Friday, 31 January 2014

Vladimir Nabokov's lecture on Madame Bovary

1/ Nabokov says "3 forces make and mold a human being: heredity, environment, and the unknown agent X. Of these the 2nd, environment, is by far the least important, whilst the last, agent X, is by far the most influential."
"... This is why I am opposed to those who insist upon the influence of objective social conditions upon the heroine Emma Bovary. Flaubert's novel deals with the delicate calculus of human fate, not with the arithmetic of social conditioning."
Such people are mocked in "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight".  
However, I must say Nabokov's choice of the word "heroine" is incorrect. Emma Bovary is by no means a heroine. 

2/ The term bourgeois used by Flaubert for most of the characters in the book means "philistine, people preoccupied with the material side of life and believing only in conventional values. He never uses the word bourgeois with any politico-economic Marxist connotation. Flaubert's bourgeois is a state of mind, not a state of pocket." This clarity is certainly helpful- I only knew the Marxist sense. 
Funnily enough, he adds "Let me add for double clarity that Marx would have called Flaubert a bourgeois in the politico-economic sense and Flaubert would have called Marx a bourgeois in the spiritual sense; and both would have been right, since Flaubert was a well-to-do gentleman in physical life and Marx was a philistine in his attitude towards the arts."

3/ "A romantic person, mentally and emotionally living in the unreal, is profound or shallow depending on the quality of his or her mind. Emma Bovary is intelligent, sensitive, comparatively well educated, but she has a shallow mind: her charm, beauty, and refinement do not preclude a fatal streak of philistinism in her. Her exotic daydreams do not prevent her from being small-town bourgeois at heart, clinging to conventional ideas or committing this or that conventional violation of the conventional, adultery being a most conventional way to rise above the conventional; and her passion for luxury does not prevent her from revealing once or twice what Flaubert terms a peasant hardness, a strain of rustic practicality."
This is interesting. Adultery is the most conventional way to rise above the conventional. 

4/ Nabokov, as may be guessed, calls Charles Bovary a philistine, "a pathetic human being", who has "no charm, no brains, no culture, with a set of conventional notions and habits".
However, "... the love Charles almost unwittingly develops for Emma is a real feeling, deep and true, in absolute contrast to the brutal or frivolous emotions experienced by Rodolph and Léon, her smug and vulgar lovers. So here is the pleasing paradox of Flaubert's fairy tale: the dullest and most inept person in the book is the only one who is redeemed by a divine something in the all-powerful, forgiving, and unswerving love that he bears Emma, alive or dead. There is yet a 4th character in the book who is in love with Emma but that 4th is merely a Dickensian child, Justin. Nevertheless, I recommend him for sympathetic attention."
I have always seen Charles as pathetic, and the fact that he dies of grief makes him more of a laughingstock, because both Emma and he live in delusion. But perhaps Nabokov has a point.

5/ "Emma is a great reader of romances, of more or less erotic novels, of romantic verse. Some of the authors she knows are 1st-rate, such as Walter Scott or Victor Hugo; others not quite 1st-rate, such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierrre or Lamartine. But good or bad this is not the point. The point is that she is a bad reader. She reads books emotionally, in a shallow juvenile manner, putting herself in this or that female character's place."
Later, after no. 13, he says "Only children can be excused for identifying themselves with the characters in a book, or enjoying badly written adventure stories; but this is what Emma and Léon do." 
In this lecture Nabokov tackles a few things I have discussed earlier. I may not always be able to grasp a book, to recognise and analyse the beauty of a literary work, but I'm not a bad reader in the sense that I don't have to identify and sympathise with characters in a book in order to enjoy and appreciate that book.

6/ Nabokov says, Flaubert "uses the same artistic trick when listing Homais's vulgarities."
And referring to another wrong attitude in reading that I have earlier mentioned, he says: "The subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books."

7/ Nabokov points out that the names suggested for the baby by the characters in the book actually reveal their tastes and personalities.

8/ "She is false, she is deceitful by nature: she deceives Charles from the very start before actually committing adultery."
Emma Bovary is fatalistic. This is 1 of the reasons I place "Anna Karenina" above "Madame Bovary"- Anna's life has ups and downs, brighter and darker days, whereas Emma right from the beginning is set to go straight to hell. 

9/ To describe Emma Bovary, I usually use the word "delusional" (and "idiotic"), which can also be used for Emma Woodhouse, and tend to see the similarities between Emma and Charles Bovary. Both are blind, delusional. Both are weak. Both make a fool of themselves. Then knowing Catherine Morland, I think both characters are inexperienced, ignorant readers who expect life to be like books. Nabokov sees Emma differently: "She lives among philistines, and she is a philistine herself. Her mental vulgarity is not so obvious as that of Homais. [...] one cannot help feeling that Homais and Emma not only phonetically echo each other but do have something in common- and that something is the vulgar cruelty of their natures. In Emma the vulgarity, the philistinism, is veiled by her grace, her cunning, her beauty, her meandering intelligence, her power of idolisation, her moments of tenderness and understanding, and by the fact that her brief bird life ends in human tragedy."
Later, after no.13, Nabokov analyses it further. Homais "tries to cram all his knowledge of physics and chemistry into 1 elephantine sentence; he has a good memory for odds and ends derived from newspapers and pamphlets. But that is all."
And adds "Just as Homais's speech is a jumble of pseudoscience and journalese, so in the 3rd movement the conversation between Emma and Léon is a trickle of stale poetisation. [...] It is important to mark that the Léon- Emma team is as trivial, trite, and platitudinous in their pseudoartistic emotions as the pompous and fundamentally ignorant Homais is in regard to science."
One must feel startled- what if I'm also a philistine? 

10/ I can't count how many times Nabokov uses the words "philistine" and "philistinism" in this lecture.
At 1 point he even exclaims "Oh those ignoble, treacherous, and philistine translators! One would think that Monsieur Homais, who knew a little English, was Flaubert's English translator."  
Don't you hate Nabokov for reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Proust... in the original languages? 

11/ A few impossibilities of "Madame Bovary" are mentioned, such as the ignorance of Charles Bovary and the busybody Homais. Though Nabokov says they "do not clash with the pattern of the book".

12/ "The isms go; the ist dies; art remains."
This is why the other day I wrote that it didn't matter very much whether or not Jane Austen's a feminist. 

13/ "Without Flaubert there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland. Chekhov in Russian would not have been quite Chekhov. So much for Flaubert's literary influence."
It should be mentioned that Franz Kafka's also influenced by Gustave Flaubert, whom he calls 1 of his blood relatives. 

14/ "... if the official speeches are stale "journalese", the romantic conversation between Rodolph and Emma is stale "romantese". The whole beauty of the thing is that it is not good and evil interrupting each other, but 1 kind of evil intermingled with another kind of evil. As Flaubert remarked, he paints colour on colour."
Apparently Flaubert and Nabokov were more alike than I thought.
After giving extracts, examples, he says "In a way, Industry and the Fine Arts, those twin sisters, symbolise the hob breeders and the tender couple in a kind of farcical synthesis. This is a wonderful chapter. It has had an enormous influence on James Joyce; and I do not think that, despite superficial innovations, Joyce has gone any further than Flaubert."

15/ Nabokov calls "Madame Bovary" a prose poem.
Having read this lecture I see more clearly why he doesn't think highly of Dostoyevsky. Those who think it's because of incomprehension or envy and such lousy things obviously don't know Nabokov's style, temperament and attitude towards art. The point is not whether I agree with him, but I understand his viewpoint.

16/ "... Flaubert's fondness for what may be termed the unfolding method, the successive development of visual details, 1 thing after another thing, with an accumulation of this or that emotion" and "Flaubert's method of rendering emotions or states of mine through an exchange of meaningless words".

17/ "Flaubert does not use many metaphors, but when he does they render emotions in terms which are in keeping with the characters' personalities."  

18/ Nabokov quotes several times from Flaubert's letters discussing the working of the novel. He, however, doesn't discuss the sentence "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"

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