Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »
Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov
Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013
DRAGUNOIU, Dana – Carleton University, Canada
The French Duel and Nabokovian Moral Autonomy
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov asserts that “[a] Russian duel was a much more serious affair than the conventional Parisian variety.” In his annotations to Eugene Onegin, Nabokov traces this lack of seriousness to the 1830s when the French bastardized the dueling code that they had made influential in the late 16th century and turned it into the farcical “‘back-to-back-march-face-about-fire’ affair popularized in modern times by movies and cartoons.”
The lovingly detailed description that Nabokov lavishes on “the classical duel à volonté of the French code” may strike us anachronistic. Historians of the duel (Kiernan, Reyfman, Appiah) tell us that dueling met with fierce criticism even at the height of its popularity. Montaigne spoke for many such critics when he noted that the duel’s “laws of honor […] shock and trouble those of reason.” Nabokov’s own father published an influential essay in the liberal juridical weekly Pravo denouncing dueling as a barbaric custom opposed to the principles of justice and the mores of cultured society. And yet, in spite of his public condemnation of dueling, Nabokov’s father did not hesitate to fight a duel when his own honor was impugned. My paper will make a two-pronged argument. First, I will argue that Nabokov was deeply invested in the duel for reasons at once personal, literary, ethical, and metaphysical. Second, I will argue that Nabokov’s understanding of the duel was inextricably tied to the French cultural landscape.
“No Russian writer of any repute has failed to describe une rencontre, a hostile meeting,” he writes in Speak, Memory. His choice of language underscores the dual citizenship of what he calls “the Franco-Russian code” that Russian duelists adopted and dutifully upheld in their own battles over personal honor. By focusing on what Nabokov wrote about such famous Russian historical and literary rencontres (Pushkin’s with Georges d’Anthès, Onegin’s with Lenski, Bazarov’s with Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov), I will argue that dueling becomes the ultimate test case of a man’s autonomy and moral virtue in Nabokov’s hierarchy of values.
Dana Dragunoiu is an Associate Professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism (Northwestern UP, 2011). She has also published scholarly articles on J.M. Coetzee, Ernest Hemingway, Stendhal, and contemporary film. She is currently working on her second book, provisionally titled “Kant and the Twentieth-Century Novel.”