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Vladimir Nabokov et la France

Yannicke Chupin
Agnès Edel-Roy
Monica Manolescu
et al.

I. L'Invention de la France et de l'Europe

Do you mind cutting out the French? Nabokov’s disinvention of Europe

Michael Wood

Texte intégral


  • 1 This translation is unusual in leaving the French intact, although it does, rather oddly, render th (...)

–Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des pomestja, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) – je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus moj vernyj rab, comme vous dites1.
(Tolstoy, 3)

1As readers will have recognized, this is a quotation from a great Russian novel but it is not a translation from Russian into French. It is the French, lightly scattered with Russian, spoken by a Russian lady in War and Peace. French is her native language, or one of her native languages, and the Russian phrases confirm this suggestion. Similarly Tatiana, in Eugene Onegin, writes her famous letter in French, although Pushkin doesn’t provide us with the actual French text.

2This doesn’t mean we can’t read it, because Nabokov in his commentary has helpfully supplied a version, put together from three published French translations of the poem and his own imagination. “I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this,” as Charles Kinbote says of a similar phenomenon in Pale Fire (207). Nabokov is offering a translation into French of a letter in Russian that is a purported translation of the letter in French that neither Tatiana nor Pushkin actually wrote—Tatiana because she is fictional and is only reported to have written it, and Pushkin because he has decided not to, and gives us only a Russian version, “an incomplete, feeble translation” (Pushkin, 164) as he says in Nabokov’s rendering of the line. The mind spins, as it is supposed to; and Nabokov the commentator continues on his scholarly way, as if nothing had happened. He has just supplied a missing piece of reality, that’s all; of completely fictional reality.

3I offer these two literary instances of Russian French as aids to thinking about the invention of France in Nabokov, which is half of my topic for today. The other half is the disinvention of France, since disinvention, as I understand it, always has a particular invention in mind which it wishes to undo or replace. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is a nonce-word, that is a word with no ordinary or current use, and the American Heritage Dictionary is even more emphatic:

One cannot ordinarily attach the prefix dis-in its sense of “undo” to a verb that refers to an irreversible act or process. Disinvent is an exception. This word was apparently coined by military or political figures, as its usage is almost entirely restricted to the realm of arms-reduction talks.

4Tolstoy did not invent his French-speaking lady, he borrowed her from the historical world he was representing. Nabokov did not (quite) invent the French of Tatiana’s letter, but its status is different from that of the speech in Tolstoy: it is off the page, part of an imagined world within an imagined world. And yet Nabokov would say that both cases are instances of invention. Tolstoy not only borrowed the lady from history, he made her come alive, gave her a vivid, personal idiom; Nabokov not only pursued a fictional letter to its hiding place, he made up the hiding place. These are the kinds of creative acts Nabokov is thinking of when, in his afterword to Lolita, he says: “it had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by the task of inventing America” (312).

5It is just such a recreation that Nabokov feels he did not entirely accomplish in The Gift:

In the days I worked on this book, I did not have the knack of recreating Berlin and its colony of expatriates as radically and ruthlessly as I have done in regard to certain environments in my later, English, fiction. Here and there history shows through artistry.
Foreword, no page number)

6Most of us are not going to be able to invent already existing locations, the grammar of the word forbids it. But that is what novelists do. The case of America is especially interesting, as Nabokov knows, since it often regards itself as an invented place, or indeed as a place still to be invented; so that having re-invented real places he now had to tackle the re-invention of an invention.

7But then Nabokov rather notoriously uses the word invent in a simpler, more direct sense.

I could never understand why every book of mine invariably sends reviewers scurrying in search of more or less celebrated names for the purpose of passionate comparison... One author, however, has never been mentioned in this connection—the only author whom I must gratefully recognize as an influence upon me at the time of writing this book; namely, the melancholy, extravagant, wise, witty, magical, and altogether delightful Pierre Delalande, whom I invented.
Invitation to a Beheading, 6)

8Here we do not assume that Nabokov is referring either to an already existing writer or to a writer in the process of invention, under construction as we say nowadays. We assume he just means he made the fellow up. Are we right to assume this? We are right, I suggest, to assume that this is what Nabokov wants us to assume, but that is not quite the same thing.

9Let’s take a closer look at the appearances of Delalande. I’m not simply taking him as shorthand for “France” in this context; but I do think it is significant that he is French. And that he is invented, therefore “French”; an emblem and not just a native. If we continue past the quotation I have just offered we meet the title of a book, Discours sur les ombres; and if we leave the foreword and turn to the epigraph we get a sentence and a name and a title:

Comme un fou se croit Dieu,
Nous nous croyons mortels.

Delalande [mispelt in old editions]:
Discours sur les ombres

10There is also what seems to be a further reference to Delalande in the foreword, although not by name:

My favorite author (1768-1849) once said of a novel now utterly forgotten “Il a tout pour tous. Il fait rire l’enfant et frissonner la femme. Il donne à l’homme du monde un vertige salutaire et fait rêver ceux qui ne rêvent jamais.” Invitation to a Beheading can claim nothing of the kind… But (as the author of Discours sur les ombres said in reference to another lamplight): I know (je connais) a few (quelques) readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair.
Invitation to a Beheading, 7)

11We need to pause to note a couple of things here. If the madman is mad to believe he is god, we are mad to believe we are mortal. We shouldn’t neglect the eloquent anti-rationalist claim. But as David Rampton reminds us, the epigram “is not quite a straightforward claim for our immortality either. A madman can believe himself to be a king and become that king, and not just in Pale Fire” (70). Perhaps the madman isn’t mad, and then we have to revise our belief. Or both he and we are mad, but not wrong. It’s the entanglement in madness that complicates the claim, and Rampton makes an important connection to Nabokov’s Pushkin essay, published (in French) in the Nouvelle Revue française in 1937.

12And then the gap between the favourite author’s critical edict and Nabokov’s novel is striking. Delalande’s remark concerns a novel not just forgotten but utterly forgotten, and is banal even if eloquent. This is not the sort of blurb Nabokov is looking for, and he seems to have conjured it up in order to reject a whole genre of comment: “Invitation to a Beheading can claim nothing of the kind.” And doesn’t want to; sees its unavailability for such comment as a mark of distinction. At this point it’s Delalande whose status needs to be restored, and this happens through the evocation of “another lamplight.” We might think there is a miniature novel lurking here. Delalande was happy to praise a mediocre book because… he knew and liked the author, he thought banality had its place in life, he enjoyed parodying styles that were not his own, like to pretend to be saying what he was supposed to be saying. But when it came to his real tastes, his real pleasures, the last thing he wanted was a book for everyone. He wanted something like Invitation to a Beheading, he wanted to have for himself and to be among those few readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair rather than smoothing their feathers.

13The favourite author, the French thinker, is an unstable figure then, too elusive and too putatively ironic to represent a single point of view. We don’t quite know whose side he is on, and in this uncertain perspective Nabokov’s claim to have been influenced by him is very suggestive. The claim is clear in one simple sense. To be influenced by someone you have yourself invented is to have been influenced by no one, to be self-invented. But then surely it is also possible actually to be influenced by one’s own inventions, and our double question might then become what sort of influence did this “melancholy, extravagant, wise, witty, magical, and altogether delightful” Frenchman have on Nabokov, and what sort of picture of France might we draw from our sense of this influence?

14There is a little more groundwork to do. When Nabokov said in 1959 that he invented Pierre Delalande he was not saying he had invented him at that moment or for that book. He had invented him in the years 1935 to 1937, in The Gift, to be precise. In that novel a dying man recalls that “the French thinker Delalande” did not take his hat off at a funeral because he was “waiting for death to do it first (qu’elle se découvre la première)”. The speaker acknowledges that there is “lack of metaphysical gallantry” in this refusal of a gesture, “but death deserves no more” (The Gift, 309). He goes on to consider the relation of fear to religion and then cites the Discours sur les ombres with a page number (45). Death is merely a mode of exit, a door, and Delalande writes, “I refuse to see in a door more than a hole, and a carpenter’s job.” And after dismissing the traditional metaphor of life as a road to be travelled, he adds:

For our stay-at-home senses the most accessible image of our future comprehension of those surroundings which are due to be revealed to us with the disintegration of the body is the liberation of the soul from the eye-sockets of the flesh and our transformation into one complete and free eye, which can simultaneously see in all directions, or to put it differently: a supersensory insight into the world accompanied by our inner participation.
The Gift, 310)

15It may be well be the difficulty of hanging on to this thought that makes us believe we are mortal. At the end of the book Fyodor says he wants to “translate something in my own manner from an old French sage—in order to reach a final dictatorship over words, because in my Chernyshevski they are still trying to vote” (The Gift, 364). There are ambiguities here because of the political metaphor. Fyodor probably means just what he says, and Nabokov may mean the same. There’s nothing in Nabokov’s writing that suggests he believes words have any democratic rights. But there is plenty to suggest he didn’t believe in dictatorships of any kind, even over words, and even when he was the dictator. It seems reasonable to take sage in question to be Delalande, as most critics have, and to imagine that when Fyodor continues to say “he” and reports on a legendary picture of life’s ending he has the same French writer in mind. This was the man who told the following story:

There was once a man… he lived as a true Christian; he did much good, sometimes by word, sometimes by deed, and sometimes by silence; he observed the fasts; he drank the water of mountain valleys (that’s good, isn’t it?); he nurtured the spirit of contemplation and vigilance; he lived a pure, difficult, wise life; but when he sensed the approach of death, instead of thinking about it, instead of tears of repentance and sorrowful partings, instead of monks and a notary in black, he invited guests to a feast, acrobats, actors, poets, a crowd of dancing girls, three magicians, jolly Tollenburg students, a traveler from Taprobana, and in the midst of melodious verses, masks and music he drained a goblet of wine and died, with a carefree smile on his face… Magnificent, isn’t it? If I have to die one day that’s exactly how I’d like it to be.
The Gift, 365)

16“If I have to die...” Fyodor is almost certainly still thinking of Delalande at the very close of his book—the book about him and the book he has written. Fyodor’s book too is a discourse on shadows:

Like mortal eyes, imagined ones must close some day. Onegin from his knees will rise—but his creator strolls away. And yet the ear cannot right now part with the music and allow the tale to fade; the chords of fate itself continue to vibrate; and no obstruction for the sage exists where I have put The End: the shadows of my world extend beyond the skyline of the page, blue as tomorrow’s morning haze—nor does this terminate the phrase.
The Gift, 366)

17Brian Boyd tells us that the Russian text marks the shadows as “the prolonged ghost of being” (Boyd, 474). And Gennady Barabtarlo ingeniously suggests that Fyodor’s translation of Delalande is in fact Invitation to a Beheading, the book he wrote between his Chernyshevski and The Gift: “the very book the hero of The Gift means to adapt in his own manner, from the author of the Tract on Shadows” (37). The “beings akin to” Cincinnatus who wait for him at his death/non-death are “strictly speaking, the personae of another Nabokov novel,” that is to say triply invented: by Delalande, who was invented by Nabokov, and by Fyodor, who translated the work of this invention.

18Delalande arrived a little late for the Enlightenment—we recall his dates are 1768 to 1849, he was four when the last volume of the Encyclopédie appeared, ten when Rousseau died, sixteen when Diderot died. He himself died a year after Chateaubriand, a year before Balzac. He lived through the Revolution of 1789, the Napoleonic Wars, the July Revolution of 1830, the untidy double Revolution of 1848. He did not live to see the coup of Louis Napoleon or the Second Empire. He was, what we know of him suggests, too late for the Age of Reason and too rational to be a Romantic. He was the atheist believer, the madman who thought we were not mortal, who imagined an afterlife without a heaven or a religion. At the “disintegration of the body” our new single eye would open only on the unrestricted real world. And this is what I take France to be within this pattern of suggestion: the idealized, perhaps impossible home of an Enlightenment liberated from the cage of its own admirable convictions.

19Of course if Pierre Delalande wrote Invitation to a Beheading, there is a great deal more to say about him, but for the moment I shall just ask whether we think it is strange or careless or typical of him that he should give his first name to the garrulous executioner in that novel, M’sieur Pierre. The gesture confirms his unreliable status as an influence or supporter—somewhat in the way that Hitchcock’s appearances in his films often raise questions we would rather not answer—and it reminds us that when characters die in fiction it is always the author who carries out the death sentence, indeed who establishes the sentence in the first place. Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons vivants. Nous croyons ne pas être des personnages de roman.


20I have said nothing so far about the first part of my title: “Do you mind cutting out the French?” The full sentence in its context in Lolita is: “But do you mind very much cutting out the French? It annoys everybody” (243). Humbert has just said “Bonjour, mon petit,” but of course he has been treating us to snippets of French since the book began, and he is not even Russian. We should note too Humbert’s unconscious mastery of Lolita’s idiom. It is not just a matter of cutting out the French, as in editing it away or getting rid of it. It is a matter of “cutting it out,” whatever “it” is, as in the phrase, “Cut it out, will you?” My title has another context too. It is stolen from an article by Yannicke Chupin—well, first unintentionally stolen then intentionally borrowed. When I asked her what she thought of this phrase as a title she said she thought it was pretty good, and had used it herself. What she said exactly is: “I love the title you propose—love it so much that in fact I’ve already used this quote as the title of one of my articles… Isn’t this a little Nabokovian… or maybe Borgesian?”

21More than a little, but enjoyably so. I enjoyed Yannicke Chupin’s article too, which I highly recommend. She explores the ways in which French language and culture form the principal literary sub-text of Lolita, telling us that “[n] on seulement Baudelaire, Ronsard, Flaubert, Mérimée ou Proust y sont nommés, cités, parodiés, mais le lexique français figure à toutes les pages du roman” (Chupin, 51). French and Frenchness are among Humbert’s chief instruments for maintaining a distance from the America in which he is immersed, his “regard européen” creates a constant “épreuve de comparaison.” This habit of his is fussy and can be annoying, as Lolita suggests. But it is also, in the end, a complicated triumph of bi-lingual style, and the source, as Yannicke Chupin suggests, of much of the “extraordinary vitality” of the writing.

22The French language is often a touchstone in Nabokov’s fiction, and works in different ways. The director of the prison in Invitation to a Beheading likes to slip into French now and again. “Pour la digestion,” he says. “Demain matin.” “N’y faites pas attention.” “C’est vraiment superflu” (16, 57, 85, 177). This is sheer affectation, the verbal equivalent of overdressing. We see Charlotte Haze’s vulgarity in the manner in which she mangles French, but also in the mere pretentious fact of her turning to it at all. Conversely Professor Blorenge, the chair of the French department in Pnin, is condemned for not wanting anyone who knows any French to come near any of the department’s students, and for himself believing that Chateaubriand was a French chef. French is the global sign of culture, misclaimed more often than not, but a grievous absence when entirely ignored. When the pianist Bachmann fiddles with the piano stool before performing, we are told that “English audiences [are] touched, French, diverted, German, annoyed” (Stories, 119). It’s clear that national stereotypes are energetically in play here; clear too that passports are easy to obtain: if you’re “diverted,” rather than stupidly annoyed or mawkishly touched, you acquire French nationality.

23We might think too of the narrator of “The Vane Sisters.” He is a Frenchman who teaches French at small college in New England, and a sort of minor avatar of Pierre Delalande. We meet the latter’s liberated single eye, at least in metaphor, on the second page of the story. The narrator is an aesthete of small visual sensations, and has been engaged in what he calls “a series of trivial investigations”: waiting for the shadow of a drop from a melting icicle to fall, detailing for us “the dazzling diamond reflections of the low sun on the round back of a parked automobile”. “I walked on in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket” (Stories, 615). But he lacks Delalande’s convictions. He would like to believe life continues after death and thinks he might be receiving oblique messages from Cynthia, the second of the Vane sisters to die. But he misses the actual message he receives, just as he misses the dark, desperate wit of the other sister’s using a French examination as a suicide note. Cette examain est finie, ainsi que ma vie,” Sybil Vane wrote on her paper. Adieu, jeunes filles!” Her sister “beam[s] through her tears with proud admiration for the whimsical use” Sybil has made of the examination process, but the narrator can only point out the unfortunate girl’s grammatical mistakes, and comment on the usage of “jeunes filles” rather than “filles” (Stories, 618).

24French is associated with pedantry here, as it often is in Nabokov, and with a certain obtuseness. But the implied allusion to Delalande is important, and it is not this man’s fault if he can only aestheticize sensations rather than see what they might be saying. This is a danger Nabokov saw in his own work, and the narrator of the story is close to revelation even if he doesn’t get it.


25As Yannicke Chupin suggests, Humbert Humbert creates a wonderful transatlantic style by clinging to his French. But he is clinging, and the European exile is still an exile. When Rimbaud’s drunken boat—Nabokov translated the poem in 1928 and its title and a key phrase from it make several appearances in Lolita—feels a longing for Europe, we know the adventure is over. “Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets,” the speaker says; and the poem’s frantic, exorbitant energy begins to fade. Europe is still a loss and a longing in Lolita, like the Russian language Nabokov says he “had to abandon” (316). His old inventions are still in play, we might say.

26But in Nabokov’s later American work something else happens. The chief characters in Pnin and Pale Fire have lost a language and a world but they do not live in that loss, and nor does their author. And in Ada that author has transplanted a whole old world to the new world, and made that new world old. This is to say that while Humbert mixes French into his astounding American style, the later prose speaks different languages at will, like the Russians in Tolstoy and Pushkin. This stylistic shift is what I am calling the disinvention of Europe. The old inventions recede and are not replaced. Europe is not a ghost or a memory, it becomes part of the texture of Nabokov’s America, part of his invention of America if you like. And what happens to French in the later Nabokov is part of the process. I am not (exactly) saying that French is simple shorthand for Europe in Nabokov’s thought, any more than Pierre Delalande is shorthand for France. I am saying that if we took France away there would, for Nabokov, not be much of Europe left.

27Let’s look at some later appearances of French culture, in this case French poetry and English poetry in French translation. “You went on,” John Shade writes, addressing his wife, another Sybil, “Translating into French Marvell and Donne.” Here is the beginning of Kinbote’s commentary on these lines (677-678):

Two of these translations appeared in the August number of the Nouvelle Revue Canadienne which reached College Town bookshops in the last week of July, that is at a time of sadness and mental confusion when good taste forbade me to show Sybil Shade some of the critical notes I made in my pocket diary.

28We may note that, characteristically, good taste is not going to stop him sharing these quibbles with us now. Kinbote continues:

In her version of Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet X composed in his widowery:

    Death be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so

one deplores the superfluous ejaculation in the second line introduced there only to coagulate the caesura:

    Ne soit pas fière, Mort! Quoique certains te disent
    Et puissante et terrible, ah, Mort, tu ne l’es pas.

29Kinbote says he has “no space here” [why not] to list a number of other blurrings and blunders, and turns to another translation:

The other poem, Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Nymph on the Death of her Fawn,’ seems to be, technically, even tougher to stuff into French verse. If in the Donne translation, Miss Irondell was perfectly justified in matching English pentameters with French Alexandrines, I doubt that here she should have preferred l’impair and accommodated with nine syllables what Marvell fits into eight. In the lines:

    And, quite regardless of my smart,
    Left me his fawn but took his heart

which come out as:

    Et se moquant bien de ma douleur
    Me laissa son faon, mais pris son cœur

one regrets that the translator, even with the help of an ampler prosodic womb, did not manage to fold in the long legs of her French fawn, and render ‘quite regardless of’ by ‘ sans le moindre égard pour’or something of the sort.
Pale Fire, 240-242)

30Kinbote has other complaints about this translation and we may find ourselves wondering not why he is indulging himself but why Nabokov is indulging him. What is at stake here? There is the familiar association of French with pedantry but there is also the familiar implication that French matters, even when it is a question of English poetry, and that in translation the pedant is to be tolerated, even praised. Vive le pédant, as Nabokov says in his introduction to Invitation to a Beheading (7). And actually what Kinbote is expressing here, apart from his own vanity and his hostility to Sybil, is a delicate feeling for what is going on in verse, even if his own translation suggestions are not ideal. So perhaps I should rephrase my sentence. French matters because language matters and French here is a test for what is going on in English. Nabokov will have wanted us to note the irony in Kinbote’s two main points, Sybil’s introducing a pathos-inducing direct address (“ah Mort”) where there isn’t one in English and her refusal of the opportunity of a more literal translation of “regardless.” These are the sorts of errors of tact and language Kinbote himself commits throughout the book; indeed they pretty much compose his style.

31A kind of pedantry prevails on the subject of translation in Ada too, but a great deal of gaiety and complication surrounds it. Marvell is again in question, but represented by another work, and connected with Rimbaud. Two poems, one by each author, become the basis of a code in which Van and Ada communicate when separated.

Both Van and Ada still knew by heart the seventy-two lines of Marvell’s “The Garden” and the forty lines of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire.” It was from those two texts that they chose the letters of the words they needed.
Ada, 161)

32They derive this code from a particular moment in their lives—the moment when Ada first uses Van’s name, and when they can learn to know each other only by testing jokes and allusions. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

And when Van had understood the true situation, he would take advantage of a pause (which Marina was on the point of filling with some choice Stanislavskiana) to launch Ada upon the troubled waters of Botany Bay [...].

“As in the case of many flowers,” Ada went on, with a mad scholar’s quiet smile, “the unfortunate French name of our plant, souci d’eau, has been traduced or shall we say transfigured—”
“Flowers into bloomers,” punned Van Veen.
Je vous en prie, mes enfants!” put in Marina, who had been following the conversation with difficulty and now, through a secondary misunderstanding, thought the reference was to the undergarment.
“By chance, this very morning,” said Ada, not deigning to enlighten her mother, “our learned governess, who was also yours, Van, and who—”
(First time she pronounced it—at that botanical lesson!)
“—is pretty hard on English-speaking transmongrelizers—monkeys called ‘ursine howlers’ —though I suspect her reasons are more chauvinistic than artistic and moral—drew my attention—my wavering attention—to some really gorgeous bloomers, as you call them, Van, in a Mr. Fowlie’s
soi-disant literal version [...] of Mémoire, a poem by Rimbaud [...].”—
“… les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes…” quoted Van triumphantly. [...]
“—the nuance of willows, and [...]
ciel de lit which Fowlie turns into ‘the sky’s bed’ instead of ‘bed ceiler.’ But, to go back to our poor flower. The forged louis d’or in that collection of fouled French is the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’ [...].”
“On the other hand,” said Van, “one can well imagine a similarly bilingual Miss Rivers checking a French version of, say, Marvell’ s
“Oh,” cried Ada, “I can recite ‘Le jardin’ in my own trans-version—let me see—En vain on s’amuse à gagner
L’Oka, la Baie du Palmier …”
“… to win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes!” shouted Van.
Ada, 63-65)

33I have space here only to point to just a few of the features that make this passage so swift and perfect an example of Nabokov’s disinvention of Europe, and his construction of a place where no one will call for a cutting out of the French, since it is manifestly a natural language in this magical country.

34There is first the joke about Botany Bay, associating Ada’s interest in flowers with deported English criminals, and anticipating her transformation of the English bay tree to a French coastal inlet. We also understand that even dangerous botany, or especially dangerous botany, is more fun than Marina’s anecdotes about the theatre. Ada’s “mad scholar’s quiet smile” is part of her charm, part disguise and part sincerity, a reflection of genuine stubborness: nothing is going to stop her from talking about the marsh marigold, souci d’eau in French. Van’s pun about the bloomers is a terrible one, but almost redeemed by Marina’s misunderstanding of it which creates a ricochet effect: flowers are bloomers are mistakes are underpants. Then we get the French governess, Mlle Larivière, and her comment on an actual (1966) translation of Rimbaud by Wallace Fowlie. This is soi-disant literal but also wrong; wrong because it’s too literal, and the translator doesn’t know the souci d’eau is a flower. “The care of the water” doesn’t make any sense but it is what the French literally says. Van is more interested in Ada than in any of this, and very glad of the chance to show that he knows the Rimbaud poem and can quote it—at this moment, it begins to turn into their code. And picking up the idea that Mlle Larivière’s criticisms of Fowlie may be “more chauvinistic than artistic and moral,” he offers an imaginary English counterpart to the French governess, a Miss Rivers, who might feel the same about a French version of... “say, Marvell’s Garden.” We haven’t left the world of flowers but we have switched countries—or rather we haven’t switched countries either, we have had a reminder of what a bilingual, bicultural country sounds like.

35Ada leaps on this poem as Van had leapt on the Rimbaud, and offers a fragment of her own “trans-version,” where she manages to match Marvell’s rhyme (amaze/bays) with one of her own (gagner/palmier) and completely neglect the meaning of the English for its sound: the oak tree becomes the oka plant, and palm and the bays, as I have suggested, becomes the bay of the palm tree. This is not quite as violent or as brilliant as Ada’s transposition of a famous line from King Lear, where “never, never, never, never, never” becomes “n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert” (Ada, 92) but it is in the same mode: a translation of sound via grammar. The grammar is correct, that is, and the sound is (sort of) the same. The meaning is simply different, not translated but abandoned. It’s intriguing to find Nabokov, the great supposed stickler for literal translation, having his characters play these games. And the large point remains: languages are, or can be in dialogue with each other but the very terms of the dialogue are uncertain. What is certain is that you can’t have a dialogue unless there are at least two languages.

36In his foreword to Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov pretends to be unable to find a name for what he is up to in reworking his Russian novels. He has only an ungainly definition:

If some day I make a dictionary of definitions wanting single words to head them, a cherished entry will be “To abridge, expand, or otherwise alter or cause to be altered, for the sake of belated improvement, one’s own writings in translation.”

37I found myself, with this model in mind, trying out a definition that might match the notions both of not cutting out the French and disinventing a continent:

38To evoke, play with, or otherwise make use of, for the sake of a helpless fidelity to the riches and poverties of national languages, pieces of one idiom in the territory of another, and to cherish the cosmopolitan kingdom that results.


Barabtarlo, Gennady. (1993): Aerial View. Essays on Nabokov’s Art and Metaphysics. New York, Peter Lang.

Boyd, Brian. (1990): Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Chupin, Yannicke. (2008): «“Do you mind very much cutting out the French?” Le français de Humbert dans Lolita de Vladimir Nabokov» Revue Française d’Études Américaines 115.1, p. 50-59.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1997): Lolita [1955]. New York, Vintage.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1989): Invitation to a Beheading [1959]. Tr. Dmitri Nabokov. New York, Vintage.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1989): Pale Fire [1962]. New York, Vintage.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1991): The Gift [1963]. Transl. Michael Scammell. New York, Vintage.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1990): Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle [1969]. New York, Vintage.

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Rampton, David. (2012): Vladimir Nabokov: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Tolstoy, Leo. (2008): War and Peace. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, Vintage.


1 This translation is unusual in leaving the French intact, although it does, rather oddly, render the Russian words into English. I have restored them here.


Professeur émérite de littérature anglaise et comparée à l’université de Princeton. Il est notamment l’auteur de García Márquez : One Hundred Years of Solitude (1990), The Magician’s Doubts. Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (1994), Children of Silence (1998), The Road to Delphi (2003), Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (2005) et Yeats and Violence (2010).

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