Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025837, Sat, 22 Nov 2014 20:28:44 -0200

Black butterflies, grey cinders, Flaubert, and pregnancy

In Pale Fire, Kinbote casually mentions the novel’s title in the Foreword to
his edition of John Shade’s poems. In one of the sentences he mentions a
flutter of black butterflies born from the poet’s decision to burn some of
his cards.

“I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole
stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with
bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of
that backyard auto-da-fé.”

I wonder if this image is a “trite” one (I’m reading his Lectures on
Literature and following his critical observations about poetic metaphors
and similes). He must have liked it because its precursor is found in
Flaubert, in a sentence quoted by Nabokov while he examines the fate of
Emma’s bridal bouquet. (LL,Bowers,140).

“...the shrivelled paper petals, fluttering like black butterflies at the
back of the stove, at last flew up the chimney.”

When I looked the French original (I was wondering about the choice of the
words flutter in relation to butterflies) I found that the English
translation (often modified by VN during the course of his lectures) is a
bit different from Flaubert’s text : “ et les corolles de papier, racornies,
se balançant le long de la plaque comme des papillons noirs, enfin
s'envolèrent dans la cheminée.[ Quand on partit de Toste, au mois de mars,
Mme Bovary était enceinte.]"

And I found something else. The commentator notes that right after that
sentence, Flaubert announces that Madame Bovary is pregnant and he observes:
“les illusions de jeunesse, les passions, tout devient cendre avec
flaubert,mais ce qui est important dans ce texte c'est que, en brulant son
bouquet de mariage, Gustave annonce immédiatement que madame bovary est
enceinte. Tout ce papier qui part "en papillons noirs" "corolles de papier
raccornies".. aboutit à une gestation.; comme c’est étrange ce Flaubert qui
"noircit" sans cesse, toute sa vie ,du papier,impersonnellement mais qui
associe,en quelques lignes, la cendre du souvenir à la maternité.Je trouve
que ces quelques lignes, si obsédantes chez flaubert,,cette image qui
revient si souvent chez lui de la couronne de fleurs fanée.... tout consumé
et brulé sans qu'il ait admiré le moment de la fraicheur et du mariage...”
(Flaubert associates the cinders of remembrances to maternity without having
first admired their initial freshness and marriage itself). What struck me
was of a different order. There’s in ADA an equally abrupt announcement
relative to pregnancy (in one edition it’s Van’s, in others it’s
Cordula’s*). I was jolted from Pale Fire to ADA and back again, intent of
what could have made such a lasting impression on V.Nabokov. In his lecture
on Flaubert the reference to Emma’s pregnancy or to dead ashes is absent. VN
chooses to explore “something applicable to this passage” in a letter
written by Flaubert in July 22 (!) 1852: “A really good sentence in prose
should be like a good line in poetry, something you cannot change, and just
as rhythmic and sonorous.”

I couldn’t reach any conclusion, though. Thoughts?

* - “When he could not sleep, as now often happened, he retired to the
sitting room and sat there annotating his authors or else he would walk up
and down the open terrace, under a haze of stars, in severely restricted
meditation, till the first tramcar jangled and screeched in the dawning
abyss of the city.
When in early September Van Veen left Manhattan for Lute, she was pregnant.”
(end of Part One of ADA) (cp. the rhythmic pattern of this VN sentence with
Flaubert’s about leaving Toste)

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