The Supreme Fairy Tale

Lectures on Don Quixote

by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Fredson Bowers, preface by Reynolds Price, introduction by Guy Davenport
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 240 pp., $17.95

Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes; drawing by David Levine

When a novelist takes to a bout of lecturing to university students he knows that for him it is sin to live by his mouth. He is throwing away his syntax and his prose; the charms of the impromptu will not work unless he has first gone through the drudgery of preparation. Without his habit of thorough preparation, his dash, his delight in mischief, prejudice, and the cheerfully perverse, Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures would have been no more than pepper and salt. He was an extraordinary preparer. When he came to deliver his course on Don Quixote at Harvard in 1951-1952 he had, for example, gone to the length of writing a summary of the events in this enormous novel, chapter by chapter, so making an invaluable crib. He wrote and rewrote his script, and at once destroyed its virginal look by covering it with corrections, possible asides, alternative paragraphs and optional quotations. He arrived at the lectern with a mass of possibilities.

In collating these martyred pages his present editors have had what must have been an exasperating task; but, for the lecturer himself, the mess was a guarantee of clarity and natural utterance. (There is nothing like a clean typescript for arresting thought and destroying personality.) Nabokov had a special talent for quotation: he knew that students, even those who are keen enough to read, will not have heard the “tune” or real voice of the author’s sentences; that reading aloud tests a style. Then, as a linguist, he had strong views about the merits of Cervantes’s translators. He was equipped also for skirmishes with the well-known Spanish and foreign critics. He found the terse intelligence of Madariaga good, but he loathed the mellifluousness of the learned Aubrey Bell.

Nabokov was amusing on minor disputes too: he was irritated by Joseph Wood Krutch’s claim that Don Quixote was always defeated in his battles. He went to the trouble of reckoning the score of victories and defeats and was delighted to find the score even. And to be sure his students had some idea of what a book of chivalry was, he supplied them with pages of Malory and Amadis of Gaul. Most of us have taken these romances as read. In short, I strongly recommend this edition of Nabokov’s lectures as a practical guide to all incipient lecturers.

Nabokov cleared the ground aggressively at once with his usual de haut en bas:

We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called “real life” in novels. Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction…. Don Quixote is a fairy tale, so is Bleak House, so is Dead Souls. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are supreme fairy tales. But without these fairy tales the world would not be real.

Don Quixote is a fairy tale about…

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