ASSOCIATION : Manifestations – Colloque 2013 – SWEENEY

Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »

Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013

SWEENEY, Susan Elizabeth – College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Nabokov, Charles Perrault, and Tales of Times Past

    Nabokov’s intertextual gambits invoke many popular narrative genres, including “nursery tales.”  Although he was clearly influenced by Russian folklore (as the pseudonym “Sirin” suggests) and English fairy tales, Nabokov’s most frequent allusions to this genre are to the French tales recorded and revised by Charles Perrault, in 1697, as Histoires ou Contes du temps passé.  Nabokov probably first heard them from his Swiss governess, Cécile Miauton—later memorialized as “Mademoiselle” in Speak, Memory—who devoted lessons to reading French classics aloud to her charges.  He may have also encountered them at Cambridge, where one of his two principal subjects was medieval and modern French; he wrote more than one final examination essay set during Perrault’s literary period, and told a girlfriend that he was working hard reading volumes of seventeenth-century French (Boyd, VNRY 183, 186, 194).
   In his fiction, Nabokov alludes to at least four of Perrault’s original eight tales: “La Belle au bois dormant,” “Le Petit Chaperon rouge,” “Cendrillon,” and “La Barbe-bleue.”  I have previously discussed his references to “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as to Doré’s illustration of that tale; Dmitri Nabokov points out imagery in The Enchanter relating to “Little Red Riding Hood” (100); other critics mention, in passing, the numerous allusions to “Cinderella” in his English novels.  However, no one has considered Nabokov’s focus on Perrault’s tales, in particular, or the way that he emphasizes their origins with French phrases and multilingual puns, as in “La Petite Dormeuse ou l’Amant Ridicule” (Lolita 129); “brat’ia s shapron-ruzh’iami,” a Russian homophone for “chaperon rouge” (“Volshebnik” 41); or the pervasive motif linking Blanche with “Cendrillon” in Ada.  In addition to Perrault’s evident impact on Nabokov’s imagery and wordplay, the earlier writer’s ironic tone—especially in the multiple morals appended to each tale—may have influenced Nabokov’s own witty, self-reflexive narration. 


Susan Elizabeth Sweeney teaches English and creative writing at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA.  She has published over 30 essays and book chapters on Nabokov, including, since 2009, “Thinking about Impossible Things in Nabokov,” in Transitional Nabokov; “‘Bad, Bad Girl’: Juvenile Delinquency in Lolita,” in Lolita: From Nabokov to Kubrick and Lyne; “Lolita, I Presume: On a Character Entitled ‘Lolita,” in Miranda; and “‘Almost Completed but Only Partly Corrected’: Enacting Revision in Nabokov’s Novels,” in Revising Nabokov Revising.  Beth is presently co-editing a volume of essays entitled “Nabokov’s Morality Play: Ethical Problems in His Fiction,” and was invited to serve as associate editor for a proposed edition of Nabokov’s complete works.  Twice elected president of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society, she continues to co-edit the Vladimir Nabokov Electronic Forum (NABOKV-L).  Beth also publishes on American literature, detective fiction, narrative theory, postmodernism, and Poe.