Professor Nabokov: A Review Essay
by Stephen Jan Parker (Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter, No. 8, Spring 1982)
[Steve Parker (1939-2016) was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell, and a Professor at the University of Kansas; he was the founder of the Vladimir Nabokov Society (as it was then called) in 1978, and of its newsletter long edited by him, which became The Nabokovian and eventually "TheNabokovian.org."]
One may presume that with the appearance of Lectures on Russian Literature (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich & Bruccoli Clark, New York, 1981), following Lectures on Literature (1980), the public has now been given what is expected to be the complete record of Vladimir Nabokov's classroom teachings. If this is the case, then the reader of the two volumes of Lectures will come away with incomplete knowledge of both the content and approach that Nabokov brought to his courses.
At Cornell University Nabokov regularly taught two courses: Literature 311-312, "Masters of European Fiction" and Literature 325-326, "Russian Literature in Translation." The material in the two volumes of Lectures derives from these courses. Facing the problem of how to organize and present Nabokov's lecture notes and text annotations, the publishers decided to issue two volumes, one devoted to European, and the other to Russian writers. Thus in Volume One they excluded the Russian authors with whom Nabokov dealt in the "Masters" course (Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy), and subsequently included them with other Russian writers treated in the Russian literature course. "The Dostoevski, Chekhov, and Gorki sections in this volume are from Russian Literature in Translation," Fredson Bower, the editor, writes, "which … also included minor Russian writers for whom the lecture notes are not preserved." The format of the two volumes gives the erroneous impression that Nabokov's treatment of his subject matter in the two courses was essentially similar, except for the inclusion of additional biographical and bibliographical detail in the Russian Literature course.
After reading the two volumes of Lectures , a person familiar with Nabokov's own writings may well wonder, where is Pushkin? Did Nabokov really omit consideration of this beloved poet in his courses? And where are the other poets whose works Nabokov translated? And what about The Song of Igor's Campaign? Did Nabokov's view of Russian literature really begin with Gogol, the first author treated in Lectures on Russian Literature? The answer is, of course, no. Pushkin, other poets, Gogol the dramatist, and other prominent Russian writers were indeed taught regularly in Nabokov's course. Unfortunately this is not made clear in volume two of the Lectures. In "Masters of European Fiction" Nabokov taught books; in "Russian Literature in Translation" Nabokov taught not only books, but literary history as well.
In the autumn of 1958, in his last semester of teaching at Cornell University, this writer was a student in both of Nabokov's classes. The "Masters" course drew several hundred students to Goldwin Smith В Lecture Hall, and competed in campus popularity only with a course on the history of folk songs in which Peter Yarrow, then a teaching assistant (later Peter, of "Peter, Paul, and Mary"), played to regular sing-alongs. Nabokov's Russian literature course met down the hall in a much smaller room which accomodated the approximately thirty-five students who were enrolled. Unlike the totally formal arrangement in the large lecture hall, the Russian literature class allowed for a certain interplay between students and teacher and occasional questions were allowed.
Professor Nabokov began his survey with a lecture on Russian history (from the year 862) and early chronical literature, and moved with dispatch to The Song of Igor's Campaign on which the class was to spend several weeks. Nabokov's translation of, and commentary to, this twelfth century epic was published the following year by Random House. Though one of the course texts (Treasury of Russian Literature, ed. Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Vanguard Press, New York 1943) had a translation of The Song, it was Professor Nabokov's translation that was taught, line by line with expansive commentary.
Following brief consideration of the intervening years, essentially barren of notable literary work, the survey moved into the seventeenth century and an explanation of the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church and the life and writings of Archpriest Avvakum, a person, we were told, whose literary talents and not religioustenets made him outstanding. Consideration of Peter the Great (with reference to Pushkin's "The Bronze Rider" and Falconet's statue), was followed by some detailed consideration of Mikhail Lomonosov, and his prosodic reforms. This was the occasion for Professor Nabokov to demonstrate poetic feet in the following manner:
Consideration was then given to Gavriil Derzhavin, Russia's first prominent poet, and his "Ode to God" (1784).
Then began work on the nineteenth century and the era of Alexander Pushkin. Following introductory remarks on Pushkin's youth, Nabokov gave brief consideration to "the blissful lack of originality" in the writings of Russia's sentimentalist, Nikolai Karamzin, and to the poetry of Vasili Zhukovski, whose defects, we were told, were his oversimplification and delocalization. Pushkin's life, death, and several works were then presented in considerable detail, capped by several weeks of a line by line study of Eugene Onegin. The students were expected to work carefully with the copies of Nabokov's translation, taken from his manuscript, which were placed on reserve in the library. It was a rare privilege to discover Pushkin's masterpiece through the filter of Professor Nabokov's knowledge and sensibility accompanied throughout by his inimicable readings and forceful delivery. Among several items which never did find their way into his four-volume translation and study of Eugene Onegin, Professor Nabokov averred that stanzas 36-37 of Chapter Eight, wherein Eugene reads the book of his life and fate, were his particular favorites.
From Pushkin the class moved on to Gogol. As in Lectures on Russian Literature, the material presented in class derived from Nabokov's own Nikolai Gogol (1944). Students read and studied Dead Souls, The Overcoat, and The Inspector General. The texts for the two former were in the Guerney anthology; the text for Dead Souls was a paperback edition by Rinehart & Co. (New York 1942) translation also by Guerney, introduction by René Wellek. The class was told to disregard the introduction, and in the first lecture the students were given a line by line correction and amplification of Guerney's translation as an illustrative exercise. The study of Gogol completed the semester's work, and also Professor Nabokov's academic career.
Fredson Bowers conjectures that "because he was lecturing on Russian literature in translation, Nabokov could not discuss the importance of style in any precise detail." Actually, the line by line work on The Song of Igor's Campaign, various poems, Eugene Onegin, and passages from Gogol allowed Nabokov multiple opportunities to develop and exemplify questions of style at great length. Indeed, Nabokov was better able to convey fine stylistic points when working with the Russian works than he was able to do with Flaubert’s French in the "Major Writers" course.
The final examination in Literature 325, January 1959, was as follows:
Eugene Onegin (1 hr., 40 minutes):
1. Describe the structure of its stanza (measure and rhyme).
2. Lyrical and professional digressions .
3. Dates of composition and publication.
4. Onegin's two visits to the Larins.
5. Tatiana's letter.
6. Lenski's death.
7. Descriptions of winter: list some details, with references.
Dead Souls And The Inspector General (50 minutes):
8. describe the rambling comparison (no examples).
9. Chichikov's appearance and manner.
10. Gogol’s Little People ("secondary characters") in the novel or the play.
Students Who have taken 311 will answer the following questions instead of 8 and 9:
8a. The character of Hlestakov.
9a. "Gogol's play is poetry in action."
As can be inferred from the questions, in order to do well on the final examination the student had to have a command of the works in extensive detail.
The lectures in Lectures on Russian Literature come from only the second semester of the survey course, with the exception of the section on Gogol. The chapters on Turgenev, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, and Chekhov appear to be well reconstructed and offer Nabokov's unique perceptions. The presentation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (or Anna Karenin, as Nabokov prefers), in particular, offers insights as original and penetrating today as when they were first delivered these many years ago.
Bowers is correct when he writes that "perhaps the most valuable contribution that Nabokov made to his students was not merely his emphasis on shared experience but on shared informed experience." Many of the students who took Nabokov's courses came to understand that he had given them, in the words of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, his own great gift of "knowledge-amplified love" brought to bear upon classics of literature.