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Nabokov’s Show

Publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Cornell lectures on literature, while a welcome event in itself, may be a harbinger of disasters to come. Thousands of literary professors, in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, have in their file-cabinets typed or handwritten texts of their lectures on literature. Won’t they qualify for publication too? Well, probably not.

The truth is that Nabokov, lecturing in the grand oratorical manner on books from foreign cultures, during the meek-mannered Fifties in provincial New Wye, was able to carry off spectacularly a form of discourse which isn’t inherently well suited to the teaching of literature.

There are many professional jokes about teachers who can their lectures, resurrecting them year after year until retirement mercifully intervenes. All these stories are cruel, and most of them are true. Teaching from the can (ex cathedra, one might say) tends to be a deadly procedure. If one can teach literature at all effectively, one mostly elicits from students responses that were already there to begin with, so that one is teaching by forcing the students to teach—it is best done in small groups with full participation by the students. One has to tease, prod, and probe; the class’s progress can’t be much faster than that of the least-prepared student. (Hence the now-outmoded theory of “prerequisites” and courses open only to students with a measure of literary experience and training. The new egalitarianism has done away, or tried to do away, not only with differences among students but also with any pretensions to special expertise on the part of the instructor.)

From these varieties of close-order teaching Nabokov was insulated at Cornell. For a few, a very few, Russian-speaking undergraduates he did occasionally teach what amounted to tutorials in the authors and periods that interested him; he had few or no graduate students. His teaching duties at Cornell amounted to Literature 311-342;* the course was large, and he taught it entirely through lectures without those little “discussion-sections” that we used to tack on at the end of the week, in the hope that students, after hours of ovine attentiveness, could be stirred into emitting a stimulating or even challenging question. None of this rude give-and-take for Professor Nabokov; he lectured from his notes, and what was not in the script did not get discussed. (But though he professed this principle, and once offered to have his lectures tape-recorded and simply played through, in order, once a year, his actual practice must have been more liberal; his reputation at Cornell as a wit and an entertainer could hardly have been earned otherwise.) The fact was that the lecturer, both a magician and a master-mechanic, brought a fine touch of mania to his work. There was always a question whether, having taken these highly tuned machines apart to demonstrate his own vehement interests, he could actually get them back together again.

Like most of the many other things he did, his lecturing was a form of play. It used to be said that he could discuss in enormous detail all the orders, decorations, and ribbons worn by the characters of Proust at a reception—and, without telling an actual falsehood, leave the unmistakable impression on the dullest sophomore in the back row that he himself had been awarded every one of those glittering decorations. More edifying for the students was his gift for pulling rabbits out of textual top hats—for seeing structural analogies and illustrating complementary effects that the student might have sensed but had buried as trivial. Nabokov was an inspired, a rhapsodic pedant. When a character in Jane Austen quotes Cowper, we must have the full passage so it can be squeezed dry of its last overtones. A casual allusion to the caged starling in Sterne leads to discovery of a double analogy with the Sentimental Journey, and reaches across into the commentary on Bleak House, where Miss Flite’s caged birds reiterate the theme.

To be sure, this literary rabbit-popping seems sometimes to be performed for its own sake rather than for the advantage of the books. Miss Flite’s caged birds stand on their own cramped little feet, and need no flying buttresses from Maria Ward or Mr. Yorick. In a lecture, it is good for students to be amazed, startled, forced to stretch their minds, and rendered suspicious of the printed page—which they accept all too readily as flat, linear, consecutive. That things connect with things in more ways than “this first and that next” is a potent and valuable idea to imprint on the young. Nobody was better at that imprinting than Vladimir Vladimirovich. He was especially good at it because of a marvelous instinctive gift for exaggeration and caricature, which expressed itself in peeves and paranoias and parodies. Others besides myself must recall a public lecture at the climax of which he acted out a scene from an imaginary Soviet novel of the “socialist realism” genre. A boy and a girl, both true-blue Stakhanovites, were alleged to be finding True Love across a throbbing tractor—the lecturer enacting all three parts successively, and then, somehow, miraculously, simultaneously: boytractorgirl.

Such were his performances for the enchanted students of Literature 311-312. One doesn’t paint miniatures in the lecture hall; it’s a broad brush one wields, and Nabokov, understanding the medium as well as the audience for which he worked, laid it on, sometimes a bit thick. For instance, he did a little more revival and redemption work than a worldly reader of 1980 really needs. We can take it for granted that first-rate works of literature are worth reading for their own sake.

Again, some of Nabokov’s lectures as they now appear seem to be little more than extended paraphrases of the books under discussion. As he would be the first to agree, paraphrasing a work of literary art, however deftly done, must inevitably distort it; and helping students to understand a book, expecially if it’s very big and complex, may amount simply to overlooking the problem passages. The third chapter of the first unit of Joyce’s Ulysses (the chapter known as “Proteus”) is far too intricate to be reduced to easy exposition for a large class of miscellaneous undergraduates. Nabokov deliberately shunts it aside in a perfunctory paragraph, one instance of many where crucial symbolic details of the novel are understandably telescoped or obliterated. Quite properly, Nabokov does not involve his students in the drab and dusty byways of literary scholarship; but it is sometimes a little too clear that he has not been over them himself. To dismiss with contempt Stuart Gilbert’s book on Ulysses is to commit oneself to a pretty jejune commentary on the novel; one may not agree in every detail with Gilbert, but one has to take note of his work.

On the whole, Nabokov’s lectures work better when he discusses books with less intricate patterns—e.g., Bleak House and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” An apparent rule-proving exception is the admirable introduction to Proust’s great fiction. Nabokov spends relatively little time on the large structure of A la recherche du temps perdu, and little more on the organization of Swann’s Way, which was all that his undergraduates could be asked to read. His discussion has mostly to do with what we would call “stylistic” matters—metaphor, syntax, patterning, rhythms, leitmotifs. And here, though he is dealing (as often in these lectures) with a text in translation, he displays a special delight in nuance and an appreciation of meticulous phrasing, which are as impressive to read today as they were to hear a quarter century ago. Specialists will find little in these undergraduate lectures that they didn’t “know” before; but lessons are contained in them from which they may profit in a way for which their pupils will be particularly grateful.

All teaching is compromise, and there are signs aplenty that Nabokov found some of his necessary compromises irksome. But it was good for him to be immersed actively, with fresh eyes, and a sort of vicarious innocence, in these books, most of which he had known for years. It was probably good for him, also, to start living and working, at about the age of fifty, in a provincial American university town. His art, which was the art of grotesque incongruity, thrived on the disparities and absurdities of the social scene. But though he was fond of sloppy, slangy, infantile America, it was never a secure society for him; like Pnin, Humbert Humbert, or Cincinnatus C, he teetered always on the thin edge of unendurable insult. When I once invited him to deliver an honorary address, his first response was to recall—but I am convinced he invented—an occasion in the past when he had been invited to address a group of visiting parents, and to ask them not to throw cigarette butts on the lawns. This was high fantasy; and nothing could have been further from the request I was making. The intent was to honor, not to humiliate him; the address was to be on a topic of his own choosing, as the climax of a festive occasion, over which the university president would preside.

We could do no more to honor him; but he was ever alert to insult and humiliation. Hence, partly, the pleasure he took in presiding, like an avuncular, knowing Gulliver, over his little nation of literary Lilliputians. He was also, in my experience, a remarkably kind man, touched by deference, and pleased, like Joyce himself, to reveal some of the tricks of the games he was so adept at playing. Authors with a scant supply of literary manipulations may be chary of giving away professional secrets; the more generously endowed can distribute with a lavish hand, secure that there will always be more.

Thus the present lectures have a variety of interests, apart from the topics they ostensibly discuss. Literature 311-312 never attracted many faculty auditors—the touchy and suspicious professor did not welcome, indeed, he actively discouraged them. On the other hand, one faculty member was in a position to hear them all. The present reviewer occupied a little office, narrow, shallow, and absurdly lofty, just off Goldwin Smith “C.” The office was known as “the broom closet,” but between the big lecture room and the little office, sound passed with megaphonic ease. (It was a point that impressed itself on me when in my turn I lectured in “C,” and could hear, with nightmare clarity and utter helplessness, the phone ringing in my office.)

So Nabokov’s noonday lectures came booming through the partitions Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 12 to 12:50; and had I been gifted with foresight, I would have listened, perhaps. But I generally had papers to read and an afternoon class to prepare, while munching my noonday sandwich. So I tuned Nabokov out, and am pleased now to see what it was he was saying. His is vigorous, imaginative introductory teaching, done with all the courage of the teacher’s convictions and prejudices. We are promised another volume on Russian writers, which should be equally interesting, if not more so; but, in the common way of things, the life of classroom lectures, which nature has made mercifully short, can most appropriately be rounded with a sleep.

  1. *

    Junior faculty, by contrast, taught four courses a semester, senior faculty generally three—along with, of course, work with graduate students, which if it was just thesis-supervision (the most exacting and troublesome work of any) didn’t count in one’s course-load at all.

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