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 …

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