PITHY MAXIMS ON THE SUBJECT OF MERDE AND APOCRYPHAL CITATIONS: FLAUBERT, TOLSTOY, NABOKOV
In a recent letter to the London Review of Books (May 10, 2018), Galen Strawson, of the University of Texas, cites what he calls “a deeply characteristic comment from Flaubert’s letters”:
“De quelque côté qu’on pose les pieds on marche sur la merde” (from a letter to Louise Colet, Saturday, midnight, Croisset, 29-30 January 1853).
The editors of LRB translate this as follows: “However carefully you tread, you end up with shit on your shoes.” A variant translation: “Whichever way you direct your feet, you can’t help stepping in shit.”
This recalls a statement attributed to Lev Tolstoy: “Life is a tartine de merde [shit sandwich], which we all are obliged to eat, slowly.”
Checking this out online, I have found loads of citations on the subject of “shit sandwiches.” Take this one, for example: “Life is a shit sandwich, but the more bread you have the less shit you eat” (Anon.). I suspect that the image of the shit sandwich we eat is not of recent provenance.
On a French website I also have found, in a slightly different variant, the maxim attributed to Tolstoy: “La vie, c’est une tartine de merde et il faut que tu manges une bouchée tous les jours.” Translation: “Life is a shit sandwich, and you have to eat a mouthful every day.”
Then I started searching online for the original quote by Tolstoy and could not find it anywhere. Even when doing a search in Russian I was inevitably directed back to where I had heard the citation in the first place: Vladimir Nabokov’s collection of interviews, Strong Opinions.
Question: Tolstoy said, so they say [my emphasis; note that casual “so they say,” URB] that life was a tartine de merde, which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree?
Nabokov’s answer: I’ve never heard that story. The old boy was sometimes rather disgusting, wasn’t he? My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey. (Strong Opinions, p. 152).
This comes from an interview with James Mossman, who submitted 58 questions to Nabokov on Sept. 8, 1969, for Review, BBC-2 (Oct. 4). Nabokov answered about 40 of the questions and put together a typescript of questions and answers. On Oct. 23, 1969, The Listener published this, but only in part (see Strong Opinions, p. 141).
Nabokov, who did not like doing live interviews—because of his tendency to hem and haw when speaking “off the Nabocuff”—had a policy of asking interviewers to submit written questions. Some he would choose not to answer, others he would revise before answering. At times he even made up his own questions and then answered them.
Note the clear attribution of Flaubert’s quote above. Galen Strawson tells us precisely when and where Gustave Flaubert wrote his maxim on merde. There can be no doubt that the great writer said this. On the other hand, it is much in doubt that Tolstoy actually made his statement on the shit sandwich that is life. Even if you search through the complete works of Tolstoy, published in Soviet times, you are highly unlikely to find that quote. Soviet publishers could be prudish, so even if he said it, you probably won’t find it there.
Did Tolstoy actually make the statement? I may be wrong, but probably not. Despite his assertion, “I’ve never heard that story,” it could well be that Nabokov himself made it up. Since I’ve retired from teaching Russian literature I have not kept up with Nabokov scholarship. Maybe serious Nabokovian scholars have already lucubrated over this business and have found the answer. Tolstoyan scholars could also be of help.
On another issue that I’ve wondered about. Among others, Nabokov has insisted that the main male protagonist of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is Lyovin (Лёвин), not Levin (Левин). You cannot tell by the way the name is spelled in Russian, as it is common practice to use the Cyrillic letter ‘e’ without the diacritical mark even when it is pronounced ‘yo.’
I have run across a citation from Tolstoy himself, something with slightly anti-Semitic overtones: “Да не Левин, а Лёвин. Левин, это зубной врач в Бердичеве (It’s not Levin, it’s Lyovin; Levin is a dentist in Berdichev).” The implication here is that Levin (or Levine) is clearly a Jewish name, and Tolstoy’s man of the landed gentry is of the Russian noble class. But then, I have my doubts that Tolstoy ever really made that statement.
At any rate, most Russians you meet will tell you that the character is Levin, not Lyovin. Of all the translations of Anna Karenina into English, I’ve never seen a translator who opted for Lyovin.