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Editorial Method in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian literature


By Fredson Bowers

The fact cannot and need not be disguised that the texts for these essays represent Vladimir Nabokov’s written-out notes for delivery as classroom lectures and that they cannot be regarded as a finished literary product such as he produced when he revised his classroom lectures on Gogol for publication as a book. (The Gogol essay published here is excerpted from Nikolai Gogol [New York: New Directions, 1944].) The lectures exist in very different states of preparation and polish, and even of completed structure. Most are in his own handwriting, with only occasional sections (usually the biographical introductions) typed by his wife Vera as an aid to delivery. The degree of preparation ranges from the handwritten rough notes for the Gorki lecture to a considerable amount of typed material for Tolstoy that seems to have been planned as part of an extended general introduction to the lectures on Anna Karenin reworked as a textbook. (The appendices to the Anna Karenin essay consist of material prepared for Nabokov’s edition.) When typing exists the text was usually further modified by Nabokov, who might add fresh comments by hand or revise phrases for felicity. Thus the typed pages are likely to run a little more smoothly than the handwritten. The holograph pages on a few occasions appear to be fair copies, but normally they give every indication of initial composition, and they are often much worked over both during the writing-out and on review.

Some separate sections in the lecture folders clearly represent simple background notes made in the initial stages of preparation and either not utilized or else considerably revised and incorporated subsequently into the lectures themselves. Other independent sections are more ambiguous, and it is not always demonstrable whether they reflect stages of amplification during the course of repeated delivery in different years and in different places from the basic Wellesley series (seemingly not much modified, except for Tolstoy, when delivered later at Cornell) or else jottings for possible incorporation in a future revision. Whenever possible all such material not manifestly background and preparatory memoranda has been salvaged and worked into the texture of the discourse at appropriate places.

The problem of making a reading edition from these manuscripts falls into two main parts: structural and stylistic. Structurally, the main order of delivery, or the organization of the lectures on any one of the authors, is not ordinarily in question, but problems do arise, especially in the Tolstoy lectures, which are composed of a series of discrete sections. The evidence appears to be quite contradictory, for example, whether Nabokov intended Anna’s story to be finished before he took up in any major way the Lyovin narrative with which he proposed to conclude, or else whether the plot line of Anna and Vronski was to begin and to end the series, as presented here. It is not entirely clear, also, whether Notes from Underground (i.e., Memoirs from a Mousehole) was intended to end the series of lectures on Dostoevski or to follow Crime and Punishment. Thus even in an essay like that on Anna Karenin in which at least some preliminary preparations looking toward publication can be encountered, the proposed organization is in some legitimate doubt. The problem is intensified in the lecture on “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which exists only in the form of a few fragmented notes. Between these two extremes comes a series like that on Chekhov, which is only partly organized. The section devoted to “The Lady with the Little Dog” is fully worked out, but “In the Gully” is represented only by rough notes with directions to read certain pages from the story. The Seagull handwritten manuscript was discovered apart from the rest but appears to belong to the series. It is rather elementary in its form, but it seems to have received Nabokov’s approval since its beginning has been typed and then a note in Russian refers to the continuation in the rest of the manuscript.

In some lectures a small rearrangement has been necessary in cases of doubt about the progression. In a few of the folders isolated pages of Nabokov’s remarks are interspersed—sometimes little independent essays but sometimes only notes or trials—which have been editorially integrated in the discourse in an effort to preserve the maximum discussion that Nabokov made of the authors, their works, and the art of literature in general.

Quotation bulked large in Nabokov’s teaching methods as an aid in transmitting to students his ideas of literary artistry. In the construction of the present reading edition from the lectures, Nabokov’s method has been followed with very little cutting except of the most extended quoted illustrations, for the quotations are most helpful in recalling a book to the reader’s memory or else in introducing it to a fresh reader under Nabokov’s expert guidance. Quotations, therefore, ordinarily follow Nabokov’s specific instructions to read certain passages (usually marked also in his own classroom copy) with the effect that the reader may participate in the talk as if he were present as a listener. To further this flow-in of quotation with discussion, the convention of quotation marks at every indentation has been set aside, and except for opening and closing marks and the usual marks about dialogue, the distinction between quotation and text has been deliberately blurred. When a useful purpose might be served, the editor has occasionally added quotations to illustrate Nabokov’s discussion or description, especially when his teaching copies of the books are not available and one does not have the guidance of passages marked for quotation in addition to those specified in the body of the lecture as to be read.

Only the teaching copies for Anna Karenin and for certain of the Chekhov works have been preserved. These are marked for quotation and contain notes about the context, most of these comments also being present in the written-out lectures but other notes clue Nabokov in on some oral remark to make about the style or the content of passages to be emphasized by quotation or verbal reference. Whenever possible, comments in the annotated copies have been worked into the texture of the lectures as appropriate occasion arose. Nabokov highly disapproved of Constance Garnett’s translations from the Russian. Thus the passages marked for quotation in his teaching copy of Anna Karenin are interlined heavily with his own corrections of errors of translation or his own versions of the authorial expression. Quotation in the present volume follows, of course, Nabokov’s own alterations in the basic translation as he would have read them, but usually omits his bitter sidenotes about the translator’s incompetency, directed at Constance Garnett’s blunders. The Tolstoy lectures, perhaps because of their partial reworking for a proposed book, are unique in presenting many of the quotations typed out in full within the text instead of relying on Nabokov’s usual practice of noting passages to read from his teaching copy. (This teaching copy differs from that of Madame Bovary where the entire text was freely annotated in that after part one only selected passages in Anna Karenin have been revised.) The typing-out of quotations poses something of a problem because changes made in the Garnett text in these typescripts do not always agree with the alterations made in the text of the teaching copy and these passages are frequently abridged. There is also a separate section, presumably intended for publication but not here reproduced, labeled as corrections to the Garnett edition for the first part of Anna Karenin which, when referring to the quoted passages, does not always agree either with the manuscript or the marked book. A choice of one of these three as the exclusive copy for the text of the quotations in the present volume would be partly unsatisfactory since each series of revisions seems to have been made without reference to the others. Under these conditions, where chronological priority has little or no significance, it has seemed most useful to provide the reader with the maximum number of changes that Nabokov made in the Garnett version by using the abridged manuscript copy as the norm but freely inserting in its text whatever further alterations he made either in the teaching copy or the typed-out list.

Nabokov was acutely conscious of the need to shape the separate lectures to the allotted classroom hour, and it is not unusual to find noted in the margin the time at which that particular point should have been reached. Within the lecture text a number of passages and even separate sentences or phrases are enclosed in square brackets. Some of these brackets seem to indicate matter that could be omitted if time were pressing. Others may represent matter that he queried for omission more for reasons of content or expression than for time restrictions; and indeed some of these bracketed queries were subsequently deleted, just as some, alternatively, have been removed from the status of queries by the substitution for them of parentheses. All such undeleted bracketed material has been faithfully reproduced but without sign of the bracketing, which would have been intrusive for the reader. Deletions are observed, of course, except for a handful of cases when it has seemed to the editor possible that the matter was excised for considerations of time or, sometimes, of position, in which latter case the deleted matter has been transferred to a more appropriate context. On the other hand, some of Nabokov’s comments directed exclusively to his students and often on pedagogical subjects have been omitted as inconsistent with the aims of a reading edition, although one that otherwise retains much of the flavor of Nabokov’s lecture delivery. Among such omissions one may mention remarks like “you all remember who she was” when he compares Anna Karenin to Athena, or his adjuration to the undergraduates that they should enjoy the pathetic scene of Anna’s visit to her son on his tenth birthday, or his spelling out Tyutchev’s name with a long “u” (which sounds, he remarks, like “a kind of caged twitter,” a comment worth preserving), or observations for an unsophisticated audience in his analysis of Tolstoy’s structure : “I realize that synchronization is a big word, a five syllable word—but we can console ourselves by the thought that it would have had six syllables several centuries ago. By the way it does not come from sin—s, i, n—but s, y, n—and it means arranging events in such a way as to indicate coexistence.” However, some of these classroom asides have been retained when not inappropriate for a more sophisticated reading audience, as well as most of Nabokov’s imperatives.

Stylistically the most part of these texts by no means represents what would have been Nabokov’s language and syntax if he had himself worked them up in book form, for a marked difference exists between the general style of these classroom lectures and the polished workmanship of several of his public lectures. Since publication without reworking had not been contemplated when Nabokov wrote out these lectures and their notes for delivery, it would be pedantic in the extreme to try to transcribe the texts literatum in every detail from the sometimes rough form found in the manuscripts. The editor of a reading edition may be permitted to deal more freely with inconsistencies, inadvertent mistakes, and incomplete inscription, including the need sometimes to add bridge passages in connection with quotation. On the other hand, no reader would want a manipulated text that endeavored to “improve” Nabokov’s writing in any intrusive way even in some of its unpolished sections. Thus a synthetic approach has been firmly rejected, and Nabokov’s language has been reproduced with fidelity save for words missing by accident and inadvertent repetitions often the result of incomplete revision.

Corrections and modifications have been performed silently. Thus the only footnotes are Nabokov’s own or else occasional editorial comments on points of interest such as the application of some isolated jotting, whether among the manuscripts or in the annotated copy of the teaching book, to the text of the lecture at hand. The mechanics of the lectures, such as Nabokov’s notes to himself, often in Russian, have been omitted, as have been his markings for correct delivery of the vowel quantities in pronunciation and the accenting of syllables in certain names and unusual words. Nor do footnotes interrupt what one hopes is the flow of the discourse to indicate to the reader that an unassigned section has been editorially inserted at a particular point.

The transliteration of Russian names to their English equivalents has posed a slight problem since Nabokov was not always consistent in his own usage; and even when he made up a list of the forms of names in Anna Karenin, part one, presumably for the planned publication of the Tolstoy lectures, the transliterated spellings do not always agree with the forms in his own manuscripts, or even internally in their system. Quotations from the texts of the translators of other authors introduce a variety of different systems, also. Under these conditions it has seemed best to make a thorough revised transliteration of the Russian names in all these lectures according to a consistent system that has been agreed upon and performed by the joint efforts of Professor Simon Karlinsky and Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, to whom special thanks are due.

“L’Envoi” is drawn from Nabokov’s final remarks to his class before he went on to discuss in detail the nature and requirements of the final examination. In these remarks he states that he has described at the beginning of the course the period of Russian literature between 1917 and 1957. This opening lecture has not been preserved among the manuscripts except perhaps for one leaf, which appears as the epigraph to this volume.

The editions of the books that Nabokov used as teaching copies for his lectures were selected for their cheapness and general availability. Nabokov admired the translations from the Russian of Bernard Guilbert Guerney, but of few others.

The texts from which Nabokov taught are as follows: Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (New York: Modern Library, 1930); The Portable Chekhov, ed. Avrahm Yarmolinsky (New York: Viking Press, 1947); A Treasury of Russian Literature, edited and translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney (New York: Vanguard Press, 1943).