Lectures on Russian Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)
ph_0111201257-Nabokov.jpg Vladimir Nabokov. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

This is a companion volume to the 1980 publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on non-Russian European writers, which covered such works as Mansfield Park (1814), Madame Bovary (1857), Bleak House (1852-1853), Ulysses (1922), Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), and “Metamorphosis” (1915). In 1940, having just arrived in the United States, Nabokov “fortunately took the trouble of writing one hundred lectures—about 2,000 pages—on Russian literature. . . . This kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for twenty academic years.” Fredson Bowers informs the reader in his lucid Introduction that Nabokov’s first teaching experience in this country was in the 1941 Stanford University Summer School. That fall he began a regular appointment at Wellesley College. In 1948 he transferred to Cornell University, where he taught for a decade, specializing in two courses: “Masters of European Fiction” and “Russian Literature In Translation.”

After the international splash of Lolita (1955) enabled Nabokov to abandon academia and concentrate wholly on his writing career, he planned to publish his literary lectures. However, he never began the project. The present volume is a carefully edited reconstruction from notes and drafts left by the author. Most are handwritten, while occasional sections were typed by his wife Vera to aid him in classroom delivery. The degree of preparation and polish varies considerably. The essay on Nikolai Gogol is excerpted from Nabokov’s monograph on one of his favorite writers, first published by New Directions in 1944. Much of the long chapter on Lev Tolstoy was planned as part of a textbook edition on Anna Karenin (omit any final “a,” if you please) which did not materialize. On the other hand, the Maxim Gorki lecture consists largely of scrappy, rough notes. Evidently Bowers’ editing task was a daunting one. He accomplishes it gracefully and carefully; he is also generous enough to acknowledge the assistance of Simon Karlinsky, Professor of Slavic Languages at the University of California, Berkeley.

Perhaps the best introduction to Vladimir Nabokov’s perspective on his native literature is the book’s preliminary chapter: a lively, playful lecture, “Russian Writers, Censors and Readers,” delivered at Cornell in 1958. The nineteenth century, he tells his audience of contemporary students,had been sufficient for a country with practically no literary tradition of its own to create a literature which in artistic worth, in wide-spread influence, in everything except bulk, equals the glorious output of England or France, although their production of permanent masterpieces had begun so much earlier.

Nabokov views Russian literature of that golden century as having been continuously subject to two censorships: that of the czarist state, at times vicious, at times ridiculous; and the pressures exerted by social-minded reformist critics. The first insisted that writers serve the state; the second that they serve what the radicals deemed the welfare of the masses.

As an aristocratic liberal, Nabokov rejects all pressures to serve any dogma, to guide his pen by any ideological constraints. He is indifferent, indeed hostile, to literature that is didactic, documentary, sociological, moralistic. He insists on divorcing the worlds writers create from what philistine readers call “real life.” Reality, he insists, is what each person discovers in the darkroom of his individual mind and temperament. The literary artist is above all an enchanter, a fantasist, a magician. His art is a divine game, and the pleasure of reading a fictive text consists in reliving the moves of the game with the conjuring artist.

In this volume the reader is presented with individual chapters on Gogol, Lev Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov, whose work Nabokov loves; Ivan Turgenev, to whom he is largely indifferent; and Feodor Dostoevski and Maxim Gorki, both of whom he despises. The results are uneven, since Nabokov is unable to criticize justly where his hostility sways him. His is a highly subjective, free-wheeling, often quirky pedagogy. He is seldom concerned with covering his field comprehensively. His appeal is to the able student who can conduct his own background investigation of an author’s era, but will appreciate Nabokov’s flashing wit, playful punctiliousness, pungent eloquence, and—above all—keen connoisseurship of literature as a craft.

The essence of an author’s fictive world, Nabokov insists, is in the inner mosaic of its details, which he wants his audience to notice and fondle. He insists, for example, that Gogal’s writing “is a phenomenon of language, and not one of ideas.” He therefore explores lovingly the stylistic figures in Dead Souls (1842) and The Overcoat (1842), while snarling at the orthodox interpretation of Gogol as a social realist. What fascinates Nabokov about Gogol’s art is that “the peripheral characters of Dead Souls are engendered by the subordinate clauses of his various metaphors, comparisons, and lyrical outbursts.” He is interested in Gogol’s “conjuror’s patter” as a stylist who swerves from the colloquial to the irrational, the comic to the cosmic; then adds, typically: “the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.”

What captures Nabokov’s attention in Turgenev’s work is also his stylistic felicity. Nabokov compliments Turgenev on his “perfectly modulated well-oiled prose, his attunement to the effects of lights and shadows on the appearance of people.” However, he disparages Turgenev’s style as a whole for producinga queer effect of patchiness, just because certain passages, the artist’s favorites, have been pampered much more than the others and, in consequence, stand out, supple and strong, magnified, as it were, by the author’s predilection among the general flow of good, clear, but undistinguished prose.

Moreover, since Turgenev lacks literary imagination, he is unable to discover narrative skills equivalent to “the originality of his descriptive art.” Nabokov bows for once to critical convention by considering Fathers and Sons (1862) “one of the most brilliant novels of the nineteenth century.” However, his critique of the novel is...

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Lectures on Russian Literature Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIV, January 20, 1982, p. 17.

Commonweal. CVIII, November 6, 1981, p. 620.

Library Journal. CVI, December 1, 1981, p. 2317.

New Leader. LXIV, December 14, 1981, p. 25.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, December 23, 1981, p. 35.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, December 3, 1981, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 25, 1981, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LVII, November 2, 1981, p. 183.

Saturday Review. VIII, November, 1981, p. 70.

Time. CXVIII, November 16, 1981, p. 142.