlimited. When we entered our small cabin, we were shocked to find out that the chests had all been brought up by mistake. We asked that they be taken down to the hold. The two sturdy men who came to remove them asked half-humorously: “Is that lead you are shipping to France?” 

Almost fifty years later, my books, my precious books, have sadly become a millstone. I don’t want to burden my children and grand-children with them, hence my quest to empty my shelves before it’s too late. Many of the books I used to prepare my lectures on literature at the Sorbonne or the University of Nice, apart from the books of literary theory, are already gone. I donated about a thousand of them to Lyon’s University Library which had gone up in smoke years before. Another three or four hundred I sent to the National Library of Guinea, and a few others, less academic, I distributed among non-governmental organizations. Being still active as a writer for I don’t know how many more years, I still need to keep many of my books. Today, October 19, 2019, I am halfway through the revision of my contribution to the third volume of the Pléiade edition of Nabokov’s novels due to come next year. To check this or that quotation, this or that bit of biographical or bibliographical information, I frequently need to consult one of the three hundred and more books of my Nabokov fund in the bookcase behind me. 

There being perhaps no richer fund on my favorite author anywhere else in France, including at the National Library, I would like to make it available to the present and future scholars somehow. L’IMEC, the Institute for the Memory of the Publishing World in France, seemed interested to harbor it, along with some valuable letters I have received from the Nabokov family and countless writers. I have a feeling they may be changing their mind. Currently I am discussing the possibility of depositing this fund at the University of Strasbourg where two prominent Nabokov scholars are teaching, an additional incentive being that a former student of mine and the daughter of a former colleague is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Letters there and expresses her wish to host it in her library.

The perspective of having to get rid of all these books I have painstakingly collected for over fifty years – most of them I purchased, but many also were generously offered to me – leaves me in a quandary. I don’t want to leave them behind me when I die but I would like to keep them around me until the day I die. How am I going to do that? It’s catch 22. These books are for me a kind of cocoon within which I slowly built up my identity as a Nabokov scholar. Were I to dispose of them next year after the publication of the third and last volume of the Nabokov Pléiade, I would have the feeling of starting to dig my grave. They aren’t only a cocoon, they are also a bulwark shielding me from the ultimate blank, something paradoxically like what the painter Pierre Soulages calls “outrenoir” (beyond black). 

My Nabokov fund naturally includes many of my own works: my seven-hundred-page dissertation, my six French and English monographs on Nabokov, my translations of six of his books, my countless articles, the three handsome volumes of the Pléiade edition of his novels, etc., etc. Plus a novel, Le Rapt de Lolita, a detective story of a kind in which I playfully accuse the grandmaster of having purloined the manuscript of a real person, Jean Rambeau. A novel which has little to do with the stories told in two recent books, Christophe Tison’s novel, Le Journal de L, the diary supposedly written by Lolita who, though pen-shy, can write “my lungs are the color of the ocean” and keeps thinking of Emma Bovary; and Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World,a book that claims to prove that Nabokov simply borrowed the story of a real girl, Sally Horner, briefly mentioned in Lolita, who was the sexual slave of a mature man. I am not planning to buy Weinman’s book but Tison’s I already have on my shelves – I received it from the publisher who had pestered me for over two years to get my backing for the book – he never did. I will probably have to include it in the Nabokov fund if only as an additional testimony of the incredible capacity of the famous novel to tickle the imagination of more or less gifted writers. 

Grandmaster Nabokov who is currently wending his way along the alleys of an Elysian garden in the company of Aristotle and Shakespeare, Flaubert and Joyce, would be mad at me, no doubt, were he to return to Terra the Fair and to read these lines. He once wrote a venomous article about one of his critics, Mr. Rowe, who claimed to have unearthed a host of sexual symbols in his novels. The author of Lolita and Ada abominated the very concept of symbol and once failed a student “for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as ‘green’ because Fanny is hopeful, and ‘green’ is the color of hope.” He ended his article about Rowe with a bitter sally: “And he will be read, he will be quoted, he will be filed in great libraries, next to my arbors and mists!” Keep on promenading in that illustrious company, Vladimir, and don’t come back: you would probably be mad at me for writing a thick psychoanalytical essay about your work, Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir, and an analysis of the sexual contents of your novels, Nabokov’s Eros or the Poetics of Desire, both “filed in great libraries” worldwide. Would I manage to placate you if I pointed out that I made practically no use of symbols, contrary to Rowe? I wonder.

Had I already disposed of my Nabokov fund, I wouldn’t have been able to insert these interesting quotes in the former paragraph, by the way.

I, an incorrigible gaffeur (“blunderer” has too wide a range in comparison), curiously summoned Nabokov to come back to earth some fifteen years after his death. While I was organizing the first conferences on him in Nice in 1992, I received a message from Gallimard informing me that Dmitri Nabokov had heard of my initiative and would like to attend. I had been too shy to invite him and feared that his presence might cramp some of our discussions. Setting aside my doubts, I immediately fired a fax to Dmitri whom I had not met yet, saying, somewhat cryptically that “we would be honored for him to make an apparition” (a literal translation of my French message), implying somewhat inelegantly that he might be too busy to attend the whole conference or that I didn’t wish him to follow all our proceedings. He instantly fired back a humorous response: “My father isn’t available for an apparition but I’d be delighted to substitute for him.” I’d goofed up and addressed my fax not to Dmitri but to Vladimir, a typical Freudscher Versprecher, Sigmund would comment. I couldn’t forgive myself for never having met Nabokov. Fearing to receive the same treatment as Mr. Rowe, I had planned to do so only after defending my dissertation at the Sorbonne, which I did in October 1976. Being in London early in July 1977 and opening The Guardian one morning, I suddenly shouted: “Ah non!” giving a fright to my little family. Time and tide… I had waited too long. Death had double-crossed me. Visiting Véra at the Montreux Palace Hotel, exchanging letters with her, meeting and corresponding with Dmitri never made up for my overdue procrastination. I could have shaken hands with “the author of Lolita,” supposing he had still been sufficiently in good shape at that time to receive me, which is somewhat unlikely considering what Dmitri wrote in the preface of The Original of Laura about his father’s miserable health during the last months of his life.

Perhaps Nabokov did come back briefly in the midst of that conference, attended gracefully throughout by Dmitri. During a morning break, around ten or eleven, we opened the windows to let in some fresh air, and a butterfly, a beautiful cardinal, Argynnis pandora, flew into the room and fluttered around us a few seconds before taking its leave. I can still hear Don Barton Johnson exclaiming: “That was Nabokov, no?”

If there is to be a Nabokov Couturier Fund in a library somewhere, shouldn’t it also include all the books of literary theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, etc., etc. still distributed among my shelves around the house? Together they helped me devise a befitting response to the monumental challenge presented by Nabokov’s works as well as develop my literary theories which I would never have elaborated, probably, had I not sharpened my critical teeth on this highly talented writer. These books have all been associated at some point with my research on Nabokov. An authentic Nabokov Couturier Fund should therefore include them.

Which curiously gives me an idea for another book, a novel of course, perhaps entitled Following the Line or Last Call for a Word. Suppose I am dead, that my wife too is dead and that neither of us has had time to dispose of my Nabokov fund and all the other books. My daughters, faced with the task of emptying our house, are at a loss. They have no use for most of my books. Deeming it would be a sacrilege to burn them, they find themselves confronted with the same difficulty as I am now. Say they discuss the subject in front of my granddaughter Joséphine, by that time a university professor of French literature – she says she would like to teach French.

“I could use some of Papy’s books,” she suddenly says, being now well-versed in literary criticism and theory. 

“Help yourself,” her mother and her aunt reply. “We are in no big hurry to empty the house and sell it, anyway.”

Joséphine begins to spend her week-ends and vacations in the house, perhaps with her husband and her young children. She likes it here and realizes as she is going through her grandfather’s books, his manuscripts, his correspondence, and the countless documents that he obviously deemed worth saving, that she didn’t really know him.

“What if I wrote a book about him?” she says one day to her husband, a computer scientist. 

“Suit yourself,” he answers noncommittally while continuing to punch the keys of his quantic computer. 

“About who, mum?” asks Chloé or whoever.

“About my grandfather, a writer who loved books.”

As she proceeds with her research, she grows a little disturbed to find out that there are so many books with a sexual content or about sex as a literary or philosophical subject, and begins to wonder if her grandfather wasn’t a sex-maniac or a pervert. As she goes on rifling through all those documents spread out around the house, she expects any day to unearth some damning family secret. 

I leave the rest to her!

Yesterday, we had four dear friends for lunch: Jane and Cal from Santa Monica and Viviane and Colin from Spéracèdes, both psychologists. Colin is a very good friend with whom I enjoy drinking a good bottle of Bordeaux or Italian wine and discussing politics or culture. Hardly had he arrived that he mentioned Diderot, I don’t recall why. I immediately told him that the author of Le Neveu de Rameau and Jacques le fataliste had borrowed the narrative scheme for these two novels from an English writer, Lawrence Sterne. Colin had never heard of him. Throughout the afternoon, the six of us kept discussing Trump, Macron and also literature. I even gave a copy of one of my books, Novel and Censorship, or Eros’ Bad Faith, to Cal with whom two days earlier I had talked about Fanny Hill, recommending it warmly. He had downloaded it since but hadn’t read enough of it to realize how erotic it is. In the midst of the conversation, he suddenly asked me: 

“How did you come to get so interested in sex?” 

“It all started with Nabokov and Lolita,” I answered, assuming, wrongly perhaps, that he meant “as a literary critic” since I had just given him that book after recommending Fanny Hill

That was the end of the conversation on the subject, curiously. Perhaps our thoughtful guests hesitated to raise more personal questions, who knows?

Lolita, which I have spent years analyzing, translating and annotating has never been far from my mind since I bought it at Notre Dame University, of all places. I had just taken a MA seminar by correspondence at the Sorbonne. Professor Le Vot, who was to become my research director when I undertook my PhD dissertation on Nabokov, had assigned two novels in his program, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, plus Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, the first book of literary theory I ever read. I had never heard of Nabokov during my catholic sex-free education, of course. Pale Fire impressed and puzzled me considerably. When I arrived at Notre Dame University in September 1970, I was thrilled to discover The Annotated Lolita edited by Alfred Appel in the bookstore and immediately bought it. Being too busy preparing my classes – I hadn’t been informed earlier of the exact nature of the courses I would have to teach, though very early after my appointment I had been requested to reserve seats for the football games – I didn’t have time to read it at once. It was my wife who read it first. Blessed as she is with an excellent taste for good literature, she immediately manifested her enthusiasm. I soon followed, of course, and was totally thrilled. Months later, I bought my first copy of Ada from the Book of the Month Club. Such was the beginning of a lifelong relationship!

I am currently waging a private battle against my favorite newspaper, Le Monde. Two months ago, it published a list of “the 100 novels which have enthused the critics of the paper since 1944,” that is the year of its foundation, strangely omitting to include Lolita and even to mention the name of Nabokov in the list of the famous authors who had been left out. I have researched their archives and found countless articles on my favorite author and his best-known novel, some referring to me. The critics of the newspaper have always shown a great deal of admiration and enthusiasm for Lolita, usually considering it as one of their top novels since the war. In the letter I sent to Le Monde a few weeks ago, I asked if the absence of it in their list couldn’t be due to the present context, namely the Me-Too movement. This intelligent and open-minded newspaper may have preferred to sacrifice Lolita on the altar of political correctness rather than facing possible criticism from conservative circles.

In 1988, during a symposium at Brown University attended by some important postmodernist writers, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, and John Hawkes, who were invited to debate with some of their critics, myself among them, I humorously ventured to make the standard portrait of a postmodernist writer, mentioning his dressing code in passing and concluding with a bold comment: “And he admires Nabokov, but thank goodness he is dead!” Only John Hawkes retaliated: “You are unfair Maurice. I am sorry he is dead.” What I meant, of course, was that for all or most of the writers present, and also others like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon who were not there – curiously, Pynchon published an article in The New York Times on that day –, Nabokov was a tutelary figure and a model hard to outclass. During the concluding banquet, Leslie Fiedler, echoing me perhaps, stood up holding his glass of bad Portuguese Champagne and, at the end of his toast, said somewhat irreverently to the writers: “People won’t read you in a century from now but they will still read Stephen King!” I wish Leslie, a little in his cups, had chosen Nabokov instead but perhaps he was right after all, though I admired these writers some of whom I was proud to count as my friends. 

I owe a great deal to Lolita, Ada and Pale Fire, novels that I am confident will still be read in a century from now and be reinterpreted by young scholars in the light of their literary and philosophical presuppositions, granting me perhaps a brief rebirth in a footnote. My life would have been totally different hadn’t André Le Vot ushered me into the magic world of Nabokov. Now that I am about to take my leave, I would like to make sure that the books in my Nabokov fund remain together somewhere, a last-ditch attempt to get a longer lease on life through them, no doubt. If I reach an agreement with the University of Strasbourg or the IMEC, I am sure I will postpone the moment of sending them as long as I can – not too late, I hope. And I will keep copies of Lolita, Ada and Pale Fire, if only to feel that I am still alive.

Perhaps a gentle hand will smuggle them into my coffin!