Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian Literature

Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reviewed in this essay: Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

At Wellesley College in 1941, before he secured financial independence with Lolita (1955), Nabokov was a one-man Russian literature department. Lectures on Russian Literature collects his lessons on Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev, Gorki and Dostoevsky from that period, including after he transferred to Cornell in 1948 to teach Russian and other European fiction, and also including, of course, Tolstoy. The 100-page lecture on Anna Karenin is by far the longest. Provided, too, are detailed glossaries, character charts and even hand-made drawings of scenes from the novel.

Nabokov’s informal and unpretentious voice is a teacher’s, one who wants his students to understand how Tolstoy captures the lost, pre-revolution Russia of Nabokov’s childhood, a time before Russian censors made writing freely impossible. Claiming Tolstoy employs “an artistic force and subtlety unknown in Russian letters before his day,” he then explains many of these subtleties. When Anna walks away from the grizzly train accident, one passerby says to another that an instantaneous death is easiest, and Nabokov responds: “this impression will breed.” Insisting that the chronology of Anna Karenin is based on Tolstoy’s unique sense of literary timing, and retracing key plot elements to show how Tolstoy accelerates and decelerates plot lines according to the principle that “the mated move faster than the mateless,” Nabokov argues that this consideration of time is “the key to an intelligent understanding of the novel’s structure.”

For Nabokov, Karenin’s moral is that “love cannot be exclusively carnal, because then it is egotistical, and being egotistic, it destroys instead of creating. It is thus sinful.”  He reminds us of the novel’s epithet—vengeance is mine, and I shall repay—asking “What are the implications?” and answering “First, society has no right to judge Anna; second, Anna has no right to punish Vronski with revengeful suicide.” Other choice bits of Nabokovian charm include:

  • After ranking Russia’s best writers of prose Tolstoy, Gogol and Chekhov: “This is rather like grading students’ papers, and no doubt Dostoevsky is waiting outside my door to discuss his low mark.”
  • Once, after Kitty speaks, on a description of what she does with her fork, and how this makes her dress move: “The brilliant eye of the great writer always noting what his puppets are doing after he has given them power to live.”

And in the literary equivalent of Crosby showing us his favourite Gretzky highlights, two of Nabokov’s top literary moments:

  • “Epithets…to be noted and admired are the ‘limply plopping’ and ‘scabrous’ as applied so magnificently to the slippery insides and the rough outsides of the choice oysters Oblonski enjoys.”
  • “Of special interest is the fantastic compound-adjective, literally meaning ‘gauzily-ribbonly-lacily-iridescent’…used to describe the feminine throng at the ball.”

While Nabokov’s word play is sometimes esoteric and self-indulgent, the lectures are refreshingly lucid, insightful, and easy to understand. Tolstoy fans will enjoy the profound lesson, not to mention those on the other Russian giants of literature, and Nabokov fans will encounter a voice unlike any in his fiction.

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