People will sometimes say: “I was lucky at such and such an age. I had a teacher of genius.” And it turns out that what this genius could do was—in a coup de foudre—to open the eyes of the young person to the transcendental realities of literature. There was such an eccentrically lovable pedant—a Mr. Chips or a Mr. Pnin—in Professor Nabokov. In his teaching he was a genius of a distinctly old-fashioned sort.
This might seem to make it all the odder that as theorist and practitioner of the novel he should still have such a reputation among the modernists. When today it enters the field of education modernism does not seek to open our eyes to the old-fashioned sublimities of literature. It seeks instead to inculcate a method by which literature may be judged, parceled, and synthesized by rule of thumb, or rather by mastery of jargon. Nabokov’s own novels may be “taught” in just this fashion, the instructor displaying the ways in which their verbal techniques stage a carnival of language, the verbal signifiers rejoicing in and playing out their elaborate games and patterns.
In practice Nabokov had entered on his career as a modern novelist by the back door, and by way of the wholly unclassifiable world of the Russian classics. His debt to Russian formalism is clear and evident; but that formalism, as expounded by such brilliant critics as Shklovsky and Eykhenbaum, was itself a reaction against the earlier emotional and nationalistic attitudes taken by the Russian populists and their public about Russian literature.
The formalists took an admirably astringent line with such admirers: for instance those followers of Dostoevsky’s famous lecture on Pushkin who wept over Tatiana, the heroine of Evgeny Onegin, as the incarnation of warm and outgoing Russian womanhood. Is Pushkin weeping with us over his bittersweet tale of Tatiana and Onegin, demanded Shklovsky, or is he really having a game not only with the characters themselves but with the notion of a bittersweet tale about them? Nabokov perceived the importance of the distinction, or rather the fact that in drawing it the critic is not in fact compelling us to decide. The formalist critic is not telling us to choose between shedding tears over the characters of fiction and treating them as figures in a game. One must be conscious of the respective propriety, in their contexts, of both responses.
Nabokovian formalism is in this sense a long way from both structuralism and its deconstructive progeny. Nabokov’s view of literature is by no means that of “a world of words to the end of it.” On the contrary. He told his students that in the course of giving them some instruction in the development of Russian literature, “I may, if I am lucky, tap the deep pathos that pertains to all authentic art.” Nabokov had immense tenderness for the divine status in…
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