Lectures on Literature
Complete with an appreciation by John Updike, this handsomely printed volume is an impressive tribute to an intriguing decade in the colorful life of one of this century’s most brilliant and inventive authors. There he was, an urbane and liberal émigré-aristocrat from Russia (with Berlin and Cambridge in his background), teaching a general education requirement in literature to a crowded hall of Cornell undergraduates, who had great difficulty in piercing the thickness of his accent. When they could, however, reach across his rolled “r’s,” what they heard, over and over again, was (as conveyed by John Updike in the words of a student who attended the lectures) “Caress the details ... the divine details.” For Vladimir Nabokov, a great work of literature was a triumph over abstraction and therefore a blow against tyranny and common sense which he thought were allies dedicated to the vulgarizing of the mind. The infinitely suggestive details of great art, which asserts the supremacy of felt detail over foolish generalizations, contribute to rendering the goodness of man a plausible thing in which to believe. By disciplining the subjective imagination, the detailed realizations of art make credible the worlds of hope that art brings to life.
It is true that Nabokov balked at the suggestion that great books had a moral or instructive purpose; they were simply beyond the crudities of any pragmatic function or intention. Nevertheless, he would end the semester by insisting that despite the fact that great literature could teach little of practical value, the close study of its structure and style might help readersfeel the pure satisfaction ... [that] goes to build up a sense of more genuine mental comfort, the kind of comfort one feels when one realizes that for all its blunders and boners the inner texture of life is also a matter of inspiration and precision.
To alert his students to the brilliant “textures” great writers were capable of weaving, he would spend a great deal of time quoting at length from the books themselves. These creative readings, however, were constantly interrupted with remarks on style, meaning, and literary influence. The “divine details” were evoked by the enchanter’s wand. One of his most effective tricks was to stress the distortions of mistranslation of Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust; this dramatized the full power of “detail” by showing how the slightest errors in translation could do terrible violence to the writer’s intended meaning. The vulnerability of a text to translation was only added proof of the power behind the delicacy of texture. Readers of Lectures on Literature have one distinct advantage over the students who originally attended the lectures: the editors have reproduced pages from Nabokov’s teaching copies of the English translations of Flaubert and Proust assigned to the students, and his outraged pencilings and corrections bring his illuminations of the text to startling life. One gets a strong impression of the indignation with which Nabokov must have called these violations to the literary bench and the gusto with which he condemned them to everlasting perdition.
Nabokov’s insistence that students master the details of a literary text went far beyond the New Critical attention to diction and imagery that dominated the literary pedagogy of his time. He delighted in drawing maps that forced students to...
(The entire section is 1406 words.)