On Nabokov on Flaubert

I’ve noted before that “if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction,” and this is no less the case when the subject is Flaubert rather than Gogol. His essay on Madame Bovary collected in the Lectures on Literature is excellent; any reader of Flaubert’s novel should read it as well.

Nabokov is very hard on Emma—as he is on nearly everyone, of course. (Readers who find Homais one of the more sympathetic characters in the novel may not be pleased with what VN has to say about that vulgar man.) Sometimes I feel like he is a meaner Nicole. Emma is a bad reader because she identifies herself with characters. I don’t think this is good reading, but I would hardly be so impolitic. Of course, in the world of litblogs such a statement is almost sacrilege; reading is good, and anything that helps anyone enjoy reading is good, and sympathetic characters are very important to the enjoyment of most people, and women especially are always in need of the right kind of characters to identify with, and such. I don’t believe most of this to begin with—I don’t know if I would go around saying reading is “good” in some free-floating, universalized way, I don’t think there’s much reason to encourage anyone and everyone to read no matter how unexceptional the reading material, I’ve never cared much about sympathetic characters, and I’ve hated on the ladyfiction issue before.

And yet despite my general agreement, not to mention my unconditional love for the author of Ada and Pale Fire, I remain needled by the relentless anti-philistinism. If Flaubert is cold and heartless toward philistines, Nabokov is positively icy. “Books are not written for those who are fond of poems that make one weep or those who like noble characters in prose as Léon and Emma think. 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.” No, again, I don’t disagree, but it seems downright cruel to pour on so much disdain, and entirely unnecessary to characterize scientific and cultural philistinism, multiple times, as “evil” (though I suspect VN’s personal history and the notable references to Marxist cultural philistinism may be at work here too, which makes it more understandable). I am not a nice person, but I am nicer than this—or, once again, less confident, not being a very fortunate genius myself.

One place where Nabokov is not cruel, though, is with Charles. This made me very happy, as I had a lot of sympathy for Charles, and felt that despite all his mediocrity it was his genuineness that redeemed him—whether Flaubert thought so or not, of which I wasn’t sure. Nabokov singles Charles out as “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.” I can’t forgive Charles the botched operation on poor Hyppolite, but how much do I really care that he doesn’t appreciate the opera—how much does that matter?

And that’s the question both Flaubert and Nabokov leave me with, to some extent. It should go without saying that the (hopefully deeper than Emma’s) appreciate of art and literature is important to me and to my happiness. But these are consumption goods for me, along with dozens of others. Some are more or less transcendent, others more or less conventional. And I dispute that happiness and enjoyment of the authentic variety come exclusively from the transcendent. I may crave it as Emma does, but I reject such a rejection of material goods as a vehicle of comfort and happiness and I have zero desire to be so judgmental regarding those who seem to prefer comforts of the material variety. This anti-philistinism itself seems like an aesthetic choice to me and not some kind of high moral virtue.

Ah, but I suspect we are taking things too personally here, and that all my problems must come from bad reading—too-close identification with Emma leading to insecurity and defensiveness!

9 comments to On Nabokov on Flaubert

  • Maybe it’s worth remembering that the audience for these lectures is specific and narrow. VN is going after what the reading practices of his students, trying to get them to do something that they may have never done before, and that they need to do within this particular autocrat’s realm in order to get a decent grade. And the Cornell undergrads are supposed to be able to handle the abuse, such as it is.

    How’d you do on the test questions? Ha ha ha!

    Funny you use the word cruel – one of VN’s great themes is cruelty. He’s agin’ it.

  • I know, you’re completely right—and especially about the cruelty. Every time I read these, I think, “gosh, you’re so mean, but I know your books, and I know you’re not like this!”

    The test questions were a trip, I actually got a decent number of them, but mostly due to having just read the lecture. “Discuss Flaubert’s use of the word ‘and.'” Ha!

  • This anti-philistinism itself seems like an aesthetic choice to me and not some kind of high moral virtue.

    Amen, sister. Although Amateur Reader’s point about intended audience is well taken. This is an issue I had with Flaubert, though, as you know.

    It sounds like this essay is worth tracking down just to read the test questions…

  • Nicole mean? Hahahaha. A fine post. Cheers, Kevin

  • I like the use of the word “cruel,” but it’s a reminder that, in the classroom, the cruelty is not real, but just a metaphor. VN can be “cruel” to his characters, too, but they’re fictional.

    Emily – the test questions are in the back of the book, not in the essay. Having said that, yes, Lectures on Literature is worth tracking down. Lord, yes.

    Of course anti-philistinism is an aesthetic choice. The question is then, is it a good one? If so, then I don’t see the contradiction. Aesthetic choices can be ethical or moral choices. Flaubert certainly thought so.

    I’m also missing the connection between the anti-philistine argument (what, by the way, does the pro-philistine position look like?) and anti-materialism. When Lolita became a best-seller, VN quit teaching and moved into a comfortable Swiss hotel. He loved – absolutely adored – the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. He played tennis and Scrabble and read Rex Morgan, M.D. “religiously” (see Stacey Schiff’s Véra, p. 307 for that one).

    Maybe I’m missing the part of the Flaubert lecture you’re thinking about.

  • Emma is a bad reader because she identifies herself with characters.

    In principle I heartily agree with the Professor, but there are surely degrees of identification.

    At a basic level we must be able to place a character contextually for their situation to have some meaning. Emma is at another extreme, in common with Don Quixote, allowing her reading to form her identity. The position that a reader can only enjoy a novel with sympathetic character(s) is not uncommon, but one I can barely understand.

    Part of the thrill I get from Madame Bovary is that Flaubert pushes his anti-philistinism to such an extreme that I read the novel as farce, albeit a dark farce.

  • Emily—I had a feeling you might say that ;) And yes, you would almost definitely love the Lectures on Literature. I am only reading the ones whose subject I have also read, so I’m only about halfway through now (and really need to re-read Bleak House, but that’s a whole other subject). But I don’t want, for even a second, to give the impression that there is anything at all wrong with VN’s actual criticism. No, not at all.

    Kevin—Aw, even on the internet you can tell I’m not big and scary? Too bad.

    AR—Is it a good choice? I mean, I may as well say “yes,” because it’s the same choice I make—or try to. Do I judge other people for perceived philistinism? For sure. But I don’t think it’s very nice, and how much is it really my business to care?

    You’re right I made a bit of a jump, though, to the idea of materialism. It’s not integral. I was trying to make the dichotomy more around “transcendence,” and I guess I let myself slip into thinking that the kind of enjoyment Emma takes from art is almost “material.” Of course, it’s not; it’s emotional rather than cerebral. That might be closer to what I’m getting at.

    And the points you note are just the kind of thing that make the whole thing ridiculous. We are all sinners; we all have both good taste and bad. It’s okay for me to watch Star Trek, even though it’s horrible, because VN liked silly things too.

    Anthony—Very much agree with your first two paragraphs. I had seen you make allusions to this idea you mention in your third, of a dark farce, which I didn’t really understand until now. I like it.

  • I like your take on Nabokov’s judgments here — not disagreeing, exactly, but objecting to the tone of them. I think I’m the same way — not nice, really, but too nice to be so harsh.

  • There are a couple of great videos on you tube of an actor giving one of Nabokov’s lectures to a room of college students-I loved it when he said Thomas Mann was a dwarf in comparison to Kafka-I have read his lecture on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and on The Metamorphosis and hope to read the others in time-I do not yet have the collection of lectures on Russian Literature-