Going to school with Nabokov

This is that time of year when the glimpse of a yellow bus, summoning the faint redolence of chalk dust, arouses academic longings in even the most ancient graduate. But lectures now seem as antiquated as typewriter ribbons. Armed with laptops, iPods, and absolute confidence in their own convictions and their right to be amused, students begin to squirm moments after a professor starts to speak. Though RCA once marketed its vinyl recordings with the image of a dog and the motto “his master’s voice,” no one, amid the cacophony of contemporary voices, can claim mastery. Why listen to a lecture?

According to Vladimir Nabokov, a major writer combines the qualities of storyteller, teacher, and enchanter — especially enchanter. Nabokov, a major writer who mastered fiction, poetry, criticism, and translation in Russian, French, and English, was never more himself than when lecturing on literature. Thirty years after his death, at 78 in Switzerland, Nabokov’s lectures continue to demonstrate his prowess as storyteller, teacher, and enchanter. Born into wealth and privilege in St. Petersburg in 1899, he was a struggling émigré writer when he arrived in the United States in 1940. He supported his wife Vera and son Dmitri by teaching at Wellesley College from 1941-48 and Cornell University from 1948-58. The aftermath of what Nabokov called “Hurricane Lolita” left him rich, famous, and free to quit teaching and write full-time. Lectures on Literature, cobbled together by virtuoso textual scholar Fredson Bowers from notes and typescripts left behind by the late author-professor, was published in 1980. It was followed in the same year by Lectures on Russian Literature and in 1983 by Lectures on Don Quixote.

A worthy finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s 1980 award in criticism, Lectures on Literature consists largely of transcripts from a legendary course, “Masters of European Fiction,” that Nabokov taught regularly over the years to bulging enrollments. Thomas Pynchon, Richard Fariña, and Peter Yarrow were among thousands of awestruck students who must have learned as much about their singular lecturer as about the subjects he chose to address. The seven main chapters in the book focus in turn on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Marcel Proust’s The Walk by Swann’s Place, and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Because his appointment was not in the English department, Nabokov was prohibited from discussing American works, a reminder that 50 years ago academic turf wars were as fierce as they are today.

In a dramatic impersonation broadcast in 1989, Christopher Plummer re-created the Kafka lecture, and biographers and memoirists have published vivid accounts of how Nabokov inhabited a lecture hall, pursuing what he called “a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.” Vera, who took care of attendance, grades, letters of recommendation, and other irritants for her husband, was a constant, self-effacing presence in the classroom. But on the page, Nabokov — who interrupts an observation that Mansfield Park is set at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act to point out that “If you read embargo backwards, you get ‘O grab me’” — still speaks with droll authority about his canon of European fiction. Disdainful of mining literature for political, sociological, or biographical information and wary of what passes for “great ideas,” he fondles details, reveling in long passages from his chosen texts. Nabokov is an attentive guide to how these books are constructed, sentence by sentence. It is impossible not to come away from his lectures with a quickened sense of what makes Dickens tick and Flaubert glimmer. But, in their strong opinions (Nabokov dismisses Rilke and Mann as “dwarfs or plaster saints” and claims that music is more primitive than literature or painting) and preoccupations (a skilled lepidopterist, he offers a meticulous analysis of precisely what species of insect Kafka’s Gregor Samsa metamorphoses into), these lectures allow the reader acquaintance with the artist who created Lolita and Pale Fire.

However, what continues to enlighten and inspire me more than the lectures on individual novels are the introductory and concluding chapters, in which Nabokov sets forth his views on how and why to read. He dismisses as childish the desire to identify with fictional characters rather than the mind that created them, and he insists that reading literature requires “an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience.” He contends that literature lacks any practical value and that its only — and transcendent — justification is the tingle it produces when a book we are reading takes hold of us physically, from the brain down through the spine. In the final words that he delivered to his students at the close of each semester, and that I often peddle to my own students, Nabokov proclaims that, “We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.” Lectures on Literature passes the tingle test.


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