Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977; novelist, poet, scholar, translator, and lepidopterist. A cosmopolitan Russian-born émigré whose linguistic facility, erudite style, and eloquent prose helped to establish him as one of the most brilliant and respected literary figures of the 20th century, Nabokov produced literature and scholarship of beauty, complexity, and inventiveness in both Russian and English. Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on (or about) April 23rd, 1899, into a wealthy and aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a prominent and respected liberal politician; his mother, Elena Ivanovna, was a noble and wealthy Russian with an artistic heritage. From his father, VN seems to have inherited a strong work ethic and a love for butterflies; from his mother, a creative sensibility and innate spirituality. The oldest of five children, VN spent his childhood in St. Petersburg and the family estate of Vyra, some 50 miles to the south. (For more on the Nabokov family, see Dieter E. Zimmer's Nabokov Family Web.)

Describing himself as "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library," VN first learned English and then French from various governesses; his father, upon realizing that his son could read and write English but not Russian, employed an instructor from a local school to teach VN and his brother Sergei their native tongue. The Nabokov family habitually spoke a melange of French, English, and Russian in their household, and this linguistic diversity would play a prominent role in VN's development as an artist.

A slender but active youth, VN bicycled, played tennis and soccer, and, most especially, spent hours in and around the Vyra estate collecting butterflies. "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting," he would later say, and his pursuit of butterflies was not merely a pleasure, but a passion that would influence his life and art, both overtly and stylistically.

A series of tutors helped to provide a diverse education. In particular, the study of drawing and painting sharpened his powers of observation and imagination. A description of his colored pencils from the memoir, Speak, Memory, is evocative: "The white one alone, that lanky albino among pencils, kept its original length, or at least did so until I discovered that, far from being a fraud leaving no mark on the page, it was the ideal implement since I could imagine whatever I wished while I scrawled."

VN entered the Tenishev School in St. Petersburg in 1910. The Tenishev School was the most advanced and expensive school in Russia, but even among its elite student body, VN was aloof, iconoclastic, even haughty, to students and faculty alike. That he was driven to school each day in the family Benz or Wolseley increased the sense of imperious individualism; only his soccer skill won him the social acceptance of his classmates. On the soccer field, VN habitually played goalie, so that, even in a team environment, he functioned alone.

In 1916, his uncle "Ruka" bequeathed VN approximately two million dollars and a large estate. Such personal wealth reinforced his noble bearing and independence, and enabled him to privately publish a 500-printing run of a book of poems.

Nabokovs' childhood was full and rewarding. He was adored by his parents, and through his family had experienced stability, love, and wealth; his position, heritage, and developing literary gifts suggested a bright future. Remarkably, his childhood seems even to have prepared him for the severe manner in which he passed from it; the Russian Revolution deprived VN of his birthright, but inscribed upon his memory his inheritance of Russian culture.

In November 1917, the Nabokov family left St. Petersburg for a friend's estate near Yalta, in the Crimea, in the wake of revolutionary rioting and the March 15 abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. His father accepted a position in the provisional government, but, after being imprisoned by Bolshevik forces, left St. Petersburg to join his family in the Crimea. The Nabokovs remained there for 18 months; VN undertook several butterfly safaris, capturing some 77 species of butterfly and more than 100 species of moth, which later formed the basis for his first scholarly publication, in the English journal The Entomologist in 1923.

Fleeing the advance of the Red Army in April 1919, the Nabokovs traveled through Constantinople to England, where VN and his brother Sergei enrolled in Cambridge. VN originally studied ichthyology, but, fatigued by academia, he switched to French and Russian literature. Well served by his own heritage and courses from the Tenishev School, he coasted to graduation in 1922 despite disaffection with University life. VN spent little time in the Library, and seems to have easily passed exams aided by his literary extraction and meticulous lecture notes. He continued to play soccer, and had an active social life. He composed poetry in English, and completed a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland ("Not the first translation," he maintained, "but the best.") Carroll's precise, scientific background and zealous, sprightly paronomasia provide an interesting counterpart to VN's oeuvre. Indeed, Alice's signature elements of chess, playing cards, and a young girl in curious circumstances are themes that would occur and reoccur in VN's work.

The Nabokov family had settled in Berlin, where VN's father became editor of the émigré newspaper Rul' ("The Rudder.") In 1922, V.D. Nabokov was murdered by two right-wing assassins who were attempting to kill the politician Pavel Miliukov. The elder Nabokov leapt off of the stage in an effort to disarm one of the gunmen, was shot twice, and died instantly. His wife resettled in Prague, where she was offerred a government pension, and remained there until her death in 1939.

VN received his degree from Cambridge in 1922, and moved to Berlin, which had a large Russian population (the circulation of "The Rudder" was 40,000) He earned a tenuous living by publishing short fiction and poetry, using the pseudonym Vl. Sirin to avoid confusion with his father. He supplemented his income in a variety of ways: by giving lessons in English and tennis; translating; appearing as an extra in films; acting in theatrical productions; and by composing chess problems and the first Russian crossword puzzles.

A lifelong insomniac with a dedication to his art, VN wrote mostly at night, which enabled him to lead an aloof but active social life in Berlin. He continued to play soccer, participated in several literary groups, and gave numerous readings of his works. On April 15th, 1925, he married fellow émigré Véra Slonim. Their son Dmitri was born on May 10th, 1934.

VN and Véra continued to eke out a living in Berlin; a steady stream of novels written in Russian appeared, from Mashen'ka (Mary) in 1925 to Dar (The Gift) in 1938. His body of work during this time was well-received by the émigré audience and critics, but generated little income, and was largely unknown outside of the Russian-speaking population of Berlin and Paris. One consistent criticism of his fiction was its lack of "Russianness," that is, a lack of direct concern with Russia's issues and difficulties. VN would maintain, "I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment."

In 1937, VN and his family left Berlin for Paris due to their disgust with the Nazi regime and Mrs. Nabokov's Jewish heritage. In Paris, VN continued to write in Russian, composed a few works in French, and also wrote his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. He had determined that his most harmonious future lay in the English language; since England was not prepared to supply him with an academic appointment, the Nabokovs prepared to immigrate to America.

In 1940, VN, Véra, and Dmitri, fled Paris for New York, narrowly escaping the invading Germans. In America, VN initially worked for the Museum of Natural History in New York, classifying butterflies. He published two papers, and was also paid by the Museum for his entomological drawings. During the summer of 1941, he taught creative writing at Stanford University, before securing an appointment as resident lecturer in comparative literature and instructor in Russian at Wellesley College. Later he would work at Harvard, first in an entomological capacity and later as visiting lecturer, and at Cornell, as professor of Russian and European literature, from 1948-1959.

During the 1940s, VN embarked upon a fruitful association with the New Yorker; in addition to his entomological work, he spent quite a bit of time preparing his lectures, and published a scholarly work on Gogol. It may be that his comparatively small output of fiction during this time was an adjustment to writing in English; VN would maintain that the Wellesley years were the happiest, and his scholarly pursuits were satisfying. In 1945, the Nabokov family became American citizens. He also compiled a memoir, published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence (later revised and published as Speak, Memory.)

VN continued to pursue butterflies during his summer vacations, often in the Rocky Mountains. It was during these trips in the early 1950s that he composed the novel that would engrave his name in the American popular culture - Lolita. Initially, even the American publishing houses that admitted Lolita's literary virtues were unwilling to discover the legal ramifications of publishing a novel about a man's affair with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. Lolita was first published in France by Olympia Press in 1955, and generated a storm of moral outrage, as well as staunch and significant support for its artistic merit. Eventually published in American in 1958 (and in England the following year,) the Sturm und Drang over Lolita contributed to a remarkable popular success; it spent six months as the number one bestseller in America (displaced by Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.)

Although he glibly suggested about his Lolita that "she is the famous one, not I," profits from the sale of the novel, combined with the sale of the movie rights and a screenplay deal, enabled VN to retire from Cornell in 1959 and devote himself to writing.

In 1961, VN and Véra moved to Montreux, Switzerland, at least in part to be near Dmitri, who was studying for a career in opera in Milan. At first considered a temporary move, they settled in at the Montreux-Palace Hotel and remained for the duration of their lives. Living reclusively, VN continued to produce original novels, including the singular Pale Fire, and directed the translation of his earlier work from Russian into English.

The publication of Glory in 1971 completed the process of translating his Russian novels into English. Often collaborating with his son Dmitri, VN occasionally (but not always) revised and augmented his earlier works during the translation process. VN's magisterial linguistic finesse had long enabled him to compose literature and scholarly translations in Russian, English, and French. George Steiner admiringly summarized VN's philology thus: ". . . whereas so many other language exiles clung desperately to the artifice of their native tongue or fell silent, Nabokov moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate."

Vladimir Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, of a mysterious lung ailment. His legacy of challenging yet playful fiction, dense with creative exuberance and innovative use of language, continues to reward and dazzle scholars and casual readers alike. "The true conflict is not between the characters in a novel, but between author and reader," he asserted. "In the long run, however, it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts."
John Hamilton
— zembla

VLADIMIR NABOKOV naît le 22 avril 1899 à Saint-Pétersbourg dans une famille de l’aristocratie russe, libérale et anglophile. Son enfance se déroule dans un cadre privilégié où il reçoit dès son plus jeune âge une éducation trilingue, l’anglais et le français (deux langues qui joueront un rôle déterminant dans la suite de son existence) s’ajoutant au russe. Ces années d’apprentissage, au cours desquelles il voyage avec ses parents à travers l’Europe (découvrant notamment la Côte d’Azur et Biarritz qui prêteront leur décor à quelques-unes de ses pages), sont marquées par la naissance de sa passion pour les lépidoptères, la lecture et l’écriture. De 1911 à 1917, il est élève à l’Institut Ténichev à Saint-Pétersbourg et publie son premier recueil de poèmes (1916).

La révolution bolchévique de 1917 met un terme brutal à cette jeunesse heureuse. Les Nabokov doivent abandonner leur demeure de la rue Morskaïa et trouvent d’abord refuge en Crimée. Mais en avril 1919, ils quittent la Russie pour Londres puis Berlin. Vladimir Nabokov ne le sait pas encore, mais il ne reverra plus sa terre natale. Entre 1919 et 1922, il est étudiant en littérature russe et française au Trinity College de Cambridge.

Son arrivée à Berlin coïncide avec trois événements majeurs: la mort tragique de son père, abattu en mars 1922 lors d’une réunion politique, la rencontre avec Véra Evséievna Slonim qui deviendra sa femme en 1925, et l’affirmation de sa vocation d’écrivain. Il publie des poèmes ainsi que des articles critiques et des traductions du français et de l’anglais dans nombre de journaux russes émigrés de Berlin et Paris, mais ce sont ses premiers romans, composés en russe sous le pseudonyme de Sirine – Machenka (1926), La Défense Loujine (1930), Chambre Obscure (1932), La Méprise (1934) et surtout Le Don (1937) – qui l’imposent sur la scène littéraire. Le Don, qui sera son dernier roman russe, est sans aucun doute l’une de ses œuvres les plus achevées. Ce texte foisonnant mêle une peinture fidèle des milieux émigrés de Berlin des années 1920, l’imaginaire des grands espaces de l’Asie, la biographie du philosophe et révolutionnaire russe Nikolaï Tchernychevski, et l’histoire de la naissance d’une vocation d’écrivain chez le personnage central, Fiodor Godounov-Tcherdyntsev. Au début de 1937, le couple Nabokov s’installe à Paris pour fuir le nazisme. La France sera la première étape de ce nouvel exil: en mai 1940, alors que l’Europe s’enfonce dans la deuxième guerre mondiale, Vladimir, Véra et leur fils Dmitri embarquent à Saint-Nazaire sur le Champlain à destination des Etats-Unis.

L’écrivain n’arrive pas dans le Nouveau Monde les mains vides. Il a passé les dernières années de son séjour parisien à composer son premier roman en langue anglaise, La Vraie Vie de Sebastian Knight. Le livre, qui paraîtra en mai 1941, marque pour Nabokov le début d’une ère nouvelle: tous ses romans seront désormais composés en anglais. Ce sont cependant ses compétences de scientifique et d’enseignant qui lui permettent d’abord de subvenir aux besoins de sa famille sur cette nouvelle terre d’asile. Entomologiste distingué, il obtient un poste au Museum of Comparative Zoology de Harvard (on lui doit la description de plusieurs espèces nouvelles) et donne des cours de littérature à Wellesley College. En 1948, il est nommé professeur à Cornell University où ses conférences sont consacrées aux grands écrivains européens de langue anglaise, française et allemande (Austen, Stevenson, Dickens, Joyce, Flaubert, Proust, Kafka) ainsi qu’aux maîtres de la littérature russe (Gogol, Tolstoï, Tourgueniev, Tchékhov).

C’est dans ce contexte qu’explose en 1955 la bombe Lolita. Le roman, qui paraît d’abord en France (mais en anglais), chez Olympia Press, avant d’être publié aux Etats-Unis trois ans plus tard au terme d’une longue bataille juridique, fait accéder Nabokov à une notoriété spectaculaire où le succès de scandale le dispute à la reconnaissance proprement littéraire. Si l’on oublie un instant son sujet sulfureux, Lolita est pourtant une œuvre de première grandeur. La maîtrise de la langue ne laisse aucun doute aux lecteurs avertis: un écrivain américain est né. L’immense succès du roman, qui devient un best-seller, permet à Nabokov de quitter le monde universitaire pour se consacrer à l’écriture et à ses papillons bien aimés. Cette décision s’accompagne d’un nouveau voyage: en 1961, Vladimir et Véra rentrent en Europe et s’installent dans une ville qui leur rappelle un peu la Russie perdue, Montreux. C’est dans une suite du Palace Hôtel que se poursuivra désormais l’aventure esthétique et entomologique.

Le succès de Lolita, en effet, n’entame en rien l’énergie créatrice de Nabokov. Il se lance dans le projet titanesque de traduire Eugène Onéguine, de manière littérale. L’entreprise débouche sur la publication d’un ouvrage en quatre volumes, le premier comprenant la traduction, les trois autres un appareil de notes pléthorique (1964). La chose est d’autant plus remarquable que Nabokov compose, tout en travaillant à sa traduction, l’un de ses romans les plus fascinants, le labyrinthique Feu pâle (1962). La forme de l’œuvre – un poème accompagné de son commentaire – fait d’ailleurs écho à son travail sur le roman en vers de Pouchkine, mais évoque aussi par sa complexité combinatoire les problèmes d’échecs qu’il aimait à composer.

Ces années particulièrement fécondes, au cours desquelles il se consacre également à la traduction en anglais de quelques-uns de ses romans russes, voient naître des œuvres brillantes, notamment Speak, Memory, la seconde version de son autobiographie (1966), Ada (1969), où coïncident un maniement virtuose de la langue anglaise et des thématiques souvent issues de la littérature russe du dix-neuvième siècle, et Look at the Harlequins (1974), dans lequel le Maître revisite, sur un mode fictionnel et parodique, l’ensemble de son œuvre. Il s’agit presque d’un testament: Vladimir Nabokov disparaît le 2 juillet 1977, laissant derrière lui le manuscrit inachevé de son dernier roman, The Original of Laura.
— Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

La syncope narrative dans Lolita de Vladimir Nabokov

Dans le roman de Vladimir Nabokov Lolita, le rythme particulier de la narration peut se décrire à l’aide de la notion de syncope. Obsédé par le temps, Humbert le narrateur représente les moments clés de son expérience comme des syncopes, où celui-ci est pour un temps suspendu ou aboli. Dans son récit, il impose par divers procédés (ponctuation, intrusion d’éléments incongrus) un rythme qui vise à brouiller les niveaux temporels et narratifs et à lui assurer l’empathie du lecteur. Ce dernier, cependant, garde la liberté d’interpréter le texte en fonction de ses propres rythmes, qui peuvent lui valoir ces moments de ravissement que sont les syncopes, par la découverte de nouvelles configurations de sens dans un texte qui reste résolument ouvert.

Après la célèbre description des performances tennistiques de Lolita au chapitre 20 de la deuxième partie du roman, Humbert revient au récit d’un match spécifique, celui qu’il joue contre elle à Champion, Colorado, et qui avait été le prétexte de son ode à sa petite (non-) championne de tennis. Ce «jour particulier», où, bercé par l’harmonie du jeu de Lolita et la fausse sécurité que lui donne le quadrillage grillagé du court de tennis1, il oublie pour un temps sa peur obsessionnelle de la trahison, est cependant celui où s’amorce le processus qui conduira à la disparition de cette dernière. Observés par un jeune couple, le narrateur et sa nymphette échangent des balles «rythmiquement coordonnées »:

[…] they fell to admiring very vocally a rally of some fifty exchanges that Lo innocently helped me to foster and uphold—until there occurred a syncope in the series causing her to gasp as her overhead smash went out of the court, whereupon she melted into winsome merriment, my golden pet.

C’est à la suite de cet échange interrompu qu’Humbert est appelé au téléphone, permettant ainsi à Dolores de mettre au point avec ses complices les modalités de son «enlèvement». Cette syncope, annoncée comme il se doit par un tiret suspensif, préfigure donc un bouleversement majeur de la vie commune d’Humbert et de Lolita, et en annonce la fin.

Ce qui m’intéresse dans cette citation, c’est bien évidemment l’utilisation du terme que j’ai choisi comme fil conducteur de ma réflexion (occurrence unique dans le roman), mais aussi le fait que cette syncope soit suivie d’un éclat de rire dans lequel Lolita semble se dissoudre («melted»). Dans ce contexte, la métaphore de la «syncope» renvoie à son sens médical d’interruption momentanée du rythme cardiaque, ce qui ne saurait étonner de la part d’un personnage/narrateur qui souffre (et mourra quelques années plus tard), précisément, de troubles cardiaques; quelques pages plus loin, Humbert ressent d’ailleurs «a quite monstrous pain in [his] chest» à la vue de Quilty observant Lolita en train de jouer avec un chien. L’éclat de rire de Lolita, quant à lui, vient mettre fin à une autre syncope, cette brève apnée après une brusque inspiration qu’évoque le mot «gasp»: on a donc ici affaire à l’enchaînement de deux syncopes, qui se résolvent en une troisième, car, si l’on en croit Jean-Luc Nancy, «le rire est encore syncope».

La question du rythme, qu’il soit cardiaque, musical ou narratif, occupe une place centrale dans le roman de Nabokov, et la rupture de rythme que constitue la syncope s’y trouve figurée de diverses manières. Si l’acception médicale, cette brève absence du sujet à lui-même, cette «petite mort» dont on revient en général, s’y décline en diverses manifestations physiques (arrêts du cœur ou de la respiration, éclats de rire, cris et sanglots, mais aussi orgasme extatique), c’est la syncope musicale qui règne dans le discours du roman, dans les brusques arrêts, suspensions, changements de rythme et de contrat narratifs auxquels Humbert soumet son lecteur. Nous nous poserons la question de la fonction de la syncope à travers un parcours de ses diverses manifestations, dans l’histoire, dans le discours, et dans l’itinéraire du lecteur.

Obsédé qu’il est par la suspension du temps, Humbert est particulièrement sensible aux ruptures qui ne cessent de se produire dans le déroulement temporel de l’action. Chacun des moments clés de sa relation avec la nymphette est ainsi marqué par cette brusque abolition du temps linéaire qu’est la syncope: annoncé par la vague bleue qui lui soulève le cœur («a blue seawave swelled under my heart»), le choc de la première vision de Lolita réduit à néant les vingt-cinq années écoulées depuis l’été enchanteur passé avec Annabel Leigh; dans la scène du canapé, c’est la diction du narrateur qui se trouve affectée par des ruptures de rythme: «Talking fast, lagging behind my own breath, catching up with it,» Humbert suspend l’instant et le prolonge jusqu’à l’extase finale, «suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss (a nicety of physiological equipoise comparable to certain techniques in the arts)»; quelques jours plus tard, au moment d’une séparation qui lui cause les plus vives angoisses, c’est la fillette elle-même qui «interrompt le mouvement du destin» en se précipitant dans les bras du narrateur, geste qui manque d’ailleurs de provoquer chez lui une véritable syncope: «My heart expanded with such force that it almost blotted me out». Lorsqu’Humbert, après la mort de Charlotte, vient chercher sa proie au camp de Mrs Holmes, le sort des deux personnages semble de nouveau suspendu à un brusque arrêt du temps, intervalle entre deux battements de cœur:

She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face was less pretty than the mental imprint I had cherished for more than a month […]; and that first impression (a very narrow human interval between two tiger heartbeats) carried the clear implication that all widower Humbert had to do, wanted to do, or would do, was to give this wan-looking though sun-colored little orphan […] a sound education, a healthy and happy girlhood, a clean home, nice girl-friends of her age […]. But ‘in a wink’, as the German say, the angelic line of conduct was erased, and I overtook my prey (time moves ahead of our fancies!), and she was my Lolita again—in fact, more of my Lolita than ever.

Dans ce passage, comme dans les épisodes précités, on retrouve le mouvement caractéristique de la syncope musicale, à la fois suspension et anticipation, fragment de temps mis entre parenthèses: «l’intervalle humain» et «la ligne de conduite angélique», auxquels avait un instant été suspendu l’avenir de Lolita et d’Humbert, se trouvent abolis dans la reprise accélérée du temps, qui va plus vite que nos désirs. Dans son article «Lolitime: Temps, hors-temps et contretemps dans Lolita de Vladimir Nabokov», Géraldine Chouard évoque également le «hors-temps» de la scène du canapé comme un intervalle:

Comme en a témoigné la scène du canapé, le hors-temps du transport érotique prend la forme d’un entre-temps, c’est-à-dire d’un temps placé sous le signe de l’interstice, de l’intermède, de cet intervalle dont Van disait dans Ada qu’il était le moment entre deux battements («not the recurrent beats of the rhythm, but the gap between two such beats, the grey gap between black beats: the Tender Interval.»)

L’intervalle humain, l’intervalle de la tendresse, dont nous savons l’importance qu’elle avait pour Nabokov, n’est pour Humbert qu’une brève syncope dans la poursuite implacable de son désir et de son plaisir.

Si dans la première partie du roman les syncopes accompagnent les différentes étapes de l’accomplissement du désir d’Humbert, elles deviennent dans la deuxième partie les manifestations des «accrocs du destin» («the points where my destiny was liable to catch»), manifestations de ces contretemps qui contrarient ses projets pour aboutir à la disparition de la proie pourtant jalousement gardée. La partie de tennis interrompue en est le dernier exemple, mais tout au long du deuxième voyage, le décalage entre le dessein de Dolly et celui de son beau-père s’exprime par le biais d’images souvent musicales, notamment dans la scène où elle a disparu pour un instant du champ de vision du narrateur, à une station service, et où il la voit revenir «à contretemps» de la musique:

Radio music was coming from [the office’s] open door, and because the rhythm was notsynchronized with the heave and flutter and other gestures of wind-animated vegetation, one had the impression of an old scenic film living its own life while piano or fiddle followed a line of music quite outside the shivering flower, the swaying branch. The sound of Charlotte’s last sob incongruously vibrated through me as, with her dress fluttering athwart the rhythm, Lolita veered from a totally unexpected direction.

Rousseau définit la syncope comme «prolongement sur le temps fort d’un son commencé sur le temps faible; ainsi toute note syncopée est à contretemps, et toute suite de notes syncopées est une marche à contretemps.» Lolita, ainsi que les éléments naturels qu’observe Humbert, semblent s’affranchir du rythme que la musique voudrait leur imposer: tout ici est à contretemps, le frémissement des branches, l’intrusion incongrue du souvenir de Charlotte, le voltigement de la robe de Lolita, la direction d’où elle vient. A travers cette perception d’Humbert, c’est l’affrontement latent entre les deux personnages qui se lit.

Dans sa présentation des événements de l’intrigue, Humbert a donc souvent recours à la syncope comme coup du sort dont il est la victime plutôt que l’agent: car dans la syncope, la conscience s’abolit, échappant au sujet qui en conséquence ne peut plus être tenu pour responsable; c’est d’ailleurs l’une des raisons pour lesquelles elle aurait mauvaise presse auprès des philosophes, comme nous le rappelle Catherine Clément: «[…] Le philosophe, génériquement, hait la syncope et tout ce qui lui ressemble, bouleversement de l’esprit, dérèglement de la passion et de l’humeur». Mais pour Humbert, poète plus que philosophe, cette manière de représenter l’expérience a l’avantage, dans un texte qui est en partie une plaidoirie, de minimiser sa responsabilité dans le cours des événements, et donc sa culpabilité. D’ailleurs, dans l’un des exemples précités, n’est-ce pas Lolita elle-même qui interrompt le cours du destin? La responsabilité est donc au minimum partagée, et parfois absente, stratégie par laquelle Humbert tente de justifier ses actes, victime qu’il est de ce «faux-pas du cerveau», de ce «sommeil de la raison».

Si Humbert-personnage se présente ainsi comme victime des contretemps que lui inflige le destin, le narrateur tente de reconquérir le temps qui lui échappe par sa maîtrise du récit, qui impose au lecteur son rythme propre, lui aussi bien souvent syncopé. Comme nous l’avons vu dans notre premier exemple, le tiret suspensif peut être la marque de la syncope dans le discours. Le tiret, seul ou en paire, ainsi que les parenthèses, sont des marques de fabrique du style humbertien, qui ont été abondamment commentées par la critique. J’illustrerai donc cet usage de la ponctuation par un seul exemple, celui déjà évoqué du baiser échangé lors du départ de Lo pour Camp Q.

My Lolita, who was half in and about to slam the car door, wind down the glass, wave to Louise and the poplars (whom and which she was never to see again), interrupted the motion of fate: she looked up—and dashed back into the house (Haze furiously calling after her). A moment later I heard my sweetheart running up the stairs. My heart expanded with such force that it almost blotted me out. I hitched up the pants of my pajamas, flung the door open: and simultaneously Lolita arrived, in her Sunday frock, stamping, panting, and then she was in my arms, her innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my palpitating darling! The next instant I heard her—alive, unraped—clatter downstairs. The motion of fate was resumed.

La ponctuation de ce passage illustre parfaitement l’utilisation que fait Humbert des moyens expressifs à sa disposition: on retrouve ici le tiret qui introduit la syncope, assorti d’un jeu de mot, puisque le «dash» est suivi du verbe «dashed back», exprimant l’inversion du flux temporel, comme un film qu’on rembobine. Les deux points expriment la simultanéité des deux actions, elle aussi redoublée par l’adverbe «simultaneously». La syntaxe bousculée, hachée par les virgules, vise à reproduire (comme dans la scène du canapé) les émotions du personnage, qui lui coupent littéralement le souffle, dans l’objectif avoué de permettre au lecteur de «participer à la scène».

Les parenthèses et la paire de tirets, si elles participent bien à ce bousculement de la syntaxe, tiennent cependant un autre discours: la première parenthèse, proleptique («whom and which she was never to see again»), projette brutalement le lecteur dans l’avenir, faisant de ce départ de Ramsdale un départ définitif qui en augmente le côté poignant, sans pour autant livrer la moindre explication quant aux raisons de cet exil annoncé. Le lecteur est donc mis en alerte, comme il se pose des questions sur les deux adjectifs placés entre tirets, «alive, unraped»: on savait la virginité de Lo menacée, mais pas sa vie… L’autre parenthèse, soulignant la marginalisation de Charlotte dans l’esprit d’Humbert, est également un signal qui vient contredire l’effet d’empathie que crée le rythme syncopé de ce passage.

Lorsque ce n’est pas la ponctuation qui vient interrompre le flux du discours, c’est souvent l’intrusion d’éléments incongrus qui provoque chez le lecteur ce trébuchement typique de la syncope. Le début du chapitre 11, qui introduit le journal intime de juin 1947, en est un exemple particulièrement frappant; à chaque pas, ou presque, le lecteur accroche sur une question sans réponse:

I remember the thing so exactly because I wrote it really twice. First I jotted down each entry in pencil (with many erasures and corrections) on the leaves of what is commercially known as a “typewriter tablet”; then I copied it out with obvious abbreviations in my smallest, most satanic, hand in the little black book just mentioned.

Pourquoi Humbert a-t-il écrit deux fois son journal, ce qui semble peu conforme au caractère en principe spontané de ce type d’écrit (si bien que la version que nous lisons en serait une troisième version)? Pourquoi les abréviations qu’il utilise dans la version recopiée dans le carnet noir sont-elles, doivent-elles être, «évidentes»? Pourquoi les a-t-il écrites d’une main « satanique » dans un carnet à la couleur non moins diabolique? Toutes ces questions ne peuvent que hanter la conscience du lecteur pendant la lecture du texte, lui faisant soupçonner que ce journal, présenté dans la perspective du procès comme «témoin à décharge» («exhibit number two»), témoigne en fait de sa culpabilité. Ce journal intime semble en effet conçu pour être lu par d’autres, comme le montrent diverses adresses au lecteur parfaitement incongrues — «If and when you wish to sizzle me to death»; «I cannot tell my learned reader (whose eyebrows, I suspect, have by now traveled all the way to the back of his bald head)»; «If you know where to go, I don’t», pour ne citer que les plus flagrantes —, ainsi que cette étrange réflexion, dont le narrateur souligne le caractère peut-être apocryphe, dans l’entrée du samedi 7 juin: «(Beginning perhaps amended.) I know it is madness to keep this journal but it gives me a strange thrill to do so; and only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script». L’irruption de cette «femme aimante» au début du journal est une projection vers l’avenir, où effectivement, la femme aimante et non-aimée lira, pour son plus grand malheur, le journal incriminant. Le contrat narratif est ici rompu: ce n’est pas la prose du personnage à peine installé dans la maison de Ramsdale que nous lisons, mais celle du narrateur qui sait le rôle que jouera le carnet noir dans la suite de l’intrigue, rôle dans lequel Humbert indique très clairement sa part de responsabilité après la mort de Charlotte: «Had I not been such a fool—or such an intuitive genius—to preserve that journal, fluids produced by vindictive anger would not have blinded Charlotte in her dash to the mailbox.» «Fool» ou «intuitive genius»: l’aveu se lit presque entre les deux tirets, et c’est de nouveau un «dash» qui scelle le destin de Charlotte, ultime syncope, mortelle dans son cas. Les informations données dans le discours viennent donc en ordre dispersé, trop tôt ou trop tard, sans qu’il s’agisse véritablement de prolepses ou d’analepses: lorsque nous lisons, entre parenthèses, la mention «(diary resumed)», nous devons comprendre que sans en avertir le lecteur, le narrateur a glissé dans le journal une réflexion «déplacée», sans pour autant préciser où elle avait commencé; un effet similaire se produit à la fin du chapitre 7 de la deuxième partie:

I believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood—or the foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.

Commentant les raisons probables qui poussent Lolita à accumuler l’argent qu’il lui dispense chichement en échange de ses services sexuels, Humbert glisse des rêves de starlette de cette dernière (Broadway, Hollywood) à ce qui sera effectivement son expérience dans la suite du récit (le travail de serveuse dans divers restaurants du Midwest et du Farwest, comme elle le lui apprendra lors de leur dernière rencontre, pour finir par une allusion à la scène du canapé, où les paroles de la chanson «Little Carmen» avaient rythmé son orgasme. Le point de vue du personnage est brutalement remplacé par celui du narrateur, tandis que la fin de l’énoncé relève des deux à la fois. Condensé de présent (aussi bien celui de Bearsdley que celui de la prison), de passé et d’avenir, cette phrase énigmatique suspend le rythme du récit et provoque chez le lecteur un mouvement de «double take» : si l’aspect proleptique de la partie de la phrase qui suit le tiret n’est évidemment pas perceptible à la première lecture, le caractère incongru de cet «espoir» de Lolita éveille une fois de plus la méfiance du lecteur.

Le discours narratif joue donc double jeu : d’un côté, par sa syntaxe « empathique », il vise à faire participer le lecteur aux émotions du personnage ; de l’autre, par ses stratégies de rupture, il fait naître le doute et distancie ce même lecteur du narrateur. Comme l’écrit Géraldine Chouard:

D’une manière générale, lire Lolita, c’est être en état d’alerte permanent pour tenter de saisir quels fantasmes se cachent sous la réalité des images offertes. C’est évoluer dans un espace où se lient les plus audacieux contacts et se trouver à tout moment dans une situation de hiatus, de rupture, de déséquilibre qui engendre un trouble conforme à la nature de l’expérience érotique. Lolita ne décrit pas seulement une expérience érotique mais devient une expérience érotique en soi.

Hiatus, rupture, déséquilibre: tous termes qui renvoient eux aussi à l’expérience de la syncope. Mais si celle-ci rythme le parcours narratif proposé au lecteur, ce dernier est cependant libre de choisir dans le texte l’itinéraire qui lui convient. La syncope est aussi une question d’interprétation : tous les violoncellistes n’attaquent pas de la même manière les syncopes des suites de Bach, et il entre dans la relation intime entre lecteur et texte (dont William Gass a abondamment commenté la nature érotique) une part de subjectivité; tous les lecteurs ne s’arrêtent pas sur les mêmes passages, ne butent pas sur les mêmes figures. C’est d’ailleurs l’un des accomplissements du roman de Nabokov que de s’ouvrir à des interprétations multiples, où «le plaisir de la découverte est toujours renouvelé».

Le lecteur, comme Humbert lors de sa dernière rencontre avec Lolita, fait de temps à autre l’expérience de cette extase suivie d’une paix monstrueuse que provoque la perception, au hasard d’une virgule, au détour d’un adjectif, de la « figure dans le tapis » (pour évoquer un auteur que Nabokov n’aimait guère), ce moment où les faits du récit se recomposent en une configuration logique. C’est d’ailleurs à cet épisode que je voudrais me référer maintenant pour évoquer une telle expérience de lecture.

On se rappelle qu’à ce moment de son récit, le narrateur suspend (toujours par un tiret) la révélation du nom de Quilty que lui fait Lolita, faisant ainsi preuve de cette «perversion narratoriale» dont parle Maurice Couturier. Puis vient la description de sa réaction:

There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with that express and perverse purpose of rendering—she was talking but I sat melting in my golden peace—of rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now.

Dans ce passage célèbre, Humbert évoque le ravissement que procure la résolution de l’énigme, tout en le refusant au lecteur, puisque ce n’est guère qu’à la seconde lecture que celui-ci peut partager cette monstrueuse paix que lui procure la révélation du nom de son rival. Certes, Humbert donne un indice avec l’adjectif «Waterproof», dont on peut remonter la trace, mais cet indice sert plus ici à mettre en évidence le fonctionnement de la mémoire, celle d’Humbert comme celle du lecteur, qu’à mettre ce dernier sur la voie. Cependant, à la suite de ce premier indice, Humbert en donne un second bien plus révélateur, qui, à ma connaissance, est jusqu’à présent passé inaperçu. Pour paraphraser le narrateur, étant une lectrice douée d’une mémoire exceptionnelle mais incomplète et peu orthodoxe, je ne saurais dire avec précision le moment exact où je me suis rendu compte que l’adverbe «Quietly», qui figure en bonne place dans ce passage, était une anagramme presque parfaite du nom de Quilty; je me rappelle très bien, en revanche, que c’était lors de la lecture d’un article analysant ce passage… Avec une ironie assez typique, Humbert fournit ainsi au lecteur le nom qu’il fait semblant de lui refuser. En plaçant l’adverbe en début de phrase, et donc en le dotant d’une majuscule, il rend le procédé encore plus voyant, et peut-être par là même plus aveuglant, comme la lettre volée exposée aux regards de tous.

On pourrait s’étonner de la présence d’un tel adverbe pour qualifier une expérience qui est plus souvent assimilée à une brutale illumination, ou à une syncope, qu’à une paix, fût-elle monstrueuse. En fait, l’émotion décrite s’assimile au «sentiment d’apaisement réconcilié qui fait suite à la syncope», selon Catherine Clément, et non à la syncope elle-même. De plus, si mon hypothèse est juste, l’emploi de cet adverbe obéit à une nécessité autre que la simple logique narrative. Pour vérifier cette hypothèse, il faut, comme pour le mot «Waterproof», retrouver les autres occurrences de l’adverbe «quietly», qui prend alors dans le texte une tout autre résonnance. Une relecture de l’œuvre montre que cet adverbe, peu fréquent, est le plus souvent associé à Humbert, notamment dans les moments où il se montre le plus machiavélique, c’est-à-dire le plus « quiltien»: par exemple lorsqu’il met en place une stratégie pour imposer son autorité à Charlotte — «I told her quietly that it was a matter not of asking forgiveness, but of changing one’s ways» — ou qu’il essaie de la convaincre que son journal n’était qu’une ébauche de roman, juste avant l’accident fatal: «“You are ruining, my life and yours,” I said quietly». C’est également «quietly» qu’il vole l’argent qu’a économisé Lolita — « […] a hole […] yielded as much as twenty-four dollars and some change […] which I quietly removed.» —, ou qu’il commente d’un ton menaçant la vitrine aux mannequins démembrés: «“Look, Lo” I said quietly. “Look well. Is not that a rather good symbol of something or other?”». Mais l’adverbe figure aussi de manière insistante, renforcée par le polyptote, dans la description du personnage de John Farlow, «a middle-aged, quiet, quietly athletic, quietly successful dealer in sporting goods», qui a, comme Poe, épousé une cousine germaine beaucoup plus jeune que lui, et qui, devenu veuf, épouse en secondes noces, en Amérique du Sud, une très jeune Espagnole championne de ski, confirmant ainsi son statut d’amateur de chair fraîche. C’est ce même John Farlow qui arme littéralement le bras vengeur d’Humbert en lui fournissant des cartouches pour le Colt d’Harold Haze (dont le lecteur apprend d’ailleurs l’existence au détour d’une phrase sans en connaître la provenance): «it was he who got me the cartridges for that Colt and showed me how to use it». Et bien sûr, c’est John Farlow dont l’arrivée opportune interrompt le récit de sa femme, au moment même où elle allait révéler quelque indécent secret à propos du neveu du dentiste Ivor Quilty: le «Quietly» du passage précité répond en écho au «Waterproof», bouclant provisoirement la boucle interprétative. John Farlow est donc, par le biais de l’adverbe qui le caractérise, un autre des Doppelgänger qui prolifèrent dans le roman. Dans cette anagramme, l’ombre linguistique de Quilty hante les moindres recoins du texte humbertien.

Effet du hasard, ou choix délibéré du narrateur (et/ou de l’auteur) de rajouter ce motif aux arabesques du tapis? A propos des trouvailles anagrammatiques de Shapiro, Leland de la Durantaye commente: [T]he only question is whether what he found had been left for him, or whether he had brought it with him; whether what he found was chance or choice. […] the danger of mistaking one’s own patterns for those of the text is ever-present.

La question est certes pertinente, mais elle ne peut que rester sans réponse. Peu importe en fin de compte si je prête à Humbert (ou à Nabokov) une trop grande subtilité dans l’agencement du récit, si je vois une combinaison là où le hasard de la langue est seul responsable de l’occurrence d’une de ces «dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love». Cette expérience de lecture, qui procure le ravissement par la brusque conflagration du sens, est une façon pour le lecteur d’établir avec le texte cette relation d’échange qui en fait un acte amoureux. Et si ce nouveau fil ne dessine pas véritablement une nouvelle figure dans le tissu serré du discours nabokovien, il en renforce néanmoins la cohérence, soulignant d’une couleur plus vive l’une des arabesques du texte, éblouissant le lecteur par la maîtrise qu’il suggère et provoquant chez lui le ravissement esthétique (« aesthetic bliss ») que visait l’auteur.

Ainsi, le rythme particulier de la narration contribue à l’expérience esthétique du lecteur, sans pour autant abolir sa conscience critique, que la syncope, paradoxalement, contribue à maintenir en éveil. Si, comme le dit William Gass, le texte littéraire vise à «capturer la conscience du lecteur», ce rapt peut aussi provoquer le ravissement qui est un «élargissement de la conscience». C’est en cela sans doute que réside la dimension éthique du texte de Nabokov. Si l’on en croit Jean-Luc Nancy, la syncope est la marque de l’indécidable, qui s’oppose à tout discours métaphysique, au figement mortifère du sens. L’indécidable dans la syncope, c’est ce qui «ne se soumet pas à la logique d’un système, sans pour autant s’y opposer […]». Comme on l’a vu, le rire est l’une des manifestations de la syncope: rire de Lolita sur le court de tennis, mais aussi rire du lecteur ; on rit beaucoup à lire Lolita, et « ce que le plaisir théorique est à la pensée rationnelle, le rire l’est à la pensée en général […] Le rire est la secousse qui permet de sentir sa vie». Pour Catherine Clément également, la syncope s’oppose au système dialectique: «le poème, le récit, le roman travaillent le rythme de l’écriture et rompent le fil dialectique. Contre la dialectique, le poème. Contre le système, le roman. Contre le Tout, la ponctuation». Elle aussi souligne ce paradoxe qui fait de la syncope l’instrument d’un renouveau vital : le déséquilibre que crée la syncope donne au danseur, comme au lecteur, un nouvel élan; la stase momentanée relance le mouvement. Rire à la lecture de Lolita, ce n’est donc pas s’abandonner aux sortilèges du narrateur, qui lui ne rit jamais, mais déjouer son système et relancer à l’infini l’extase de la découverte de nouvelles configurations de sens; la petite mort de la syncope assure ainsi la vie et la survie du texte littéraire.
Claire Maniez
— Sillages critiques

The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov

This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov—for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation—and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.

Mr. Nabokov, before the publication of his own translation of Evgeni Onegin, took up a good deal of space in these pages to denounce a previous translation by Professor Walter Arndt. This article—which sounded like nothing so much as one of Marx’s niggling and nagging attacks on someone who had had the temerity to write about economics and to hold different views from Marx’s—dwelt especially on what he regarded as Professor Arndt’s Germanisms and other infelicities of phrasing, without, apparently, being aware of how vulnerable he himself was. Professor Arndt had attempted the tour de force of translating the whole of Onegin into the original iambic tetrameter and rather intricate stanza form. Mr. Nabokov decided that this could not be done with any real fidelity to the meaning and undertook to make a “literal” translation which maintains an iambic base but quite often simply jolts into prose. The results of this have been more disastrous than those of Arndt’s heroic effort. It has produced a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov. One knows Mr. Nabokov’s virtuosity in juggling with the English language, the prettiness and wit of his verbal inventions. One knows also the perversity of his tricks to startle or stick pins in the reader; and one suspects that his perversity here has been exercised in curbing his brilliance; that—with his sado-masochistic Dostoevskian tendencies so acutely noted by Sartre—he seeks to torture both the reader and himself by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.

Aside from this desire both to suffer and make suffer—so important an element in his fiction—the only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words, which, in view of his declared intention to stick so close to the text that his version may be used as a trot, are entirely inappropriate here. It would be more to the point for the student to look up the Russian word than to have to have recourse to the OED for an English word he has never seen and which he will never have occasion to use. To inflict on the reader such words is not really to translate at all, for it is not to write idiomatic and recognizable English. Nabokov’s aberrations in this line are a good deal more objectionable than anything I have found in Arndt. He gives us, for example, rememorating, producement, curvate, habitude, rummers, familistic, gloam, dit, shippon and scrab. All these can be found in the OED, but they are all entirely dictionary words, usually labeled “dialect,” “archaic,” or “obsolete.” Why is “Достойна старых обезьян” rendered as “worthy of old sapajous”? Обезьяна is the ordinary word for monkey. In the case of the common word нега, Nabokov has surpassed himself in oddity. It is true that нега has two distinct nuances: voluptuous languor and simple enjoyment; but, instead of using any of the obvious equivalents, Mr. Nabokov has dug up from the dictionary the rare and obsolete mollitude, a word which his readers can never have encountered but which he uses for the first of these meanings; and for the second he has discovered dulcitude. One wonders how Nabokov would translate the last line of Pushkin’s famous lyric, published after his death, “Пора, мой, друг, пора”…”В обйтель дальную трудов и чистых нег.” “To a faraway haven of work and pure mollitudes”? “dulcitudes”? And what does he mean in the commentary when he speaks of Pushkin’s “addiction to stuss”? This is not an English word, and if he means the Hebrew word for nonsense which has been absorbed into German, it ought to be italicized and capitalized. But even on this assumption, it hardly makes sense. In what way is Pushkin addicted to Stuss? And what can one gather from his statement that someone “had resolved in his lunes to exterminate all the Bourbons”? I find that lunes is an archaic word which may mean “fits of frenzy or lunacy”; but this statement will convey nothing to anyone who has not consulted a fairly comprehensive dictionary.

There are also actual errors of English. I had never seen the word loaden before, and I have found, on looking it up, that it is “Obs. exc. dial,” and that it is not a past participle, as Nabokov makes it: the past participle, it seems, is loadened. The past of dwell is dwelt, not dwelled; dwelled has long been obsolete. “Remind one about me” is hardly English.

If it is a question of picking on Germanisms in Arndt, it is not difficult to find Russianisms in Nabokov. You cannot “listen the sound of the sea” in English; this is a Russianism: in English you have to listen to something.

Buyanov, my mettlesome cousin,
toward our hero leads Tatiana
with Olga…

The natural English here would be and not with. If Tatyana had been telling about doing something with Olga, she would have said “Мы с Ольгой,” meaning “Olga and I,” and I suppose that we have here the same idiom, which Nabokov has translated literally. In the commentary, you find “a not-too-trust-worthy account that a later friend of Pushkin’s…left us,” where the English requires “has left”; but there is only one past tense in Russian where we have three, and Russians often make these mistakes. The handling of French is peculiar. The heroine of La Nouvelle Héloïse is given on one page as Julie and on the next as Julia; and he always speaks of “the monde,” instead of either “the world” or “le monde.” And why “his sauvage nature” when no French word exists in the Russian? As for the classics: his Eol and Zoilus ought to be Aeolus and Zoïlus; and his “automatons and homunculi” ought to be “automata,” etc. And although he quotes Virgil in Latin, his speaking of the eclogues of “the overrated Virgil” as “stale imitations of the idyls of Theocritus” would seem to demonstrate that he cannot have had any very close acquaintance with this poet in the original, since Virgil, unlike Theocritus, is particularly accomplished in those qualities—tight verbal pattern and subtle effects of sound—which Nabokov particularly admires.

And then, there is the unnecessarily clumsy style, which seems deliberately to avoid point and elegance. “The ache of loss chases Tatiana” (as he chooses to spell her)—why not “pursues,” which would at least give a metrical line? “Well, this now makes sense. Do not be cross with me, my soul”—”makes sense” and “my soul” do not go together.

You will agree, my reader,
That very nicely did our pal
act toward melancholy Tatiana…

This is vulgarly phrased: “very nicely,” “our pal,” “act”—and so is “two-three pages.” And surely, from the point of view of style, it was unnecessary for anyone with so fine an ear for words to write:

Although we know that Eugene
had long ceased to like reading,
still, several works
he had exempted from disgrace…

Farewell, pacific sites!
Farewell, secluded refuge!
Shall I see you?

Nabokov translates literally “Увижу ль вас” where the English would be, “Shall I ever see you again?” Such passages sound like the products of those computers which are supposed to translate Russian into English.

Since Mr. Nabokov is the least modest of men, I do not hesitate to urge my own rival claims against him. I once, for the purpose of an essay on Pushkin, made a version of three stanzas of Evgeni Onegin, which Mr. Nabokov is kind enough to include in his notes and to compliment as “well translated.” He italicized, however, words and phrases of which he does not approve. Now, these versions of mine were done, as is sometimes Nabokov’s version, in rhythmic prose with a strong iambic base. I thus aimed to avoid padding, which is the almost inevitable penalty of trying to put Pushkin into English verse and which inevitably adulterates his quality, and which I believe I avoided completely when I later translated the whole of The Bronze Horseman. But in these stanzas from Evgeni Onegin, I have put in a few unimportant words in order to sustain the rhythm—such as “farm girl” for “girl,” “little boys” for “boys”—and Nabokov has pounced upon these. But, aside from them, my departures from the “literal” which have been obelized by Mr. Nabokov (I hope he has to look up that word) were dictated by the desire to do justice to Pushkin in preserving some poetic tone. When I say, for example, that “the caravan of loud-tongued (крикливых) geese stretched (тянулся) toward the south,” it is almost as literally accurate as and a good deal more poetically vivid than Nabokov’s “the caravan of clamorous geese was tending southward.” Again, with the description of the horse becoming aware of the wolf—”Его почуя, конь дорожный / Храпит”—I translated it “Sniffing him, the roadhorse snorts.” Now, the primary meaning of почуять is given by the small Müller-Boyanus dictionary and two others that I have consulted as to scent, to smell. Segal’s larger dictionary gives to scent, smell, hear; to get, have in the wind; Daum and Schenk’s Die Russischen Verben gives simply wittern. The great Russian dictionary of V. I. Dahl gives one of its meanings as нюхать, with an example, which is precisely to the point, “Почуя серого (волк), псы эалились!” “Smelling the gray one, the dogs began to bark.” The Soviet Pushkin Dictionary defines the word as “to feel, to perceive by the senses, principally by the sense of smell.” This word is used three times in Onegin in connection with the behavior of horses. Besides its occurrence in the passage above, we have it when the horses shy at Lensky’s corpse and in the passage describing winter. Nabokov always translates it “sensing.” Now, it is true that почуять, may mean to become aware of something by other ways than by smelling, but it is quite obvious in these passages that smelling is meant, and the three translators quoted by Nabokov for the passage describing winter who deal directly with the word at all make it either sniff or scent. Sniff goes a little further than scent, but it does not violate the sense. What we get here, however, from Nabokov is an egregious example of his style at its most perversepedantic impossible:

Winter! the peasant celebrating
in a flat sledge inaugurates the track;
his naggy, having sensed the snow,
shambles at something like a trot.
Edmund Wilson
— The New York Review of Books

Exiles in a small world

Vladimir Nabokov was a literary genius. There is no other word with which to describe a writer who, in mid-life, became a stylistic virtuoso in a language that was not his mother tongue. Circumstances - which is to say, the convulsions of 20th-century European politics - impelled him to achieve this feat, exchanging Russian for English as the medium of his art (as well as acquiring an enviable fluency in French along the way).

Nabokov was born, in 1899, into a patrician Russian family who were driven into exile by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. After studying at Cambridge University, he scraped a living as a writer in Berlin, and later in Paris, publishing novels in Russian (some of which were translated variously into English, German and French) without making any great impression on the literary world.

He came to America in 1940, with his Jewish wife, Véra, and their son, Dmitri, as virtually penniless refugees from Nazi-occupied France. In spite of lacking conventional academic credentials, Nabokov was able to find employment as a university teacher of Russian and comparative literature, first at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and from 1948 at Cornell University in upstate New York.

Over the same period he began to rebuild his career as a writer of fiction. His first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) had the misfortune to appear days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was barely noticed. But his essays and stories attracted the attention and admiration of editors and fellow writers, and in 1944 the New Yorker, which at this time enjoyed a uniquely prestigious position in the American literary world, acquired the right to first consideration of his work. His second novel in English was only a little more successful than its predecessor. This was Bend Sinister (1947) a dark fable about an imaginary (but obviously European) state under brutal totalitarian rule.

Over the next few years, Nabokov, in the intervals allowed by his teaching duties and other literary and scholarly projects, began to work on a novel set for the first time in America, based on an unpublished pre-war short story with a European setting about a man sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. Lolita grew in scale and complexity and caused him much labour and anxiety.

In the summer of 1953, when (on sabbatical leave from Cornell) he was drawing at last towards the end of this novel, Nabokov wrote a short story called "Pnin", about the comical misadventures of an expatriate Russian professor on his way to deliver a lecture to a women's club in a small American town. He created the new character partly as a relief from the dark obsessive world of Humbert Humbert - in his own words (in a letter to a friend) as a "brief sunny escape from [Lolita's] intolerable spell". But it is clear that the new project was also a kind of insurance against the difficulties that he expected to encounter in trying to publish a novel where a middle-aged man describes in lavish and eloquent detail his infatuation with and seduction of a 12-year-old girl.

From an early stage in the development of the character of Pnin, Nabokov planned to write a series of stories about him which could be published independently in the New Yorker, and later strung together to make a book, thus ensuring some continuity of publication and income while he tried to find a publisher for Lolita. This proved to be a shrewd professional strategy. It also partly explains the unusual form of Pnin. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Between them, the stories describe a continuous narrative arc, poignantly tracing Pnin's quest, which is ultimately frustrated, to find a home, or to make himself "at home" in alien Waindell. When Nabokov was looking for a publisher for the completed book he stressed the element of character:

"In Pnin I have created an entirely new character, the like of which has never appeared in any other book. A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterised by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual..."

Nabokov was not always so admiring of his creation. Sending the first story, "Pnin", to his editor at the New Yorker, Katharine White, he wrote in a covering letter, "he is not a very nice person but he is fun". The stance of author to character implied in the work itself comes somewhere between these two extremes, and is complicated by the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and Vladimir Nabokov. The Pnin that emerges from the whole sequence of stories is certainly an engaging character, in whose fortunes (mainly misfortunes) we take a sympathetic interest. We approve of the characters who befriend him and disapprove of those who exploit him. But he is essentially comic - pathetic at times, to be sure, but not a tragic hero. His appearance - the impressive combination of head, shoulders and torso that tapers off disappointingly in "a pair of spindly legs... and frail-looking, almost feminine feet" - is an anatomical anticlimax, an emblem of the kind of situation he is constantly getting himself into by some error of understanding or judgment.

Where did this character come from? There have been several suggestions for real-life models, the most plausible being Marc Szeftel, an émigré Russian historian, who was a colleague of Nabokov's at Cornell (which is recognisable as "Waindell College" in Pnin, according to those who know both the actual and the fictional campus). It is certainly significant that Szeftel was Jewish, because it is Pnin's association with his Jewish sweetheart Mira, and his anguish at her tragic fate that dignifies his character more than any other single trait. But there were other things Pnin apparently had in common with Szeftel, such as his imperfect English, which would have seemed less flattering to the putative model.

It is fairly obvious that Pnin was not an instantly recognisable portrait or caricature of Szeftel, for this would have been impossibly embarrassing for both men, who were not only colleagues, but also collaborators on a scholarly project (a study of a medieval Russian epic, The Song of Igor's Campaign) and met socially in private life. There is evidence, however, that Szeftel suspected the character of Pnin was partially based on himself, and somewhat resented the resemblance, without ever explicitly complaining about it.

Szeftel was both fascinated by and jealous of Nabokov's meteoric success with Lolita shortly after the publication of Pnin. He wrote an article entitled "Lolita at Cornell" for the Cornell Alumni News, long after both men had left the institution, and meditated on a book-length study of the novel which never materialised. Relations between the two men became cool, but while they were colleagues they seem to have made a tacit mutual agreement not to bring out into the open the extent to which Nabokov had borrowed traits from Szeftel to create the character of Pnin (a not unusual accommodation, in fact, between novelists and their friends and relations).

But the author himself had some things in common with his fictional character. Nabokov's lecturing style, for instance - reading from a carefully written text and making little or no eye contact with his audience - was similar to Pnin's. Nabokov too was capable of absent-mindedness, and on one famous occasion began lecturing obliviously to the wrong class until he was rescued by a student who had seen him entering the wrong lecture-room. (He dealt with the mistake more suavely than Pnin would have managed, however, saying before he left the room "You have just seen the 'Coming Attraction' for Literature 325. If you are interested, you may register next fall.")

Pnin shares, in a milder form, several of his creator's intellectual prejudices - against Freud and psychotherapy, for instance. But what links Nabokov to Pnin most strongly is that they are both exiles with painfully nostalgic memories of pre-revolutionary Russia and an inveterate hatred of and contempt for the communist regime that deprived them of their birthright. The ache of loss throbs not far below the comic surface of these tales and occasionally grips Pnin with the intensity of a heart attack.

It may have been to keep this powerful current of emotion under control that Nabokov made Pnin a more comical and absurd character than himself, borrowing traits from other émigré professors such as Szeftel. Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity - a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to understand fully the society in which he finds himself. Pnin, in short, is a composite of observation, introspection and invention, like most fictional characters.

To consider the possible sources of Pnin in Nabokov's experiences at Cornell is to be reminded that the book was a very early example of the "campus novel", a subgenre which is very familiar to us now, but was only just beginning to manifest itself in the early 50s. Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952) has some claim to be the first in the field, and Nabokov would certainly have been familiar with it, since he knew both McCarthy and her husband, Edmund Wilson, who was one of his closest literary friends at this time (they fell out later). Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954) which was, for those in the know, a riposte to McCarthy's book, gave a further impetus to the new genre, though Nabokov had already embarked upon the Pnin stories when it appeared.

What the three books have in common is a pastoral campus setting, a "small world" removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, in which social and political behaviour can be amusingly observed in the interaction of characters whose high intellectual pretensions are often let down by their very human frailties. The campus novel was from its beginnings, and in the hands of later exponents like Alison Lurie and Malcolm Bradbury, an essentially comic subgenre, in which serious moral issues are treated in a "light and bright and sparkling" manner (to borrow the phrase applied to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, who would certainly have a written a campus novel or two if she had lived in our era).

As well as being a pioneer of campus fiction, Nabokov was one of the first writers to whom the epithet "postmodern" may be usefully applied - that is to say, he had absorbed the lessons and achievements of modernism (in prose fiction represented supremely for him by Joyce and Proust) without feeling the need to reject the social realism of the 19th-century novel (he was devoted to Tolstoy and Jane Austen, for instance), but he developed an innovative form of fiction that was distinctively different from both of these traditions.

Novel of character, roman à clef, campus novel, epiphanic short story, postmodernist metafiction - Pnin contains elements of all these fictional subgenres, but ultimately it is sui generis, uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them. For those who know their Nabokov well it is full of allusions to and foreshadowings of those other works (especially Pale Fire, where Pnin reappears, happily ensconced in a tenured professorship at Wordsmith College), authorial in-jokes and hobby horses, and coded meanings concealed in proper names.

A formidable body of commentary and exegesis has by now accumulated around this slim volume. But even first-time readers cannot fail to appreciate Nabokov's marvellous and distinctive way with words. The apparently effortless fertility of his metaphorical imagination is never employed ostentatiously for its own sake, but always to give us an enhanced awareness of reality. For example, Pnin's habit of breaking off from the prepared text of his lectures to interpolate some personal reminiscence is described as "those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present" - a brilliant fusion of the literal and the metaphorical, of the physical and the emotional. Or take the more elaborated account of Pnin's reaction to the extraction of his teeth:

"It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate."

Were the effects of this banal but unpleasant operation ever described so vividly, sympathetically and humorously?

Nabokov does not aim simply at a perfect match between his language and his imagined world. There are always reminders in his work that reality is larger, denser and more various than any work of art can encompass - moments when the discourse suddenly seems to take off on its own and break through the formal limits of the story into the world outside the story, where the author and the reader exist, sometimes sadly:

"During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings... about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody."

The reference in chapter seven to Pnin's conference paper "Homer's and Gogol's use of the Rambling Comparison" acknowledges precedents for this trope, but Nabokov uses it in a wholly original way. And it is not only in figurative language that he is constantly reminding us of how much of reality the economy of art excludes. That is surely the point of the extraordinary plethora of proper names in this short text - over 300 of them. Some are fictional, some historical, some are mentioned only once, and others reappear unexpectedly in the story. Most trail with them some anecdotal fragment of a whole life, which if reported in its entirety would expand the book to epic proportions. This sentence, for example, wonderfully defies comprehension by sheer overload of disparate information, so that by the time you get to the end of it you have forgotten how it began: "Should one trace Victor's passion for pigments back to Hans Andersen (no relation to the bedside Dane), who had been a stained-glass artist in Lübeck before losing his mind (and believing himself to be a cathedral) soon after his beloved daughter married a gray-haired Hamburg jeweller, author of a monograph on sapphires and Eric's maternal grandfather?" When Nabokov submitted the complete Pnin to his American publishers, Viking, in the autumn of 1955, they rejected it on the grounds that it was "too short", probably a euphemistic way of saying that they thought it too unconventional in form for the fiction market. Harper, whom Nabokov tried next, also passed. Finally, in August 1956 Doubleday undertook to publish the book, and it appeared in March the following year. Over the same period Nabokov had experienced mixed fortunes with Lolita. Despairing of publishing it in America, he had agreed to its publication in 1955 by Maurice Girodias, a Paris-based publisher of works in English too sexually explicit to be tolerated in Britain and America.

When Graham Greene picked Lolita as one of his "books of the year" he drew international attention to it and started a controversy about the morality of the book which still continues. For a time Lolita was banned in France, but contraband copies circulated among the literati in England and America. In consequence, when Pnin was published Nabokov already enjoyed a kind of celebrity in America as the author of a highly controversial but generally unobtainable novel, variously described as a masterpiece and a piece of pornography. This ensured extensive, largely favourable review coverage for Pnin.

Though some critics complained that it was a collection of sketches rather than a novel, the book indubitably demonstrated that Nabokov was no sensationalist pornographer but a literary artist of rare ability. Pnin was reprinted twice within two weeks of publication. Nabokov had never known such success before, but it was nothing to what awaited him. When Lolita was at last published in America in the following year, 1958, it went on to sell millions, worldwide, and completely eclipsed Pnin in the public consciousness.

Lolita is the book for which Nabokov will always be best known, but it was Pnin which first established his reputation as a writer of distinction and originality in the medium of English, and as an American rather than an émigré author, representing the manners and speech and landscape of his adopted country as vividly as the Russia from which he was exiled.
David Lodge
— The Guardian

L’Affaire Laura de Jeff Edmunds

Le canular estudiantin de la tradition française demande, pour être accompli et sans faille, les mêmes ressources d’érudition, le même talent, le même soin que toute mystification littéraire. Il s’agit de se moquer des universitaires, critiques, savants, érudits de tout poil, et des chiens de garde du monde des lettres. Traduction supposée, fausse attribution, identité cachée, autant de moyens d’aimablement moquer l’intelligentsia, de berner joliment l’Académie, de duper la Sorbonne ou les convives de Drouant. Et si tel faux Rimbaud, tel faux Verlaine vient à être présenté et annoté par la plume la plus éminente, quelle jubilation, d’abord secrète, pour le faussaire!

Mais quand le canular prend la forme du subtil pastiche (non de la simple parodie), il rend hommage à l’artiste, dont les authentiques défenseurs applaudissent et saluent. On ne saurait aimer sa maîtresse sans lui froisser sa robe. Nabokov, lui-même polyonyme (comme disent les savants critiques et taxinomistes experts), aurait sans doute apprécié tant l’habileté que l’impertinence de la présente entreprise. N’a-t-il pas rendu hommage à l’un de ses pasticheurs (Peter Lubin) dont il soulignait le talent consommé?

L’imitateur exorcise-t-il une influence assujettissante? Parfois, sans doute, s’il est lui-même écrivain ou artiste. Mais il est à présumer que Nabokov, qui honnissait le charlatan viennois, aurait répugné à y voir la résolution de quelque conflit œdipien... Pourtant, l’impertinence ne prend son sens que si, ordinairement, prévaut le respect institutionnel : l’écart et la dérive ne valent que par la norme. Le plagiaire, on le sait, est d’abord un voleur d’enfants. Le pasticheur se contente, lui, de jouer avec eux. À des jeux interdits.

La création d’auteur ex nihilo - d’Ossian à Clara Gazul, de Joseph Delorme à Vernon Sullivan ou Émile Ajar - va en sens opposé au pastiche puisque c’est le texte qui crée l’auteur, lequel n’existe que par lui. Si le pastiche est un mimétisme, la fausse attribution imite ce qui n’existait pas mais, loué à l’égal d’une œuvre authentique, sera bientôt imité. À ce jeu, rappelle Jeff Edmunds, Nabokov s’est essayé après son maître Pouchkine, et avec la réussite que l’on sait. S’il pratique la fausse traduction de l’anglais (et la signe Vivian Calmbrood, anagramme parmi de multiples à venir), il donne un aperçu lacunaire et convaincant de la biographie du traducteur. Si (en hommage à un authentique poète et ami, adepte des mêmes supercheries) il publie un poème sous le pseudonyme insolent mais non percé à jour de Vassili Shishkov, il compose ensuite, sous son propre nom de plume, la vie du poète, ou ce qu’il dit en savoir : hypostase de l’auteur, il prend chair à partir du verbe, non le sien mais celui de son créateur, puis, poète de quinze ans, s’évanouit et son œuvre demeure son seul sépulcre.

Singulièrement, la mort est un élément nécessaire du canular littéraire. Dying is fun... : trois ans avant de s’éteindre, c’est par ces mots, comme Jeff Edmunds s’en souvient, que Nabokov envisageait de faire suivre le titre de The Original of Laura: permettons-nous de les prendre dans un sens un peu différent de celui que leur prêtait sans doute le romancier. L’œuvre apocryphe ne peut se maintenir et subsister quelque temps qu’en l’absence de son auteur supposé. Sa biographie aux lacunes aussi provocantes que frustrantes demande, puzzle incomplet, qu’il ne soit plus là pour infirmer les faits ou renier les écrits. Mieux : sa mort, qui parachève la trajectoire de sa vie, signe son œuvre, et son retour dérangerait. Dans «Un poète oublié», Nabokov imagine Pérov, jeune poète censément noyé à vingt-quatre ans et qui vient, au cinquantième anniversaire de sa mort, demander l’argent rassemblé pour son monument commémoratif, divisant ainsi les lettrés de Saint-Pétersbourg et troublant jusqu’au lecteur même. La mort est aussi un des ingrédients de la supercherie de Jeff Edmunds. Cela a pu choquer mais, ici encore, le romancier n’a-t-il pas donné l’exemple, lui dont l’œuvre abonde en confusions d’identités, captations de passés et appropriations d’œuvres, la plus célèbre étant sans doute celle pratiquée dans Feu pâle par Kinbote sur le corps inerte de Shade, dont la mort violente travestit le traumatisme majeur que fut pour Nabokov celle de son propre père ? Ressemblances et feintises...

Mais, après tout, Jeff Edmunds a fait son collaborateur constant de Kinbote; à moins qu’il ne s’agisse de Botkin. Fugitivement, dans une note, il se prend à rêver: et si le meilleur traducteur de Nabokov en russe avait pu, réapparu tel Pérov, traduire ces fragments inédits, qui n’eussent plus alors été posthumes? Corot n’a-t-il pas de bonne grâce signé les pastiches commis par ses amis peintres? Picasso n’a-t-il pas, en toute ignorance ou indifférence, authentifié des faux qu’on lui présentait? À l’inverse, le plus brillant faussaire est souvent reconnu comme un expert. Si Jeff Edmunds n’est pas le faussaire Axel Rex de Chambre obscure retrouvant an old friend dans le salon où il est reçu, la Laura du tableau lui est bien connue de longue date et quel dommage qu’un authentique faux de sa plume n’ait pas figuré parmi les fragments, véritables ou contrefaits, proposés à l’expertise des lecteurs de The Nabokovian!

Si voir publier des fragments inaboutis du maître a pareillement décontenancé la critique nabokovienne, c’est que, plus que quiconque et comme son personnage Sebastian Knight, Nabokov répugnait à montrer l’enfant avant terme et tout autant à voir subsister les membres épars et les fragments mort-nés. S’il dit préférer la première partie de La Recherche à la suite, c’est sans doute que Proust n’avait pu réviser le texte des derniers livres avant sa mort. Probablement pour la même raison, il estime davantage, de Kafka, La Métamorphose que Le Procès qui, inachevé à son décès, n’aurait pas été publié si Max Brod n’avait, comme on le sait, passé outre aux volontés du défunt. Nabokov s’en réjouit comme il jubile à lire, d’Eugène Onéguine, les passages écartés ...tout en déplorant que Pouchkine ne les ait pas détruits! Le souci de décence et l’exigence artistique se combinent ici: la camera lucida de la critique ne doit pas se substituer à la camera obscura de l’écriture. Cette rigueur étant proverbiale, Jeff Edmunds pouvait s’attendre à voir sa supercherie très vite éventée. Et pourtant.[...]
Didier Machu
— remue.net littérature

— Dieter E. Zimmer
— Lila Azam Zanganeh