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  • Nabokov ou La Cruauté du désir. Lecture psychanalytique
  • Jacqueline Hamrit (bio)
Maurice Couturier . Nabokov ou La Cruauté du désir. Lecture psychanalytique. Seyssel: Champs Vallon, 2004. 372 pp. ISBN 2-87673-39-19

The title of Maurice Couturier's latest book clearly announces his intention of offering a psychoanalytical reading of Nabokov's novels by focusing on the concept of desire. A survey of the bibliography reveals the heritage of psychoanalysts such as Freud, Ernest Jones, and (primarily) Jacques Lacan, as well as many French theoreticians such as Alain Juranville, Gérard Genette, and Roland Barthes. The book is composed of seven chapters, each studying a particular psychoanalytical concept, such as "need," "demand," or "aphanisis," for example, with one or more novels—among the thirteen studied—as an illustration.

The introduction stresses the paradox inherent in choosing a psychoanalytical approach for analyzing Nabokov's oeuvre: Nabokov always denounced psychoanalysis, as he despised Freud's inadequate symbolism and his totalitarian discourse, both at variance with the richness and complexity of literature. Nabokov's interdiction has prevented many critics from using psychoanalytical tools—even Couturier himself, who at first circumvented the problem, he says, by resorting to the study of enunciation and favoring critical tools such as linguistics, narratology, and aesthetic philosophy. But Couturier soon realized that his interest focused on the notion of desire—that of the author conflicting with that of the reader—and that this desire was at the origin of aesthetic experience. Here he chose, as the subject of his study, the central notion of desire which he defines in the final part of the introduction, mainly by assuming the Lacanian conception of an ontological and existential desire, associated with a subject's consciousness of being through the lack-of-being.

The first chapter, titled "Loss," starts with the assumption that loss is at the origin of desire because it creates a feeling of lack that generates desire. Although loss is at the core of Nabokov's oeuvre as it is connected to the loss of childhood and/or of a native country, Couturier has selected Mary, chapters 5 and 12 of Speak, Memory, and Glory as representative examples. Indeed, by situating the narrative of Mary in Berlin and choosing Russian immigrants as the main characters, Nabokov staged in his first novel the pain one feels when one leaves one's native country, here Russia. The protagonist, Ganin, experiences the birth of desire when he remembers the time of his past love affair with Mary. The feeling of loss makes him try to compensate for the lack-of-being by attempting to see Mary again. Couturier then links Mary to Nabokov's autobiography, noting that chapter 12 of Speak, Memory also evokes the experience of a first love, in this case the affair he had with Valentina Evgenievna Shulgin (Lyussya), who appears in Speak, Memory as Tamara. But Couturier's main interest concerns the fifth chapter of the autobiography, the one dealing with Nabokov's Swiss governess, Mademoiselle. Couturier wonders why Nabokov started his autobiography with the writing of this chapter and advances several hypotheses. Mademoiselle (Cécile Miauton) may have been a mother substitute, a more biological, more reassuring mother than the real, more cultural one. This may explain why Nabokov decided to finish his life in Switzerland and how that migration might be a return to the mother. The loss of a native country is, likewise, the central theme of Glory, which is set in Switzerland, in exile, away from Russia. At the end of the novel, the protagonist, Martin, feels the desire to return to his native country. It corresponds, according to Couturier, to a desire to return to what Lacan calls "The Thing" (La Chose), which is the lost object represented by the mother.

In the second chapter, "Aphanisis," Couturier resorts to that notion, coined by Ernest Jones and revised by Lacan, to refer to the disappearance of desire which, for Jones, prevents the subject from experiencing sexual pleasure, but which is, for Lacan, a necessary condition of the existence of the desiring subject, desire being existential and ontological. Couturier offers analyses of three short stories and a novel—"A Matter...

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