Ploughing Nabokovland

Chapter 16 of Part II of Down the Line with a Smile, Shadowing Nabokov

by Maurice Couturier

Looking back on the fifty years I have been working on Nabokov, I feel this agrarian title is appropriate for this chapter. I never ploughed my father’s fields, only watched him, year in, year out, as he was treading behind his heavy plough drawn by his cows, hoisting it at the end of each furrow and rotating it before turning back and starting a new one, darioling [yodeling] most of the time to boost the team’s spirit. But for the singing accompaniment, I think that is a perfect metaphor for what I have been doing as a Nabokov scholar since 1969. The countless lines I have written about him are a little like the countless furrows my father ploughed in his life. My lines have no doubt been more rewarding and entertaining for me than the furrows were for him who would have chosen a different profession if he had been given a choice.

It was thanks to Professor André Le Vot at the New Sorbonne that Nabokov entered my life. I joined his seminar on American Literature in September 1969 but only in absentia for I was then teaching full time at the Catholic University of Angers. He had assigned two novels, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, plus a work of literary theory, Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. Having been educated in Catholic schools, I had never run across Nabokov’s name. Pale Fire was a revelation to me. Since then, it has contributed more than any other novel to shaping my critical approach to modern fiction and helped me develop my figure of the author theory. A year later, at the beginning of my two-year stint at Notre Dame University, I visited the campus book store immediately after my arrival and stumbled across Alfred Appel’s annotated edition of Lolita which had just come out, instantly becoming a Nabokov addict. I soon registered a doctoral dissertation subject on his fiction with Professor Le Vot as research director.

I started gathering material on Nabokov after completing my Thèse de 3e Cycle on Zona Gale before leaving the States. From September 1972 until August 1973, we settled in Yvonne’s parents’ little villa in Piriac-sur-Mer in Brittany where I prepared – alone – the Agrégation while working seriously on my dissertation, copying thousands of quotes on 12.5/7.5cm flashcards, noting two or three key words in the top right-hand corner. They considerably helped me later when I started writing my dissertation. It was a technique I had learnt in the States. I later advised my Ph.D. students at the University of Nice and even a Lévi-Strauss scholar, Boris Wiseman, to use while doing their research. Young scholars can now use more sophisticated and less harrowing techniques with their computers. Until the Corona virus crisis, I still had about ten thousand such cards in various places in our house, half of them written at the time I was preparing my dissertations. I have recently started burning them, aware that they won’t be of any use to me or anyone else now. 

My narratological approach to Nabokov was considerably influenced at first by Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction and the works of Gérard Genette. I bought the latter’s Figures III when it came out in 1973 and found in it some answers to my theoretical preoccupations. I wrote him a letter to congratulate him, mentioning in passing that I was preparing a dissertation on Nabokov. He kindly answered saying he admired this author. He was subsequently going to play an important role in my career.

During my internship in Grenoble after passing the Agrégation, I was only about two hundred kilometers from Montreux where Nabokov had pitched his luxury tent at the Montreux Palace Hotel in the early sixties. Several colleagues, either in Grenoble or, later, in Paris, urged me to go and meet him, but I refused, fearing his judgment and preferring not to expose myself to the kind of scornful remark he had made about one of his critics, William Woodin Rowe. And my formalist approach was unlikely to meet with his approval. Yet, whenever I came face to face with him in my dreams, he always was generous and kind to me, surprisingly. 

When I left Grenoble in July 1974 and headed for Paris and the Old Sorbonne where I had been hired, I had just started writing my dissertation. The bulk of it was written in Bures-sur-Yvette where we had pitched our simple tent in a cramped apartment. I didn’t have a proper study and worked in the living-room which was divided in the middle by half a partition, often hearing my daughters playing or watching TV on the other side. I seem to recall that they did their best not to make too much noise while father was working on Nabokoko, their word, or preparing his lectures. 

Being now closer to Professor Le Vot, my research director at the New Sorbonne, and participating in the activities of his discussion group, I started showing him my chapters one after the other. When he handed them back, having corrected occasional mistakes, crossing out for instance a superfluous ‘e’ at the end of the word “cauchemar” borrowed no doubt from its English equivalent, “nightmare”, he made very few remarks and was generous with his encouragements. Belonging himself to the pre-Structuralist generation, he didn’t fully adhere to my approach but admired my dedication and creativeness, as he confided to me years later in Brittany where we were vacationing close to him and his wife Raymonde. 

At the 1975 annual conference of the French Association of American Studies whose scientific program had largely been finalized by him, I was invited to read a paper, a new experience for me. I chose as a title “Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or the Purloined Poem”, in part to thank him for making me discover this highly poetic and complex novel. In that paper, whose title referred of course to Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, I was boldly, even daringly, questioning Foucault’s and Barthes’ theory of the death of the author, showing how Nabokov had played hide and seek with his two narrators and his readers, compelling the latter to reconstruct as well as disentangle the three competing discourses, that of Shade, of Kinbote, and of Nabokov himself. I read it with a comparative show of confidence and received a warm applause at the end. It came out in the first issue of La Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines in April 1976.

Many of my major publications later elaborated on the approach I had adopted in that paper and article, beginning with my dissertation entitled “(L’)Enonciation du roman nabokovien”. I finished writing it in the spring of 1976. Contrary to academic conventions, I wrote it in the first person – I doubt anyone had done that before – and in a semi-fictional style, as the definition of the linguistic concept of enunciation I gave in my introduction bears witness: “Enunciation: to see, to speak from where the other sees (me) and speaks (to me). To study enunciation, one must put oneself in the place of the person who looks at us in the mirror, and puncture the canvas or the page which reflects the image of our disquietude and desire.” In addition to the seven hundred chockfull pages of my text, I gave each member of my defense panel a postcard representing Max Ernst’s famous painting, “Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale”, a pictorial representation of what I meant by “enunciation”. 

Professor Le Vot allowed me to choose the members of the panel, a rare privilege that could have saved a good friend of mine from being faced with a hostile jury. I first opted for Michel Fabre, a colleague of André and a specialist of black writers, and for my friend Régis Durand, who actively participated in André’s discussion group. The choice of Professor Asselineau was more problematic. This dissertation, being a great deal more formalist than the one on Zona Gale for which he had been my research director, wasn’t likely to please him. And he didn’t particularly like Nabokov, having prevented me from teaching Lolita earlier. But it was he who had got me appointed at the Sorbonne and I knew he could still help me in my career. And he did when I applied for a professorship at the University of Nice.

The choice of Roland Barthes was the result of serendipity. I had first written to Julia Kristeva whose books I immensely admired, but she had kindly answered that she would be in the States at the time of my defense. I then wrote to Hélène Cixous, a Joyce specialist teaching in another Paris university and a writer. She declined the invitation, dismissingly saying that she had “un intérêt amusé” in Nabokov. Twenty years later, when the National Committee of English Professors chose to promote me against her to the top rank of French academe, I felt I had my little revenge. 

Only then did I try my luck with Roland Barthes.

I counted then among my friends an American girl, Nancy Blake, a teaching assistant in a Paris university who was also a member of André’s discussion group. Her estranged husband, Harry, a draft-dodger working in another Paris university, was close to many prominent members of the Paris intelligentsia, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers and Michel Foucault. He had translated excerpts of pornographic books for the latter who was then writing La Volonté de savoir, the first volume of his history of sexuality. I admired Harry, an intelligent young man and a writer, and I invited him to join us in Piriac during the summer vacations. I still remember what he said to me as we were strolling along the beach, discussing psychoanalysis: “You’ll end up becoming a Lacanian, you’ll see!” I was then a confirmed Freudian and never expected that, one day, I would write a book like Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir: lecture psychanalytique”, a Lacanian study of Nabokov’s narrators and characters. Harry had seen through me, apparently. 

That day on the beach, I asked him if he could put me in touch with Barthes. He did and I soon was invited to pay a visit to the guru of French Structuralism at L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. I was very impressed when I entered his office steeped in a kind of penumbra and timidly asked him if he would agree to sit on my defense panel. Surprisingly, he agreed. I handed him a copy of my dissertation that I had taken the precaution of bringing with me. I don’t remember anything he told me, only that he spoke with a mellow voice and was rather kind to me. Had he taken me for one of Harry’s lovers and a possible rival? I have no idea. Harry was gay and died of AIDS years later, though, obviously, he hadn’t contracted the disease from him.

The defense took place on Monday, October 25, 1976 (the eleventh anniversary of our wedding, curiously), in the church-like Amphitheatre Louis Liard where I had defended my first dissertation on Zona Gale. On this occasion, it was fully packed. Many members of André’s discussion group were there, among them Marc Chénetier who was supposed to tape the proceedings but sadly bungled it. There were lots of people I didn’t know, among them John Hawkes’ daughter Sophie, who came to present herself at the end of the defense. There were also a few students and colleagues of mine on the hard benches, along with Yvonne’s parents and siblings, my sisters and my brother Henri, and our good friends the Duclos and the Gauthiers. Anne, ten years old, had insisted on being present but she soon left the Amphi with Yvonne’s sister, bored by the proceedings. 

It was Roland Barthes, most likely, who had attracted that crowd. He had called me days before to say that he had mislaid my dissertation and I had dropped another copy for him at L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, asking him if he could hand it back later for I had only a limited number of copies. He did, and I noticed that he had annotated the first two or three hundred pages but hadn’t read the rest of it, obviously. On D-Day, he managed, grand seigneur, to be late and to keep us all waiting. I was worried he might have forgotten. I went out and waited for him in front of Hugo’s statue. After a quarter of an hour, I was relieved to see him leisurely enter the Cour d’Honneur. He never bothered to apologize, of course.

 A doctoral defense of that kind in those days and in such an amphitheater wasn’t unlike a trial in a court of law: the members of the jury sat on a long rostrum behind a long buffet-like desk of old oak, each with his copy of my dissertation, the exhibit as it were, in front of him; the defendant, two steps down, sat alone at a small table right in front of them, aware of the large audience behind him. Michel Fabre was presiding. I delivered my introductory address and presented my defense with comparative confidence. André, my counsellor as it were, took over from me and profusely congratulated me, but we had a little argument about a dog that appears at the end of Pnin. I boldly claimed it shouldn’t have been there, suggesting that Nabokov had perhaps made a mistake. I was wrong, as it turned out. 

Then came the other members of the jury. Professor Asselineau, after saying a few nice words about me, undertook to criticize my structuralist approach which, unknown to him was already post-structuralist, wishing to impugn Roland Barthes for twisting my critical sense, no doubt. I valiantly took the latter’s defense while professing that I had never attempted to borrow any celebrity’s feathers, my smug expression I seem to recall. It triggered some guffaws behind me. 

In his contribution to the defense, Barthes made only an oblique reference to Asselineau’s attack. He praised my daring approach, only regretting that I hadn’t made use of psychoanalysis. In the report he later wrote, the manuscript of which André Le Vot later gave me – he had discovered it in his own copy of Barthes’ Essais –, he reiterated his words of praise about my approach but advised me to study psychoanalysis, “a good way to se déniaiser [lose one’s benightedness]”, unaware that I had long been a dedicated reader of Freud. He should have realized that psychoanalysis wasn’t needed in this narratological study, but he obviously sensed that my passionate deconstruction of the narrators and characters’ discourses was a first step towards psychoanalyzing them. I wasn’t ready for that in 1976, still acutely aware of Nabokov’s contempt for the Viennese Witch Doctor. I remain convinced that Barthes had never read Nabokov; he didn’t make a single reference to him during the defense. Many Structuralists at the time, but not Genette, may have held Nabokov to be a reactionary White Russian, leaning politically as they often did to the left.  

The five-hour defense ended more peacefully with Régis and Michel’s contributions, and I was unanimously declared – not sentenced – worthy of the title of “Docteur ès-Lettres”, with the jury’s unanimous congratulations. 

After that stately trial, almost a ceremony in fact, everybody headed for the Benjamin Franklin Center on the Odéon Square, for a friendly cocktail. Simon Copans, the director of the Center, had invited me to use the place for the occasion, though he knew he couldn’t be there. When I thanked Roland Barthes, he said to me, obviously in reference to Asselineau: “I wasn’t aware that there still were such cranks at the Sorbonne.” For all I know, it had perhaps been the first time he had agreed to set foot again in our quaint institution. Weeks later, when he delivered his inaugural leçon at Le Collège de France, he invited Professor Asselineau, needing perhaps to seal his rehabilitation but having obviously forgotten what he had told me about him. Vanitas vanitatum!

I was not over anxious to meet Nabokov, being still afraid of his reaction. In July 1977, being in London working for Turgis Organization, I had a shock one morning when opening The Guardian: the Grand Master had passed away in a Lausanne Hospital. I would never be able to shake hands with him now. I had no special question to ask him; I only wished to be acknowledged by him and to be able to say: “I met him!” Would it have made any difference in my life if I had? I doubt it. I had mixed feelings about him. I didn’t like his haughtiness and his sweeping and often scornful judgments, though I held him to be a genius and still do. My debt to him is immense: his works have procured me intense esthetic pleasure and taught me new ways of reading and interpreting. I was a pigmy before I met him. I gained two heads thanks to him.

Two months after his death, Professor Asselineau invited me to accompany him to a conference on American Studies in Poland, the first behind the Iron Curtain, and he arranged to get travel money for me. I flew to Warsaw and then on to Poznan where I met the other conferees, among them a new friend, Malcolm Bradbury. With him, I spent a few hours roaming around the streets of the city. It was a Sunday and the Communists were celebrating the feast of the Tribuna Ludu, their national newspaper, on the main square, and the Catholics the feast of the Holy Virgin, the church bells competing successfully with the brass bands. That strange conference and the events around it led each of us to write a novel. Rates of Exchange, came out in 1983, a year after my Polka piquée. In the dedication inscribed on the title page of the copy he sent me, he wrote: “Dear Maurice, with my very best wishes and to celebrate both our books started at the same time in the same place, parallel Polkas – Malcolm Bradbury, Norwich, 1983.” His novel, three times as long as mine, is very funny and surrealistic. 

The next day, we were all taken by bus to the venue of the conference, a mosquito-infested model farm close to a power plant near Wroclaw – former Breslau. The paper I read, entitled “The Subject on Trial in Nabokov’s Pale Fire”, was strongly influenced by my reading of Julia Kristeva’s works. It came out in the proceedings of the conference and may have been the first article published behind the Iron Curtain about Nabokov, Brian Boyd once told me. That surrealistic conference was a sensational and unforgettable experience for most of the participants but not for one of the local organizers who soon landed in prison. Among the conferees, there was a spy from Warsaw who reported to the government some of the things he had heard during the conference.

By then, I had already started to investigate ways of publishing my dissertation or part of it. I was then participating in a discussion group at L’Ecole de Chimie. Among the participants, there was Pierre Nora, one of Gallimard’s leading editors. I asked him if he would agree to show my dissertation to the reading committee, hoping they might publish it. He readily consented. A few months later, I received a long manuscript letter from novelist Pascal Quignard with a copy of his latest book, Le Lecteur. After excusing himself for doing something he wasn’t supposed to do as a member of the reading committee, that is communicating directly with me, he warmly praised my analysis of the reading process, much more subtle than his, he claimed. No doubt, he already knew that Gallimard wasn’t going to take the book, much too thick and dealing with an author they had just stopped publishing, allowing Fayard to bring out Ada.

I then wrote to Gérard Genette and asked him if he would consider my dissertation or part of it for the collection “Poétique” he was editing with Tzvetan Todorov at Le Seuil’s. He was interested and asked me to offer a shorter version, which I did months later. Genette would have agreed to publish it but Todorov refused saying that the collection was specialized in literary theory and couldn’t take a monograph. 

Soon, I ran across a new collection published by L’Age d’Homme and edited by Robert and Rosine Géorgin and René Micha in which had already appeared little books on Théodore Monod, Jacques Lacan and Jean-Pierre Faye. The name of René Micha drew my attention: he had edited an issue of L’Arc in 1964 on Nabokov. I wrote to the editors through L’Age d’Homme and received an answer from Robert Géorgin. They were interested but they wanted the book to include a text by Nabokov not yet published in French. I wrote a still shorter version of the manuscript I had sent to Genette and proposed to translate “Details of a Sunset”, a 1976 English version of a short story first published in Russian in 1924. I wrote to Véra Nabokov asking her permission; she agreed to let me publish it provided she could review my translation. I was honored by her request. We exchanged a few mails and she seemed satisfied with my work. The book came out in 1979, the first to be published in France on Nabokov except for the translation of Andrew Field’s Nabokov: His Life in Part.

In 1981, returning from a semester at San Diego State University, I called on Véra at the Montreux Palace Hotel with Yvonne. She came down to meet us in a luxurious salon downstairs, accompanied by Mme Jacqueline Calier who had been Nabokov’s secretary and by her son Dmitri whose face was badly bruised. He had had a terrible car accident and spent ten months in a hospital. Before sitting, Véra drew Mme Calier’s attention to what seemed to be a stain on the green velvet of her armchair – it was merely a patch that had been brushed the wrong way, as Mme Calier confirmed. This little incident was probably meant to intimidate the shy couple in front of her. Véra had a great deal of class and spoke very good French but she remained distant, perhaps looking down upon us. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that Dmitri was very friendly with us. Immediately after that visit, we went to pay our respect to Nabokov at the Clarens cemetery where his ashes had been interred and we deposited a pretty cyclamen – the only flower we had been able to find, not Nabokov’s favorite flower, I knew – on the grey slab on which are written the simple words: “VLADIMIR NABOKOV ECRIVAIN 1899-1977”. That’s the closest I ever got physically to my favorite author.

By then, Véra had asked Camille Bourniquel at Julliard’s to entrust me with the translation of the novel Glory [L’Exploit] and of two collections of short stories, Details of a Sunset [Détails d’un coucher de soleil] and Nabokov’s Dozen. The publisher changed the title of the latter book to Mademoiselle O, the actual title of the autobiographical story in the collection that Nabokov had originally written in French about his Swiss governess. And he chose a kinky black and pink cover in an attempt, no doubt, to capitalize on the ambiguous fame of Histoire d’O. Véra Nabokov had provided me with a xerox copy of the first edition of “Mademoiselle O”, glad to see it reissued for the first time. 

My wife Yvonne worked with me from the start on those translations. The division of labor between us remained the same throughout our career as translators: I would write the first draft, print it, and Yvonne would revise it on paper, offering very useful corrections and suggestions[1]. Once she had finished, we held marathon sessions to finalize the text. That was always the most trying part of our work, though our priorities were the same: complete faithfulness to the original text and flowing French. There were disagreements between Véra and us towards the end of our cooperation with her, as many letters of hers still in my possession testify. To be sure, we lacked professionalism at the time, but some of her corrections were due to the fact that we had no access to the Russian versions of those books and she had. Also, she kept a good memory of the actual background of those stories, of what international trains looked like at the beginning of the century, for instance. Véra was a good linguist but her knowledge of French was not always quite as impeccable as she thought. 

During my twenty-one-year residence as Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Nice, I occasionally lectured on Nabokov, of course, but chiefly on Pale Fire, Ada and Look at the Harlequins! Once, I tried to lecture on Lolita, but the colleague who taught the tutorial classes refused to teach it on moral grounds in spite of being no moral model himself.

I also taught Nabokov during my stints at San Diego State and was invited to give lectures on him in a number of Californian institutions, Davis, Cal. Tech. and USC, as well as at the University of Maryland. And during my fellowship at Claremont College in 1989, one of my three lectures was on Nabokov. Whenever and wherever I gave a lecture or read a paper on postmodernist writers like Coover, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon, Elkin, or De Lillo, I rarely failed to make reference to Nabokov at some point. I gave lectures in many conferences, in Paris, Strasbourg, Lille, Biarritz, Saint-Petersburg, Kyoto, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. I was interviewed on French radio and television, and in newspapers whenever a book of his, or of mine on him, came out. The list of all those events, were I able to reconstitute it, would make a boring read.

In the early eighties, I worked close to some of my colleagues in the psychology and sociology departments in Nice. Through them, I discovered the Invisible College of Palo Alto and the theories of interactive communication. That considerably helped me lend substance to my post-structuralist discoveries. Gradually, I was drifting away from narratology, and beginning to take into account the system through which each individual work circulates. I was beginning to understand that all the intermediaries in the book chain, from the author, to the publisher, the critics and the reader, had an impact on both the writing and the reading process, and that led me to diversify my hermeneutics. 

During my second residence at SDSU in 1988 and my Fellowship at Claremont College in 1989, I used the wonderful resources of the SDSU and UCSD libraries, as well as those of the Huntingdon Library in Pasadena, to pursue my research, working a lot on first editions of eighteenth-century novels, for instance. In 1991, I published Textual Communication, a Print-Based Theory of the Novel with Routledge[2], a short history of book-publishing and the book trade and a critical study of famous novels like Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Pale Fire and Ada. I further developed my interactive theory in La Figure de l’auteur that came out in 1995.[3]

Feeling confident enough to debate with the best specialists of Nabokov, I organized a first international conference in June 1992 and invited some of the most prominent Nabokovians like Brian Boyd who had just published the first volume of his monumental biography of Nabokov, or Simon Karlinsky and Don Barton Johnson, the American deans of Nabokov studies. Earlier, I mentioned how, bungler that I am, I even invited Vladimir himself, though I meant Dmitri. The conference, whose topic was “Autobiography, Biography and Fiction”, was held on the Faculté des Lettres campus from June 24 to 26 and its proceedings were published in a special issue of Cycnos, the review of the research center I had founded and was directing at the University of Nice. I renewed the experience two years later, with many of the same participants; the topic this time was “At the Crossroads of Modernism and Postmodernism” and the proceedings were published in the same review.

Nabokov ou la tyrannie de l’auteur had come out meanwhile in the very distinguished series “Poétique” edited by Gérard Genette at Le Seuil. I had again contacted Genette after discovering that he had brought out a book on Borges in that series of which he was now the single editor. While sharing a microphone with Tzvetan Todorov years later at a conference on censorship at the Mitterrand Library, I reminded him that he had turned down a book of mine now in print, but he didn’t seem to remember. Not, to be honest, that my new book, marked by my new interactive approach, had much in common with the manuscript I had presented to “Poétique” in the late seventies. 

Originally, I had planned to entitle this book Nabokov ou la poétique du présent, but had soon adopted this provocative title intended to show my rejection of the Death of the Author doctrine. I was trying at one and the same time to denounce Nabokov’s diktats in his interviews and to extoll his poetic mastery, his wonderful ability to overdetermine his text and compel his readers to follow a certain path. Like Gilles Deleuze, I knew it was “impossible to say a thing and its meaning at the same time.” Mobilizing new hermeneutics like semiology, psychoanalysis, reader response, and communication theories, I was taking a big risk, I knew. 

Unsurprisingly, the book triggered strong reactions. In a long article in Le Monde, I was accused of confusing author and narrator in my analysis of Pnin, a book that the reviewer hadn’t read, evidently. Brian McHale, in an article entitled “Blindness and Insight”, accused me of submitting “to the will of the author”, but conceded that Couturier’s “commentary is at its best when it is most in touch with the narratological paradigm, and with Genette’s narratology in particular”. He even accused me of being “strangely ungrateful toward [my] intellectual benefactors, to the point almost of biting the hands that have fed [me].” He was unaware, in fact, that Genette had accepted to publish this book precisely because it questioned the validity of his own original approach; and the title of my next book, La Figure de l’auteur, also published by him, was a tribute to Barthes who had coined that phrase in Le Plaisir du texte (1973), confessing there that he didn’t adhere to the death of the author doctrine anymore. Genette was then beginning to adopt an esthetic rather than a narratological approach, as his new books testified, and so was I. When I offered to write a book presenting a comprehensive analysis of the various approaches to the author concept, he said he would be pleased to publish it. Except that I never mustered the courage and enthusiasm to write it. We continued to exchange letters and to mail copies of our respective books to each other.

From the start, most of us Nabokovians have been afraid of transgressing the author’s tyrannical law. Some critics hid behind the author’s avowed intentions, like Vladimir E. Alexandrov who, in the opening pages of his Nabokov’s Otherworld, uses Véra Nabokov’s claim that “potustoronnost’”[otherworldliness] was Nabokov’s “main theme” to justify his metaphysical interpretation of the novels. And Brian Boyd, in his biography, claims that Nabokov “had Shade in mind as the author of foreword, poem, commentary, and index” because of the draft of a brief poem included at the end of the foreword of his revised autobiography, and he used that bit of information as an argument to justify his interpretation of the novel. At the second Nabokov conference in Nice, David Lodge took Brian to task on that account: “This argument seems to me a classic instance of the intentional fallacy as described by Wimsatt and Beardsley in their famous essay.” Brian later changed his interpretation of the novel. All that comes to prove how difficult it is to beat the author’s tyranny. To discuss the challenge that the Nabokov specialists are faced with, I organized a third international conference in Nice in 2006 and chose as a topic “Interpreting vs. Annotating Nabokov”, inviting Brian and many other eminent Nabokovians again. 

I don’t believe in the death of the author theory, but neither do I think that the author is the keeper of the truth and meaning of his texts. Interpreting doesn’t simply mean recovering the meaning intended by the author but exploring the richness of his work with, unavoidably, the help of some hermeneutic, while remaining faithful to the logic of the text. Many authors, like Robbe-Grillet, have been thankful to their interpreters and critics. So was John Hawkes whom I heard at the Brown symposium in 1988 criticizing the organizer, Robert Coover: the latter had just said that he never read the critics. The balance is, I acknowledge, difficult to maintain between annotating and interpreting, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to borrow and slightly rewrite Fielding’s “bill of fare to the feast” in Chapter One of Tom Jones. 

Before publishing Nabokov ou la tyrannie de l’auteur, I had agreed, after much dithering, to co-direct the Nabokov Pléiade with Gilles Barbedette, a young writer who edited a series of translations at Rivages,[4] and Georges Nivat, an excellent specialist and translator of Russian literature. Neither of them was a Nabokov specialist. Jacques Cotin, the director of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, then asked me to continue to work with Georges Nivat. I was very reluctant to do so, being then very busy with my teaching and my new books, and acutely aware that the division of labor would imply long and harrowing discussions between the two of us. Eventually, I wrote a letter to Cotin stating my conditions for remaining involved in the Pléiade adventure: first, that I be the only director, that is the chief editor, secondly that I be paid an extra sum of money for each volume, and thirdly that I be allowed to do a new translation of Lolita. Georges Nivat courteously agreed to withdraw and I asked Alexander Dolinin, a true specialist of Nabokov, to serve as Russian consultant, especially for Volume I which was to contain most of Nabokov’s Russian novels. Antoine Gallimard accepted to pay me the extra money but withheld his decision about the Lolita translation until the publication of the first volume of the Pléiade edition. 

I wasn’t sure I was capable of directing the project, though. Until then, I had been a critic and an analyst of Nabokov’s novels rather than an annotator; and a Pléiade edition is valuable foremost for its annotations. Besides, I was none too confident about my ability to steer a team of contributors I had had a limited part in selecting. 

Gallimard had published most of the French translations of Nabokov’s novels – the exceptions being Mary (Fayard), Glory (Juillard, my own translation), Laughter in the Dark (Grasset), Ada (Fayard), Transparent Things (Fayard) and Look at the Harlequins! (Fayard) – but was not ready to finance new translations. All the French translations of the Russian novels had been made from the English versions, with two exceptions, The Defense and Invitation to a Beheading. There existed a translation of the Russian Camera Obscura made in the 1930s by Nabokov’s agent in Paris, Doussia Ergaz (who later recruited Maurice Girodias to publish Lolita), and Christine Raguet-Bouvart had made a translation of the English version, Laughter in the Dark. Both versions were included in the Pléiade edition. 

The members of the team were expected to update and improve the existing translations, but it remained for me to review their revisions. That was, in fact, the most harrowing part of my work on Volume I. There was a great deal of disgruntled negotiation with certain collaborators, some of whom may have resented the fact that I was now the sole editor. Dmitri was dissatisfied with the work of one of them and fired off a list of corrections in July 1999, two months before the volume was due to come out. I had to spend hours negotiating with that collaborator during my vacations in La Baule with my family, suffering from a terrible back ache. 

Unsatisfactory as it was, the volume was very favorably received by the French press. A journalist from Le Monde came to interview me; every major newspaper and magazine had an article, sometimes two, to celebrate the event. A special issue of Le Magazine Littéraire was dedicated to Nabokov. Though I was almost a cripple at the time, having just undergone surgery for a slipped disk, I went to Paris to promote the volume. After a dinner hosted by Antoine Gallimard where the guest of honor was Dmitri, I chaired a meeting with journalists and friends at La Maison de l’Amérique Latine,where we waited and waited for Dmitri to join us, until we were told that he had had a minor accident and could not come. I had invited Gérard Genette who spoke at some length and with great enthusiasm about both the volume and Nabokov whom he had always admired. Not once did he say or suggest that I had been ungrateful to him, one of my “intellectual benefactors” in McHale’s jargon. 

Thanks to Dmitri’s friendly intervention, Antoine Gallimard finally agreed to finance a new translation of Lolita, a project I had always meant to undertake. Nabokov had expressed strong reservations about the first French translation by Eric Kahane, Maurice Girodias’s brother. In a letter to Girodias dated May 14, 1957, he listed a number of mistranslations, concluding, “And so on, at a rate of at least three on every page.” Later, in a letter to Richard Schickel, he said: “I am in the very act of revising the French translation, and have spent several hours trying to explain to the French reader the meaning of ‘majorette’.” This probably explains why, in his Russian translation of the novel, he gave a lengthy definition of the term “cheerleader”. In one of his interviews, he explained that it was precisely while correcting Kahane’s translation that he decided to translate the novel into Russian: “In the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases or blunders. So, I decided to translate it myself.” 

Despite Nabokov’s revisions of Kahane’s text, there remained many approximations and blunders. Some of the differences between Kahane’s translation and mine were partly due to the fact that our target audiences were somewhat different: he was translating a novel which had been first published in the “Traveller’s Companion Series” of the Olympia Press, whose catalogue included pornographic books like Tender Was My Flesh, The Loins of Amon, The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, White Thighs and many others. His French readers couldn’t help being aware of that series’ notorious reputation, hence perhaps his use of sexually explicit and vulgar words at times, although Nabokov is always careful to write in a poerotic style (my coinage), a style at once erotic and poetic, totally devoid of coarse vocabulary. Moreover, he was prone to “overfrenchify” the text, especially proper names, thereby omitting important echoes. For instance, he translated “Our Glass Lake” as “lac voisin” [neighbouring lake] and “a woodlake (Hourglass Lake − not as I had thought it was spelled)” simply as “un lac de forêt” [a forest lake], so that the wordplay is totally lost. I chose to retain the names in English, having the privilege, granted, of being able to explain them, when necessary, in my annotations, and even more thoroughly in the forthcoming Pléiade edition. I also took into account the fact that more and more French readers of a novel like Lolita now had enough English to understand the kind of wordplay mentioned above. 

My translation came out in May 2001 and was widely acclaimed by the French press as almost a new novel, an exaggeration, of course. Gallimard published a paperback edition a month later. I was not totally pleased with my text, aware that there still remained a number of problems I had not solved to my satisfaction. Later, I made a considerable number of corrections, sometimes following the recommendations of helpful readers, and Gallimard published a new edition in 2005. There was a third one, again with many more changes, in the second volume of the Pléiade edition; while doing the annotations, I had found other approximations and mistakes that had to be corrected. 

My fifth essay on Nabokov, Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir, came out in 2004. For more than thirty years, I had (reluctantly) submitted myself to Nabokov’s interdiction concerning psychoanalysis and the “Viennese witch doctor” and had endeavored to circumvent it by using various hermeneutics. My “authorial figure” approach had developed partly as a result of my Freudian bent. To be sure, I understood, and in some cases approved of, Nabokov’s criticism of psychoanalysis, especially of its American, often Jungian, brand, with its emphasis on gross symbolism. Yet, I had always thought that his statements about sex were tainted with bad faith, as when he said, in his 1964 Playboy interview: “Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.” What he meant, I suppose, was that he refused to use sex as an easy form of teasing, but considered it as a poetic challenge. To be sure, he bitterly indicts Humbert: “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’ That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl.” Nabokov was clearly trying to distance himself from his protagonist. In answer to an interviewer’s question about the cruelty and perversity of some of his characters, he once said, more honestly: “Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façade – demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.” The poetic image he uses may contain his most open admission of the intimate relation between himself and Humbert: “I’m not like him, he seems to say, but I could have been; my desires, had they not been kept on a leash, could have led me to commit similar crimes.” In all these declarations, he clearly wanted to show that he was endowed with a strong moral and esthetic sense and that he didn’t confuse his chimeras with reality.

In my essay, I did not use the Lacanian scalpel to probe his unconscious, being only concerned with the characters and narrators he invented in his novels. His psychological insight was extraordinary. I would go as far as to say that his relation to Freud was not unlike that of Henry James to his brother William, the philosopher and psychologist (Nabokov would of course have dismissed the comparison). As a novelist, Henry James had an understanding of the human psyche which probably surpassed that of his brother. It was surprisingly easy to capitalize on such concepts as “aphanisis,” “demand,” “need,” “denial” invented by psychoanalysts, Lacan especially, and to use that hermeneutic peg to hang my interpretative hat on – that should have pleased Brian McHale but would have no doubt led Nabokov to remark that I was speaking through the damn thing! 

My chief ambition while writing that book was to dissect the various types of cruelty betrayed by the characters. Rarely, in the literary canon, does one find such sadism as that exhibited by Rex in Laughter in the Dark, Fyodor in his biography of Chernyshevski, M’sieur Pierre in Invitation to a Beheading, the political régime in Bend Sinister, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, not to speak of Van Veen in Ada. They each rely on cruelty to remedy their “lack of being” (Lacan’s expression) inherent in their cruel desire. My psychoanalytic reading casts a new light, I believe, on the behavior of the characters and on the way the stories unfold, while underlining the immense poetic richness of those novels. I was given an opportunity to explain my views on the subject in the presence of young Nabokov scholars when Tatyana Ponomareva invited me to teach a seminar at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg in August 2004. That was my second visit to the museum; I had given a lecture there in 2001. The seminarians, among them Will Norman, the co-organizer of the 2007 Oxford conference, were a little puzzled, I think, feeling probably that I was transgressing Nabokov’s decree and betraying my chief “intellectual benefactor.” 

As mentioned above, I never wanted to be involved in the Pléiade adventure. I did not particularly enjoy working on Volume I, but was pleased to work on Glory with Laure Troubetzkoy and to write the general introduction. Volume II gave me a great deal more satisfaction. I revised the translations with Yvonne and René Alladaye, annotated The Real Life of Sebastian Knight with Laure Troubetzkoy and Lolita, alone. Annotating a novel like this isn’t unlike panning for gold. I stumbled upon a few nuggets that Nabokov may have dropped in trust into my purse, as when I discovered, with Guillaume Apollinaire’s providential help, that he had named Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, after a famous London prostitute of the eighteenth century. 

The volume came out in 2010 but received less attention in the press than the publication of The Original of Laura in my translation the same year. I had been remotely associated with Dmitri’s decision to publish his father’s manuscript. I knew, like all the other Nabokovians, that Nabokov would have refused to allow its publication, but I was grateful that we could have a peep at the book he was working on during the last years of his life, and I gave my reasons in an article published in La Revue des Deux Mondes. Translating all those fragments was a thankless task in many cases as I acknowledged in a collective book on the translations of the manuscript in various languages. I had asked Dmitri to review my work and he had generously agreed, bringing only few changes. 

The year following the publication of this translation and of Volume II of the Pléiade, Gallimard brought out my little book entitled Nabokov ou la tentation française. I had already dealt with some aspects of the question in a number of articles and lectures but never investigated the subject in depth. Having then recently received from Agnès Edel-Roy a copy of Nabokov’s first article in French published in 1931, I asked Dmitri’s permission to reissue it in my book, and he agreed. Unfortunately, Michel Braudeau, the editor at Gallimard’s, forgot to insert a note on the cover mentioning this important text. Or perhaps he didn’t remember that Vladimir Sirine, the official author of the article, was in fact Nabokov himself. The book was praised by Eric Chevillard in Le Monde and by Bernard Pivot in Le Journal du Dimanche, but it should have had a larger audience with that first reprint of Nabokov’s 1931 French article which already contained the main elements of his poetics.

That was, curiously, my third book entitled Nabokov ou…, an old-fashioned ploy that perhaps betokens my constant wish to read Nabokov tangentially, as well as my desire to pay tribute to an author so talented and complex that I am still unable to apprehend him fully. I have never attempted to write his biography, except some small parts of it in Nabokov ou la tentation française, yet I am aware that my critical essays about his works obliquely say something about him, too. They don’t tell his story but they certainly say a great deal about his fantasies and his desires. In Nabokov’s Eros and the Poetics of Desire (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014) in which I analyzed all the tricks played by Eros, all the perversions, sterile or creative in his fiction, I didn’t attempt to hunt down Nabokov’s sexual mores but to analyze the subtle poetic devices he invented to write about sex, only obliquely reflecting upon his imagination and unconscious in the process. 

No one has written as poetically and poerotically about sex as Nabokov. Two novelists whom I have had the privilege of counting among my friends, John Hawkes and David Lodge (who kindly prefaced Nabokov’s Eros), confessed in my presence that they were jealous of him in that respect, as well as in others. Sex has always constituted a challenge to the modern novelists as I have shown in Roman et censure, ou la mauvaise foi d’Eros and, more recently, in Les Ruses d’Eros: Chronique du roman moderne. Many of the most elaborate narrative ploys invented since the eighteenth century were designed to beat censorship where sex was concerned, as evidenced in Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Lolita and Ada.

The closest I ever came to writing about Nabokov, the man and the writer, was in my novel, Le Rapt de Lolita (2018), in which my narrator irreverently but also playfully claims that Nabokov stole a real nympholept’s manuscript. The source of this novel is obvious, my fifty-year-old passion for Nabokov’s works, but its true origin was totally fortuitous. One day I was quietly rereading a passage from Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in which a writer’s wife is asking a friend what to do with one of her dead husband’s manuscripts, I suddenly had a flash, an inspiration, a first in my life: what if Nabokov had stolen somebody else’s manuscript and published it under his own name in Lolita? Could I write in English a serious, well documented and ludic novel denouncing Nabokov’s alleged crime? I naturally needed a bilingual narrator who had lived close to Humbert Humbert in Paris and corresponded with him later. My working title from the start was The Real Lolita. I worked at it for months with immense enjoyment, inventing a lot of episodes that could have happened when H.H., whose real name I decided was Jean Rambeau, still resided in Paris or that he wrote about to the narrator about after arriving in America. I rewrote and reinterpreted a great number of stories present in Nabokov’s novel but remained faithful to the main facts of the story. I additionally followed Nabokov’s whereabouts in Paris and in Europe after the publication of Lolita, using a lot of material I had gleaned while preparing my essay Nabokov ou la tentation française published earlier by Gallimard. The scenario accounting for Nabokov’s death is totally made up, of course.

I sent the manuscript to a few friends, among them David Lodge who admired my playful mastery of the English language but didn’t find the story I had written plausible. Others thought differently. David’s reaction made me realize that my story might sound more plausible if I rewrote it in French, the narrator’s mother tongue, and staged it more firmly on French soil. Which is what I did. The plot basically remains the same as in the English original but I skipped a few episodes and added many others. 

Only once I had finished rewriting the book in French did I hit upon its present title, an oblique reference to Shakespeare’s dramatic poem “The Rape of Lucretia” and to Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic narrative poem The Rape of the Lock. The narrator’s avowed ambition is to pay tribute to his lost friend’s manuscript and to denounce Nabokov’s arrogant appropriation of it. Ultimately, he is disputing the Grand Master’s claim that he holds the ultimate key to the understanding of his own novels and is “the perfect dictator of that private world”. I once used Humpty Dumpty’s conceited answer to Alice about the meaning of words, “Which is to be master”, as the title of an article about Pale Fire. Nabokov, no more than Humpty Dumpty, can make words mean only when he means. In this novel, my last book about or around him most likely, I question his claim with some strong arguments, while paying tribute to his art and thanking him for illuminating my life. The novel was published with a handsome cover in 2018 by Orizons which had also brought out two of my previous ones plus the story of my childhood.

Le Rapt de Lolita was not my swan song, though. I managed, with the assistance of my devoted and competent team, to finish the job on Volume III of the Pléiade late last year. My main contribution to the volume, apart from the introduction and my revision of the translations – with the exception of Ada that had been thoroughly revised by Nabokov himself – , centered around two novels. First, Pnin for which I did a new translation without having secured a contract from Gallimard. It was a daunting task. I often felt that Nabokov, who stages a game of hide-and-seek between himself and his narrator, was torturing me, yet I managed to remain very close to the original text while writing in a more fluent style than the first translator. I also did the annotations of this novel and those of Pale Fire, the novel on which I wrote my first article almost fifty years ago. The volume contains my translation of The Original of Laura which René Alladaye annotated along with two other novels, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins!. The annotations of Ada, Nabokov’s masterpiece in my opinion, were made by five very competent colleagues, Marie Bouchet, Yannicke Chupin, Lara Delage-Toriel, Agnès Edel-Roy and Monica Manolescu. They managed to do a wonderful job. Hugues Pradier insisted that their annotations be reviewed by Brian Boyd who had been working online on this book for a number of years; his last-minute contribution was appreciated. The volume was due to come out in April 2020 but, because of the Covid crisis, it was published only last February. I had finally brought this colossal enterprise, started thirty years ago, to its happy conclusion.

The volume has been reviewed in all the main periodicals and I have been interviewed by a few journalists. I am very grateful for an accolade, that of Erik Orsenna, a member of the French Academy: “Let that man be thanked for centuries and centuries. His openings, as one says in music, increase the pleasure all along one’s reading.”[5]

Recently the scandal around Gabriel Matzneff, a writer who has managed to make of his perversion, pedophilia, the subject of much of his fiction, has renewed the interest of the French public in Lolita and led the medias to solicit my participation in various programs. Matzneff is now condemned nationwide and so are the members of the Paris intelligentsia who lionized him in the sixties and seventies. Nabokov’s name constantly crops up in the articles about him. And some journalists are intimating that Lolita’s popularity should perhaps be reassessed and Nabokov be put in the same shameful caste as Matzneff. Others would like me to say, and sometimes wrongly quote me saying, that Nabokov was denouncing or not pedophilia. And a few, to judge by the way they question me, seem to think I might be an avatar of Humbert Humbert. 

I owe so much to Nabokov. Were it not for him, my life would have been a great deal less entertaining and creative. And there are a great number of good people I count as my friends whom I would never have met without him. My spirit and my literary style have been amply enriched by my life-long interaction with his works. In my now less frequent oneiric encounters with him, he still shows a certain benevolence towards me. No matter how passionately I have been ploughing his rich soil, I sometimes feel that my many publications about him do not deserve to brush covers with his noble works on the bookshelves of the greatest libraries in the world.


[1] I did two Nabokov translations alone, Lolita and Pnin. We also translated six of David Lodge’s books.

[2] Malcolm Bradbury had put me in touch with Janice Price, editor at Routledge. The book is about to be reissued.

[3] An English translation of this book has recently been published by Les Editions Universitaires Européennes.

[4] Our translations of David Lodge’s works came out in that series.

[5] Erik Orsenna, « Nabokov le virtuose », L’Express, February 4-10, 2021.