An A from Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

I wandered into Lit 311 at the beginning of my sophomore year at Cornell in September 1954. It was not that I had any interest in European literature, or any literature. I was just shopping for a class that met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings so that I wouldn’t have any Saturday classes, and “literature” also filled one of the requirements for graduation. It was officially called “European Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” but unofficially called “Dirty Lit” by the Cornell Daily Sun, since it dealt with adultery in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

The professor was Vladimir Nabokov, an émigré from tsarist Russia. About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

So began the course. Unfortunately, distracted by the gorges, lakes, movie houses, corridor dates, and other more local enchantments of Ithaca, I did not get around to reading any of Anna Karenina before Nabokov sprang a pop quiz. It consisted of an essay question: “Describe the train station in which Anna first met Vronsky.”

Initially, I was stymied by this question because, having not yet read the book, I did not know how Tolstoy had portrayed the station. But I did recall the station shown in the 1948 movie starring Vivien Leigh. Having something of an eidetic memory, I was able to visualize a vulnerable-looking Leigh in her black dress wandering through the station, and, to fill the exam book, I described in great detail everything shown in the movie, from a bearded vendor hawking tea in a potbellied copper samovar to two white doves practically nesting overhead. Only after the exam did I learn that many of the details I described from…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.