ASSOCIATION : Manifestations – Colloque 2013 – RAMPTON

Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »

Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013

RAMPTON, David – Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa, Canada
Mediocrity, Platitudes, and Arch Criminals: French Literature in Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin

    Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin has quite rightly come to be seen as a dramatic encounter between Russian and English, an attempt to work out a new understanding of how the “to” language in a translation can be related to the “from”. It is also a four-volume magnum opus, organized around one grand idea, the dream of absolute fidelity, and occasioned by a desire to mitigate the difficulties of aesthetic access, even as it acknowledges the necessity of resigning oneself to them. In this way Pushkin’s great narrative poem becomes Nabokov’s extraordinarily useful crib and a monumental exercise in the exigencies of exhaustive annotation and creative commentary. But French figures prominently in every aspect of this edition. As we work through the massive number of notes, Nabokov’s third language and its literature create their own set of reference points and apposite allusions, their matrix of sources, their conventions and their admonitions. In the end, the relevance of what a multitude of French writers – poets, translators, novelists, philosophers, literary critics – did in the hundred years preceding the poem’s publication arguably makes French as important a language for this version of Eugene Onegin as Pushkin’s inimitable Russian and Nabokov’s fiendishly precise and provocative English.
    Scholars have made substantial efforts to annotate Nabokov’s annotations, and now that French Slavists and French critics interested in his work are seeing so much of each other, we shall no doubt learn more about the multiple roles that French literature played in the creation of Pushkin’s masterpiece. Yet despite the considerable work devoted to discussing this translation in the almost 50 years since its appearance, it seems fair to say that the tone of Nabokov’s commentary has militated against instant, enthusiastic, and universal recognition of his achievement on the part of French critics. True, Nabokov heaps extravagant praise on Chateaubriand, speaks highly of Constant’s Adolphe, compliments Parny on his erotic poems, describes Musset as colourful and witty, greatly admires Senancour’s Oberman, and writes sympathetically about figures like Bichat, but dozens of figures from 18th– and 19th-century French literature are banished from the ranks of serious literature and consigned to the scrap heap of the mediocre. Its poets are hopelessly conventional, its translations (from languages ancient and modern) appalling, its conventions outdated, its insights mere commonplaces, its studies superficial, its ultimate irrelevance utterly assured. Virulent black humour is the order of the day: one of the worst offenders, Paul Bitaubé, who had the audacity to publish a well received prose abridgement of Homer’s epics in the 1780s is called an “arch criminal”.
    My purpose here is not so much to explain the reasons for or debate the cogency of such sweeping and passionate dismissals but rather to muse about their consequences. By concentrating on four major figures singled out for special opprobrium – Madame de Stael, Voltaire, Sainte-Beuve and Rousseau – I want to show how such judgments can deflect the attention of those interested in the links between Pushkin and French literature, and how his insistence on their vapidity orchestrates the inexorable return of what Nabokov seeks to repress. Far from being negligible figures in the complex story of Onegin’s genesis and execution, what these writers thought and wrote links them in important ways to the many issues Pushkin’s great poem raises, and to the concerns that Nabokov revisits in his commentary on it.
    In this paper, I shall confine myself to a few examples. Nabokov quotes Mme de Stael on how interesting it would be to compare Schiller’s views on lost youth (in his poem “Ideals”) with Voltaire’s. Nabokov goes on to say that he performed such a comparison and found nothing of note. In fact, the links between Schiller’s poem and Voltaire’s nostalgic meanderings turn out to be quite illuminating, and set up a veritable matrix of suggestive echoes. Voltaire’s verse may be as “abominably pedestrian” as Nabokov says it is, but it relates in interesting ways to the discussion of Gallicisms, platitudes, and general ideas raised by Pushkin’s poem. Where Pushkin finds “dry precision” in Sainte-Beuve’s comments on Delorme Nabokov can see only florid generalities. As the context of Pushkin’s observation and the thrust of Sainte-Beuve’s commentary make clear, the eminent French critic’s insights take us far beyond Delorme, to the very heart of the debate about melancholy and ennui in Europe at this time. Nabokov insists that the trashy quality of Rousseau’s work obviates the need for musing about parallels between his novel Julie and Onegin. Again, his claim is as misleading as the connections are suggestive. 
    Of course Nabokov’s loathing for what he calls in his commentary “elephantine platitudes” and their purveyors goes far beyond 18th– and 19th-century French literature. In the Onegin commentary he mentions Cervantes, George Eliot, Mann and Faulkner as examples of the same phenomenon, mediocre writers whose reputations have been inexplicably puffed up by academics incapable of recognizing genuine art. Such comments certainly generated a great deal of heat when Nabokov was alive. I want to see what kind of light they have to shed on the questions that continue to interest both Pushkin’s commentators and those of his magisterial and iconoclastic translator.


David Rampton, Professor of English at the University of Ottawa, is the author of Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels (1984), Vladimir Nabokov (1993), William Faulkner: A Literary Life (2007), and Vladimir Nabokov: A Literary Life (2012). He has published numerous articles on 19th and 20th-century American Literature, and co-edited four anthologies of essays and short fiction.