Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

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.

For the really significant fact is surely that Chekhov is able both to endorse and exploit the idea of the truly private life. In the heyday of privacy, novels and stories could have a special kind of authenticity: the power both to assume secrecy and to violate it. The success of Chekhov’s technique here is to leave the open and the secret side by side, and immobile. Gurov’s wife and colleagues never discover his secret, nor does the husband of the lady with the little dog. The peculiar success of the story follows logically from this stasis. Nothing can happen and yet everything has happened, because the world of the love affair can be shown in contrast with the outer world of triviality.

The decisive moment occurs when Gurov himself feels the urge to bring the two together. After dining with a colleague he suddenly blurts out about what a wonderful woman he met at Yalta. But the departing friend fails to respond because he has been reflecting on something Gurov said earlier: was their sturgeon at dinner “off” or not? The everyday world and the secret world meet only in the dumb substantiality of things—the ambiguous sturgeon, the slice of watermelon which Gurov slowly masticates after he and the lady have first made love.

The peculiar insistence of such things must never be exploited. Nabokov lays a finger here on Turgenev’s weakness for what he refers to in a schoolmaster’s phrase as “purple patches.” “When Turgenev sits down to discuss a landscape, you notice that he is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the color of his socks.” Chekhov’s lack of concern conveys “an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was.” Nabokov is wholly fair to Turgenev, indeed enthusiastic about him, but he shows his pupils unerringly why Turgenev is not in the same class as Tolstoy on the one hand or Chekhov on the other. “When you read Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy you read just because you cannot stop.” Nabokov the aesthete is quite clear why the obviously aesthetic writer is inferior to the two who seem to care nothing about the matter.

And he gives Tolstoy the same loving treatment he gave Pushkin in his great commentary on Evgeny Onegin; not so exhaustively, for these are only lecture notes, but with the same recognition that this is the only way we can give such a master his due. But first an important generalization. Tolstoy is the first great writer to think of obvious things, like describing childbirth.

The whole history of literary fiction as an evolutionary process may be said to be a gradual probing of deeper and deeper layers of life. It is quite impossible to imagine either Homer in the ninth century BC or Cervantes in the seventeenth century of our era—it is quite impossible to imagine them describing in such wonderful detail childbirth. The question is not whether certain events and emotions are or are not suitable ethically or aesthetically.

In these lecture notes Nabokov’s style is lacking in its usual elegance, but the point is an important one. Tolstoy does not “go deeper” in any ordinary sense: he concentrates on what has previously been taken for granted. And the reader too must concentrate, for example on the way that fact, pattern, and symbol meet and merge in Anna Karenina. He must see what Tolstoy is describing as clearly as the artist himself has done. “To comprehend certain important aspects of Anna’s night journey [the train journey from Moscow to Petersburg just after she has met Vronsky] the reader should clearly visualize the following arrangement.” There follows a meticulous description of the facilities, still fairly primitive, obtaining in a first-class carriage on an overnight railway journey between the two Russian capitals. (There is even a sketch of them reproduced in the notes.) In the same spirit Nabokov traces the patterns of symbolism, such as the little peasant muttering and beating iron, which lead us to Anna’s death, and the way in which time in the novel is adjusted to the pace of different families and of the three interlocking pairs—the Oblonskys, Anna-Vronsky, Kitty-Levin. “The mated move faster than the mateless.” The three pairs are “time-teams” (“a good Nabokovian term…; use it with acknowledgements”).

Where names are concerned the fastidious can extend to the persnickety. Nabokov never refers to Levin but to Lyovin, pointing out, not unjustly, that the “Leveen” sound uttered to themselves by most readers becomes entangled with a Jewish surname having a different root as well as different associations. Moreover, just as Tolstoy perfunctorily fictionalized the ancient Russian surname of Obolensky into Oblonsky, so he gave his hero another leonine version of his own name, Lev, pronounced “Lyov.” These pedantries of Nabokov’s are highly salutary, and far removed from the critical jargon which has displaced them in the modern lecture room; and yet it must be admitted that the mania for accuracy can lead him at these times into an outlandishness less excusable than the high-spirited neologisms which in his version of Evgeny Onegin paralleled in some sense the wonderful fizz of the original. Why insist on calling Chekhov’s story “In the Ravine” “In The Gully”? No doubt because the translation is Constance Garnett’s, and Nabokov delights to twit that well-intentioned and hard-working if unreliable lady. “Gully” in English is associated with drainpipes rather than with those abrupt crevasses that seam the flat steppes of southern Russia and have no geographical and thus no lexicographical equivalent in English. “Gulch” would be more graphic but also more distracting verbally. “Ravine” does at least suggest the symbolic overtone of primitive debasement in the Russian title.

And why must he call Gogol’s overcoat “The Carrick”? It cannot be denied there was such a term in English, though specialized and unfamiliar even in its own day, for a many-caped coachman-style cloak, with sleeves made almost supererogatory by the voluminous breadth of the shoulders. Poor Akaki schemes for, saves for, and finally obtains such a garment, before a mugger takes it off him. But the story is entitled Shinel, a Russianized version of French chenille, a furry sort of cloth, and this is the normal word for overcoat. The “Carrick” draws attention to the cut of the coat itself—fair enough in view of Nabokov’s passion for accuracy and justice to the semidivine status of the thing in fiction—but it suggests this is going to be the significant point of the tale. Such a title points the story’s plainness and pathos quite the wrong way. Yet Nabokov’s discussion of it is one of his best things, the centerpiece of the triptych, as it were, of which the wings are formed by The Metamorphosis and “The Lady with the Little Dog.”

What comes out so strongly in each case is the absolute compatibility of the story’s “touchingness”—the way it finds the heart and brings water to the eyes—with an extreme elaboration of artifice, a heaping up of aesthetic Nabokovian detail. And in cataloguing the latter with such joy Nabokov also shows us the subtle grounds on which we feel the former response. All the great Russians excel in combining simple feeling with a sense of the infinite contingency entailed on human existence. Dickens, by contrast, is apt to suspend the complexity of his art when he wants us to cry; and Aldous Huxley long ago pointed out that if we compare the death of Little Nell with that of the child Ilusha at the end of The Brothers Karamazov we are struck by the multitudinous vitality of the detail with which Dostoevsky surrounds the touching event.

But Dostoevsky is one author about whom Nabokov can be of no use to us. He is too good at authors he loves to be of help when he doesn’t love. He tells us that Dostoevsky’s early story “The Double” is his masterpiece, because it is virtually an imitation of Gogol. Dostoevsky

is not a great writer in the sense Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov are…. Not because the world he creates is unreal—all the worlds of writers are unreal—but because it is created too hastily without any sense of that harmony and economy which the most irrational masterpiece is bound to comply with.

That is not criticism, but it performs the negative function of showing that if we find Dostoevsky no good it is no good trying to invent reasons why not. It is not just a question of temperamental incompatibility either: plenty of readers who find his ideas and personality repugnant are nonetheless entranced by the marvelous dishevelment of his drama and comedy. Nabokov actually goes so far as to say that Dostoevsky “has little humor in the description of his characters or their relations, or in the situations.” Considering that humor makes Dostoevsky’s world as it makes Gogol’s—and if Gogol’s humor is like a bed-sitter, Dostoevsky’s is a Gothic cathedral—that judgment is quite inexplicable. Yet it may be that Nabokov was right in finding no humor in Dostoevsky as a man, even though the strange genius of his books runs riot with it.

This brings us to a point of crucial importance in Nabokov’s attitude to Russian life and literature: his dislike and avoidance of its profoundly dualistic nature. Aesthetic patterns, productive of aesthetic bliss, never produce dualisms; and though acknowledging that one cannot separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist Nabokov says he would like to “kick the glorified soap box from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper—far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.”

A superb bravura passage in Gogol, reprinted in the present collection, makes play with the idea of poshlust (German Kitsch, English—though too generalized to be accurate—vulgarity). The passage has given the Russian term for sickly high-flown sentiments and sweetly colored daydreams a certain notoriety. In the West it is usually, as Nabokov has observed, a wholly commercialized affair, stereotyped for advertising, the Reader’s Digest, the women’s magazines.

But in Russian literature and society poshlust can have quite a different implication, and one that Nabokov ignores or seems unaware of. It exhibits the duality between aspiration and reality, what Brodsky calls “the dialogue between the spheres and the gutter.” Handled by a great artist such as Gogol or Chekhov it shows a genuine pathos in the soul, divided between intimations of beauty and the banality of living, as Gurov is in “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Chichikov in Dead Souls—for Nabokov the embodiment of poshlust—converses with his fellow crooks in nonsensical and high-minded platitudes while engaged in speculating in the mortgages of defunct serfs; but Gogol has a vision of a redeemed Chichikov, traveling toward some glorious goal just as Russia—the headlong troika—will do.

Of course that glorious goal has turned out to be the gleaming heights of socialism, and Nabokov had scarcely the need to waste his contempt on the jargon of Soviet poshlust. In the lecture which opens this collection, “Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers,” read at the Cornell Festival of the Arts in 1958, he indicates the institutionalization of poshlust in Soviet art. Although there is a comparable formula in Western book clubs and prepackaged thrillers, “there is no governmental law in Western countries to ban a story that does not comply with fond tradition.” And thus we have passages like this from The Big Heart; by Antonov, published serially in 1957.

“Why can’t you love me as I love you?”

“I love my country,” she said.

“So do I,” he exclaimed.

“And there is something I love even more strongly,” Olga continued, disengaging herself from the young man’s embrace.

“And that is?” he queried.

Olga let her limpid blue eyes rest on him, and answered quickly: “It is the Party.”

Readers of the monthly journal Soviet Literature will know that the formula has become a little more flexible since then, but not much.

What is worst about it is the disappearance of that saving dualism which animates the Russian literature of the nineteenth century, and in the end one’s strongest criticism of Nabokov must be that he comes perilously close to equating what he calls the “unctuousness” and “sentimentality” of Dostoevsky with the same poshlii qualities in present-day Soviet literature. Sentiment and human interest are not bad things in themselves. We may agree that Gorki’s “Twenty-Six Men and A Girl” “is all pink candy with just that amount of soot clinging to it to make it attractive,” but Nabokov goes on to observe, as if it were an inexplicable and on the whole distasteful phenomenon, that however degraded the scenes Gorki presents he always retains a childlike faith in human nature and a boundless enthusiasm for its potential. That paradox is just what Nabokov as a critic and teacher would rather not take into account. But it has always been vital to Russian literature and remains so even today. Its greatest art has never been about art but about love and the soul and human progress—matters which Nabokov would prefer to ignore or to depreciate by taking for granted—but indispensable to his fellow countrymen.

This Issue

December 3, 1981