Commentary Magazine

Lectures on Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov

Priest of Art

Lectures on Literature.
by Vladimir Nabokov.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 385 pp. $19.95.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), self-exiled from Russia at the age of twenty, was—with Einstein and Mann, Huxley and Auden, Stravinsky and Milhaud—part of the great cultural emigration that came to America during the rise of Nazism. Nabokov arrived in New York in 1940 and soon began his progress from lean lecturer to full professor. During 1941-48 he taught Russian language and literature at Wellesley and worked as a Research Fellow in Entomology (specializing in butterflies) at Harvard. From 1948 to 1959 he was a member of the Russian Department at Cornell and lectured on Masters of European Fiction. As a teacher, Nabokov combined the precision and patience of the scientist with the passion and pity of the artist. Lectures on Literature is a handsome book, expertly edited and introduced, and profusely illustrated with his sketches, charts, and manuscripts.

Nabokov’s turbulent background determined his attitude toward literature. Like Joseph Conrad, he was born into an upper-class family in Slavic Europe, suffered exile and hardship when his father’s political career ended in personal disaster. Nabokov’s grandfather was Minister of Justice under Czar Alexander II when the Russian government suppressed the Polish rebellion of 1863 and sent Conrad’s family into arctic exile. Nabokov’s father, a Constitutional Democrat who was also on the losing side of a revolution, was murdered in Berlin in 1922. Both Conrad and Nabokov were polylingual, lived in Western Europe before moving to an English-speaking country, and adopted English as their literary language. Both had a distinguished hauteur and were deeply conservative: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes satirized the revolutionaries who would later drive Nabokov out of Russia. Both brought a distinctive alien vision to English literature and were slow to achieve artistic recognition.

Though Nabokov insisted that “None of my [examination] questions ever presupposed the advocacy of a fashionable interpretation or critical view that a teacher might wish to promote,” his strong opinions are expressed with dogmatic persistency. His view of literature, like that of Proust and Joyce, derives from Flaubert’s belief that “like God in His world, so the author in his book should be nowhere and everywhere, invisible and omnipresent.” He defines art as “beauty plus pity,” worships it as “the essential reality of life,” insists that it must deliberately exclude the actual world, and believes it survives all social and political change. He is primarily interested in the novel as “mimetic magic or deceptive doubleness,” as an intricate and entirely self-contained mechanism whose style and structure lend themselves to precise and visualized “detective investigation”: “I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about [realistic] details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead.” His lectures are thus filled with useful maps, plans, drawings, and diagrams of towns, houses, characters, and plot.

The radical limitations of this approach have been largely ignored by the schoolgirl gush of recent reviews. Yet Nabokov, who concentrates on plot rather than meaning (“General ideas were anathema” to him), ignores the author’s biography (“I am not one to go heavily for the human interest stuff”), the historical background (“child labor and all that”), the intellectual milieu (“great novels are great fairy tales”), the literary influence, the author’s development. He teaches the novels in a vacuum, believing that “A work of art has no importance whatever to society.”

Nabokov has many fierce prejudices, which he pronounces ex cathedra, and persuades his students, unable to challenge the Russian icon, to adopt his views about authors they have not yet read. He dislikes and dismisses Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Faulkner, and Hemingway; calls Mann a dwarf or plaster saint; and refers to Freud as “the Viennese witch doctor.” Despite the encouragement of his friend Edmund Wilson (who did not share Nabokov’s enthusiasm for Robert Louis Stevenson), Nabokov is not responsive to Jane Austen and misses a good deal of her irony, satire, and wit—as well as the sadness in Proust and the comedy in Joyce.

The lectures, carefully prepared and elegantly wrought, have a curiously static quality (like butterflies fixed in a case) and remained unchanged for twenty academic years. Once Nabokov worked out his ideas, he never felt the need to reexamine them. The constant emphasis on style and structure leads him to treat a sequence of very different novels, written from 1813 to 1922, in the same, somewhat mechanical way.

These significant limitations did not prevent Nabokov from being a funny, flamboyant, and formidable undergraduate teacher. His regal demeanor, handsome features, aristocratic manners, superb acting, rich Russian-French intonation, eccentric personality, idiosyncratic ideas, sophisticated wit, enthusiasm for literature and artistic achievement all made a profound and permanent impression on his students. At Wellesley, when his lecture was over, some bright devotees demanded: “‘We want to hear it over again. We want to hear more.’ He smiled, pleased, but gathered up his papers and gently departed.” He was painfully aware of the impassable gulf between his own subtle mind, exotic background, and traumatic experience and that of his lively but essentially naive pupils.



Nabokov is weakest on Jane Austen and Dickens, most original on Stevenson and Kafka. He regards Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a phenomenon of style (though it is frequently melodramatic and overwritten) which makes the crucial transformation “have the impact of satisfactory and artistic reality.” He calls Hyde Jekyll’s parasite—could there be something of the Stevenson/Henry James (Hyde/Jekyll) relationship portrayed in this story, which Stevenson wrote, while recovering from a hemorrhage, at the height of their intimacy? Nabokov subtly suggests that Jekyll’s “secret adventures were homosexual.” If so, Hyde’s fangs and claws must have made very rough trade indeed, and reversed Freud’s dictum: “Where id was there shall ego be.”

Nabokov makes brilliant use of his entomological expertise in the lecture on Kafka and provides a detailed drawing and description of Gregor Samsa (who is not a cockroach). Despite this specificity, however, Nabokov fails to explain how an entire apple, thrown by Gregor’s father, becomes embedded in his beetle flesh. He notes that Gregor’s wing case concealed little wings and that Gregor never realized that he could have flown out the window to freedom. This observation is clever but irrelevant. For Gregor’s outer form reflects his psychic condition (as the face expresses the soul in Renaissance neo-Platonism) and cannot be escaped. Nabokov rightly says the metamorphosis is not complete until Gregor abandons his human memories; but he can never do this because (like Odysseus’s men transformed into swine by Circe) he retains his human sensitivity and perceives his own tragedy.

The weaknesses of Nabokov’s method—he is primarily interested in the pattern of recurring themes and the synchronization of events—appear most clearly in the disappointing chapter on Ulysses, the most difficult novel to teach. But Nabokov is an excellent literary detective. He convincingly concludes that the mysterious man in the macintosh, who reappears throughout the novel, is in fact James Joyce himself. And he rightly states that the journalistic style in Aeolus and the convoluted theory about Shakespeare in Scylla and Charybdis are both tedious, and that the “petrified superpun” Finnegans Wake is “one of the greatest failures in literature.”

It is ironic that Nabokov’s course was sometimes known as “Dirty Lit.” (a title inherited from his predecessor), for the future author of Lolita, which was banned after publication in France in 1955, is rather squeamish and evasive about Joyce’s hilarious scatological details and Bloom’s obsessive sexual fantasies (a rich theme that connects the artistic nature of Bloom and Stephen). Nor does Nabokov give nearly enough attention to the fact that Bloom (like Mann’s Joseph, Kafka’s Gregor, and Proust’s Swann) is Jewish, and reflects the intellectual influence of Marx, Freud, and Einstein on the thought of the modern age. As Freud wrote, alluding to Ibsen: “Because I was a Jew . . . I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.’” Joyce was influenced, in his creation of Bloom, by his friendship with the Triestino-Jewish novelist Italo Svevo and by Victor Bérard’s theory of the Semitic origins of Odysseus, which matched Joyce’s belief: “Jewgreek is greek-jew. Extremes meet.” Bloom, constantly subjected to anti-Semitism (“When in doubt persecute Bloom”), and treated with irony and compassion, is, like his Homeric prototype, an exiled and lonely wanderer. He is drawn to Palestine as Molly is to Gibraltar and Odysseus to Ithaca. But Bloom, the last of his line, is cut off from both father and son as well as from religion, national origins, and ancient homeland.

Though Nabokov minimized his own debt to Proust and Joyce, he was profoundly influenced by both of them. Nabokov found the kernel of the Humbert-Lolita relationship in Bloom’s fantastic infatuation with the dreamy adolescent Gerty MacDowell in the Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses. Like Joyce, Nabokov loves wit, puns, word play, parody, puzzles, obscure multilingual allusions, and stylistic fireworks. Neither Nabokov nor Edmund Wilson noticed, as Wyndham Lewis did in The Art of Being Ruled (1926), that the style of Joyce’s interior monologue derived from the disconnected thoughts of Mr. Jingle in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.

Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, though no one knew it at the time, was also a course on how to read his own novels, for he remarks that “every new type of writer evolves a new type of reader.” His Russian novels are generally weaker than his novels in English; and his reputation rests primarily on Lolita, Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962)—the last two academic novels with a Cornell setting—which were written during his mature years. Though these are major achievements, they have the same limitations as his lectures and do not equal the greatest postwar novels: Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Lewis’s Self Condemned, and Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard. When Nabokov finally achieved wealth and fame with the publication of the New York edition of Lolita in 1958, he left teaching and returned to Switzerland where, Scott Fitzgerald observed, “few things begin and many things end.” He lived in the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel from 1961 on, wrote Ada (1969) and Transparent Things (1972), and died there in 1977.



Nabokov’s choice of novels for his lectures was more personal than literary, for they comprise a mosaic history of his own life. Jane Austen’s stable society of country gentlefolk represents Nabokov’s childhood before the Russian Revolution; Stevenson and Kafka describe a radically negative transformation that occurred after the Revolution; Dickens portrays impotent youth deprived of its rightful inheritance; Joyce writes of the life of an exile and wanderer; Flaubert symbolizes the passionate dedication to art that outlasts political upheaval; and Proust, like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, concerns the attempt to recapture the past. Indeed, Nabokov’s description of his master Marcel Proust applies with equal force to his own work: “The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotion such as desire, jealousy, and artistic euphoria—this is the material of the enormous and yet singularly light and translucid work.”

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