Home » 19th century » Fredson Bowers about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian literature


Fredson Bowers about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian literature


It is difficult to refrain from the relief of irony, from the luxury of contempt, when surveying the mess that meek hands, obedient tentacles guided by the bloated octopus of the state, have managed to make out of that fiery, fanciful free thing—literature. Even more: I have learned to treasure my disgust, because I know that by feeling so strongly about it I am saving what I can of the spirit of Russian literature. Next to the right to create, the right to criticize is the richest gift that liberty of thought and speech can offer. Living as you do in freedom, in that spiritual open where you were born and bred, you may be apt to regard stories of prison life coming from remote lands as exaggerated accounts spread by panting fugitives. That a country exists where for almost a quarter of a century literature has been limited to illustrating the advertisements of a firm of slave-traders is hardly credible to people for whom writing and reading books is synonymous with having and voicing individual opinions. But if you do not believe in the existence of such conditions, you may at least imagine them, and once you have imagined them you will realize with new purity and pride the value of real books written by free men for free men to read.

This is a single untitled leaf, numbered 18, that appears to represent all that survives of an introductory survey of Soviet literature that VN prefixed to his lectures on the great Russian writers. Ed.

* * *

According to his own account, in 1940 before launching on his academic career in America, Vladimir 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.”* It would seem that these lectures (each carefully timed to the usual fifty-minute American academic limit) were written between his arrival in the United States in May 1940 and his first teaching experience, a course in Russian literature in the 1941 Stanford University Summer School. In the autumn semester of 1941, Nabokov started a regular appointment at Wellesley College where he was the Russian Department in his own person and initially taught courses in language and grammar, but he soon branched out with Russian 201, a survey of Russian literature in translation. In 1948 he transferred to Cornell University as Associate Professor of Slavic Literature where he taught Literature 311-312, Masters of European Fiction, and Literature 325-326, Russian Literature in Translation.

The Russian writers represented in the present volume seem to have formed part of an occasionally shifting schedule in the Masters of European Fiction and Russian Literature in Translation courses. In the Masters course Nabokov usually taught Jane Austen, Gogol, Flaubert, Dickens, and—irregularly — Turgenev; in the second semester he assigned Tolstoy, Stevenson, Kafka, Proust, and Joyce.† The Dostoevski, Chekhov, and Gorki sections in this volume are from Russian Literature in Translation, which, according to Nabokov’s son Dmitri, also included minor Russian writers for whom the lecture notes are not preserved.‡

After the success of Lolita enabled him to leave teaching in 1958, Nabokov planned to publish a book based on his various lectures on Russian and European literature. He never began the project, although fourteen years earlier his short book on Nikolai Gogol incorporated in revised form his classroom lectures on Dead Souls and “The Overcoat.” At one time he planned a textbook edition of Anna Karenin, but after some work abandoned it. The present volume preserves all that has come down to us from his own manuscripts of the lectures on Russian authors.

Some differences mark Nabokov’s presentation of the material from that he adopted for the European authors treated in the first volume, Lectures on Literature. In the lectures on European authors Nabokov paid no attention to biography, and he made no attempt, even in a cursory manner, to sketch in for his students an account of the authors’ works that were not to be read for class. The concentration was exclusively on a single book assigned for each writer. In contrast, for the Russian lectures the usual formula is to present a capsule biography followed by a summary account of the author’s other works, and then to shift to a close examination of the major work to be studied. One may surmise that this standard academic approach represents Nabokov’s first teaching attempts at Stanford and Wellesley. From some scattered comments he appears to have felt that the students he was to address were innocent of any knowledge of Russian literature. Hence the teaching formula customary in academia at the time may have seemed to him best suited to introduce students to strange writers and an unfamiliar civilization. By the time he gave the Masters of European Fiction course at Cornell he had developed the more individual and sophisticated approach illustrated by such lectures as those on Flaubert or Dickens or Joyce, but seems never to have altered materially his written-out Wellesley lectures for delivery at Cornell. However, since the Russian lectures covered such familiar ground for him, it is possible that at Cornell he modified his discourse with more extemporaneous comment and was less rigid in his delivery, described thus in Strong Opinions: “Although, at the lectern, I evolved a subtle up and down movement of my eyes, there was never any doubt in the minds of alert students that I was Among the authors that Dmitri Nabokov lists as having been taught during the Cornell years are Pushkin, Zhukovski, Karamazin, Griboedov, Krylov, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Derzhavin, Awakum, Batyushkov, Gnedich, Fonvizin, Fet, Leskov, Blok, and Goncharov. If these had all been included in one course, it must have been a rapid survey. In the spring of 1952 while a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Nabokov gave a seminar in Pushkin alone, presumably from material he was collecting for his edition of Eugene Onegin. reading, not speaking.” Indeed, for some of his lectures on Chekhov, and especially for the lecture on Tolstoy’s “Ivan Ilyich,” reading from manuscript would have been quite impossible since no finished script exists.

One may also detect a more subtle difference than that of structure. In lecturing on the great nineteenth-century Russian writers of fiction Nabokov was completely in his element. Not only did these writers represent to him the absolute height of Russian literature (with Pushkin, of course) but they also flourished counter to the utilitarianism that he despised both in the social critics of the time and, more bitingly, in its later Soviet development. In this respect the public lecture “Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers” mirrors the attitude one finds in his approach. In the classroom lectures the social element in Turgenev is deplored, that in Dostoevski is ridiculed, but Gorki’s works are savaged. Just as in Lectures on Literature Nabokov had emphasized that students must not read Madame Bovary as a history of bourgeois life in nineteenth-century provincial France, so his highest admiration is reserved for Chekhov’s refusal to allow social commentary to interfere with his exact observation of people as he saw them. “In the Gully” represents, artistically, life as it is, and people as they are, without the distortion that would have followed on a concern with the social system that could produce such characters. Correspondingly, in the Tolstoy series he regrets, half smiling, that Tolstoy did not see that the beauty of the curls of dark hair on Anna’s tender neck was artistically more important than Lyovin’s (Tolstoy’s) views on agriculture. The emphasis on artistry in Lectures on Literature was broad and constant; nevertheless, in this Russian group it may seem to be more intense since in Nabokov’s mind the principle of artistry combats not merely the prepossessions of the 1950s reader, as one feels he is arguing in the earlier volume, but also—more important for the writers—the antagonistic and eventually triumphant utilitarian attitude of the contemporary nineteenth-century Russian critics later hardened into the dogma of statecraft by the Soviet Union.

Tolstoy’s world perfectly imaged Nabokov’s lost homeland. The nostalgia he felt at the disappearance of this world and its people (he had met Tolstoy as a child) strengthens his typical emphasis on the artistic presentation of life in the fiction of Russia’s golden age, especially in the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. In aesthetics, artistic is, of course, not far from aristocratic, and it is not too much to suggest that both of these powerful strains in Nabokov may lie in back of his repugnance at what he regarded as Dostoevski’s false sentimen-talism. They certainly feed his contempt for Gorki. Because he was lecturing on Russian literature in translation Nabokov could not discuss the importance of style in any precise detail; but it seems clear that his dislike of Gorki (apart from political considerations) was based as much on his proletarian style as on what Nabokov regarded as the ineptness of his presentation of character and situation. His lack of admiration for Dostoevski’s style may also have influenced in part his generally unfavorable judgment of this writer. Wonderfully effective are the several occasions when Nabokov quotes Tolstoy’s Russian in the original to illustrate to his hearers the extraordinary effects from sound joined to sense.

The pedagogical stance that Nabokov adopts in these lectures does not differ materially from that found in Lectures on Literature. He knew that he was lecturing to students on what was an unfamiliar subject. He knew that he had to entice his hearers to join him in savoring the rich life and the complex people of a vanished world in literature that he hailed as Russia’s Renaissance. Thus he relied heavily on quotation and interpretive narrative selected to make intelligible the feelings his students should have as they read, the reactions that should follow the course of the feeling that he was attempting to direct, and the creation of an understanding of great literature based on alert and intelligent appreciation instead of on what he regarded as sterile critical theory. His whole method was to draw his students in to share his own excitement at great writing, to envelop them in a different world of reality that is all the more real for being an artistic semblance. These are, then, very personal lectures emphasizing shared experience. And, of course, because of their Russian subject they are somehow more personally felt than his hearty appreciation of Dickens, his penetration of Joyce, or even his writer’s empathy for Flaubert.

This is not to say, however, that critical analysis is in any way wanting in these lectures. He may make plain important hidden themes as when he points out in Anna Karenin the motifs of the double-nightmare. That Anna’s dream foreshadows her death is not its only significance: in one moment of awful illumination Nabokov suddenly links it with the emotions that follow Vron-ski’s conquest of Anna in their first adulterous union. And the implications of the horse race in which Vronski kills his mount Frou-Frou are not neglected. It is a special insight that despite the richly sensual love of Anna and Vronski their spiritually sterile and egotistic emotions doom them, whereas Kitty’s marriage to Lyovin brings the Tolstoyan ideal of harmony, responsibility, tenderness, truth, and family joys.

Nabokov is fascinated by Tolstoy’s time schemes. The how of the feeling that the reader’s and the author’s time-sense completely coincide in a manner that produces ultimate reality he gives up as an unsolved secret. But Tolstoy’s juggling of the time-scheme between the Anna-Vronski and the Kitty-Lyovin actions is worked out in most interesting detail. He can point out how Tolstoy’s presentation of Anna’s thoughts in her drive through Moscow on the day of her death anticipates the stream-of-consciousness technique of James Joyce. He has an eye for the oddity, also, as that two officers in Vronski’s regiment represent the first portrayal of homosexuality in modern literature.

He is tireless in illustrating how Chekhov made the ordinary seem of supreme value to the reader. If he criticizes the banality of Turgenev’s character biographies interrupting the narrative and the relation of what happens to everyone after the ending of the story proper, Nabokov can yet appreciate the delicacy of Turgenev’s cameo descriptions and of his modulated sinuous style, which he compares to “a lizard sun-charmed on a wall.” If the mark of Dostoevski’s sentimentality offends him, as in his outraged description of Raskolnikov and the prostitute in Crime and Punishment bent together over the Bible, he is appreciative of Dostoevksi’s wild humor; and his conclusion that in The Brothers Karamazov a writer who could have been a great dramatist is struggling unsuccessfully within the novel form is a unique perception.

It is the mark of a great teacher as well as critic that he can rise to the author’s level in a masterpiece. Particularly in the Tolstoy lectures, which provide the most exhilarating reading and are the heart of this volume, Nabokov from time to time joins Tolstoy at a dizzy level of imaginative experience. The interpretive description with which he guides the reader through the story of Anna Karenin is itself a work of art.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that Nabokov made to his students was not merely his emphasis on shared experience but on shared informed experience. As a creative writer himself he could meet the authors he treated on their own ground and make their stories and characters come alive by his own understanding of what constitutes the art of writing. In his persistent emphasis on intelligent reading he found that nothing equalled the reader’s command of detail as the key to unlock the secret of how masterpieces work. His commentary notes on Anna Karenin are a treasure of information that enhances the reader’s awareness of the inner life of the novel. This scientific yet artistic appreciation of detail, characteristic of Nabokov himself as a writer, constitutes ultimately the heart of his teaching method. He summed up his feeling as follows: “In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead.* In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualize, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.” And he continued, “Here diagrams are most helpful.”* So we have his blackboard diagram of the crisscross journeys made by Bazarov and Arkadi in Fathers and Sons, and his drawing of the layout of the sleeping car in which Anna journeyed from Moscow to Petersburg on the same train as Vronski. The dress that Kitty would have worn skating is reproduced from a contemporary fashion illustration. We have discourses on how tennis was played, what Russians had for breakfast, luncheon, and dinner, and at what times. This scientist’s respect for fact combined with the writer’s own understanding of the intricate trails of passion that inform a great work of imagination is quintessentially Nabokovian and is one of the particular virtues of these lectures.

On this passage John Simon remarks: “But Nabokov does demand, for all his rejection of crude reality—’those farcical and fraudulent characters called Facts’—a powerful semblance of reality, which, as he himself might have put it, is not the same as a resemblance. As he said in an interview, unless you know the streets of Joyce’s Dublin and what the semi-sleeping car on the Petersburg-Moscow express looked like in 1870, you cannot make sense of Ulysses and Anna Karenin[a]. In other words, the writer makes use of some specific realities, but only as bait with which to trap the readers into the greater unreality—or greater reality—of his fiction. ” (“The Novelist at the Blackboard, ” The Times Literary Supplement [April 24, 1981], 458.) Of course, if the reader does not understand and assimilate this detail, he remains outside the imaginative reality of the fiction. It is quite true that without Nabokov’s explanation of the conditions under which Anna traveled on that fateful journey to Petersburg certain of the motifs in her nightmare cannot be understood. *Strong Opinions, pp. 156-157.

This is the teaching method, but the result is a warm sense of shared experience between Nabokov and the hearer-reader. One reacts with joy to his communication of understanding through feeling, a gift given particularly to critics who are themselves great literary artists. That the magic he felt so keenly in literature should be aimed at pleasure we learn from these lectures and from the anecdote that at the first meeting of Literature 311 in September 1953, at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov asked the students to explain in writing why they had enrolled in the course. At the next class he approvingly reported that one student had answered, “Because I like stories.”