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 art of the object, the thing; and like Virgil he saw that the mortal things that touch the heart touch it all the more in a masterpiece of fiction, when they cease to be evanescent and ephemeral and become immortal. The fact is the sweetest dream that fiction knows.
And particularly Russian fiction. These lectures on the Russian masters are in a less completed state than Nabokov’s previous volume of Lectures on Literature—many are made up of notes and contextual points for class delivery, and they have been given just the proper degree of coherence by the expert editing of Fredson Bowers, who incorporates as an appendix some photostats of Nabokov’s notes and lecture worksheets. Nabokov of course made up his own class notes on Gogol into a brilliant short book, and a sizable chunk of this is included. His comments on the style of Dead Souls and the plot of “The Overcoat” are the most illuminating written in English on those great works. The overcoat and its owner, thing and person, are virtually synonymous and interchangeable, melded together in a dream of possession and identity. As one reads Gogol one’s eyes may become gogolized, Nabokov observes, and bits of his world may appear in unexpected places. “I have visited many countries and something like Akaki Akakyevich’s overcoat has been the passionate dream of this or that chance acquaintance who never had heard about Gogol.”
It is the same with that young man who appears and disappears for good in a single paragraph at the beginning of Dead Souls, and whose significance Nabokov was the first critic to notice. His significance consists in the absolute lack of it, plus the fact that he wears a Tulamade bronze tiepin in the shape of a pistol; and it is this object which establishes and authenticates his total contingency. Although Nabokov does not himself make the connection, the reader may place side by side in some happy compartment of his mind the vast sturgeon, a “wondrous product of nature,” which Sobakevich (literally “dogman,” the uncouth but effective barin) consumes in its entirety in Dead Souls, with that other sturgeon in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog,” to which we are never actually introduced, but which the hero’s restaurant acquaintance judges to have been slightly “off.” Like the tiepin both fish do their part, and the importance of the part is defined only by how memorable they are.
Nabokov’s discussion of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” is one of the high spots of this volume, on a par with his wounderful analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in Lectures on Literature. A comparison of the two treatments tells us a lot about his basic methods and how effective they can be. With both stories he has it both ways, and in subtly different ways. Of both he implies, and in the case of “The Lady with the Little Dog” states openly, that “there is no special moral to be drawn and no special message to be received.” Naturally not. No true work of art appears conscious of its moral and its meaning: nor for the client is it ever in fact without them. Nabokov knows that quite well, and like the artist himself he shows us what the moral is without stating it.
Both stories are on a different level of art from what he calls the “special delivery” stories of Gorki and Thomas Mann. (Note that odd juxtaposition of names and the airy way in which Nabokov proffers it without further explanation.) The “special delivery” story, whether by Gorki or Maupassant, and—yes—possibly in most cases by Thomas Mann as well, depends on a determination of tone, which leaves the reader in no doubt how his responses are being directed. No great story tries to impress its “realism” upon us, as Gorki and Maupassant did in their different ways, and as any run-of-the-mill storyteller up to a quarter century or so ago would have done. And conversely no great story tries to impress us with its “nonreality” as many new tales would do today, making capital out of the deliberate artifice of its fabrication, as Robbe-Grillet and Calvino and many others make a habit of doing.
Under Nabokov’s examination Kafka’s story reveals that only the hero-victim who becomes an insect is human. The rest of the family and the lodgers in their house demonstrate an insect-like inhumanity in their relations with the victim and their attitude toward him. A yawn or a laugh, physical acts of the species poor Gregor Samsa no longer belongs to, become less characteristic of the human race than are the feeble wavings of his many-jointed legs. In the last sentence of the story his sister “flexes her young body” in the spring warmth on the tramcar. The nightmare is over, the insect son and brother is dead and disposed of, and her action cruelly contrasts with her beetle brother’s pathetic movements. Within a family, even a national family, every cruel contrast can take place. Nabokov might well have been thinking of that most marvelous of Russian stories, Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, where the hoofbeats of the brazen czar’s steed ring out behind the panic-stricken clerk who has dared to shake his puny human fist at the great statue, the father of his people.
Gregor Samsa and Pushkin’s clerk, like Gogol’s more famous clerk Akaki Akakyevich, are little men whose humanity takes the most unavailing and therefore pathetic form. But power and impotence take unexpected forms too. Any of Nabokov’s fortunate pupils would have perceived from his discourse the fact that the story’s art evangelizes the author’s self-pity, his hidden conviction that neuroses give their victim a greater awareness of life, and thus the moral and aesthetic status of a seer, a status denied to the healthy persons around him. Two further observations of Nabokov shed light on the way allegory works in a narrative, as he has already shown the most effective technical way a moral works. With the meticulous attention to the factual which is the secret of his pedagogic process, and presumably too of his skill as a lepidopterist, he points out (a) that Kafka fails to establish just what sort of beetle Gregor has become, but that (b) he has wing-cases and therefore must have wings and be capable of flight. Freedom of speculation, as with a discussion of Shakespeare; and no further comment is needed to make the critical point. A narrative masterpiece both defines and abandons us to the unpredictabilities of its moral and symbolic life.
In the case of “The Lady with the Little Dog” the initial approach is similar. The inwardness of this story, its “moral,” is that the secret life is what is really precious to a person; that he may never discover one, but if he does make the discovery—through falling in love for example—the visible part of his life, and other peoples’ lives, will seem intolerably dull, meaningless, and humdrum. This moral, we might note, is both dubious and romantic, conceited and woolly-minded: exactly the moral we might expect to be drawn by a man who has fallen in love.
That directness, and that dubiousness, are precisely what the story is able to make into its total success. Gurov, the hero in love, perceives what the story also perceives, but the story perceives it with a difference.
Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night. The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
The irony in that last sentence should be pondered on today, when so many have decided that personal privacy is not so important after all, and least of all to art. The story leaves not only the secrecy of the love affair intact, but also the dignity of its participants. Chekhov’s comment on his hero is also one that places his story inside the social and cultural frame of an age. Nabokov celebrates the timeless triumph in it of “beauty plus pity”; but though that phrase is illuminating of the Nabokovian aesthetic, about which a general misunderstanding was often willfully encouraged outside the classroom by the author himself, it ignores the historical dimension of the tale.