NABOKV-L post 0000639, Mon, 10 Jul 1995 14:51:20 -0700

VN reminiscence
EDITORIAL NOTE: Naomi Brenner Pascal, Associate Director and
Editor-in-Chief of the University of Washington Press, was a student in
VN's Russian language classes at Wellesley during WW II. NABOKV-L thanks
Naomi Pascal for her unique memoir.

"A Reminiscence of Nabokov at Wellesley"
by Naomi Pascal

I don't really have any momentous revelations to impart, but here is what
I remember.

In 1942 I was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Wellesley, a women's
college about 30 miles outside Boston. The U.S. was at war;
practically every student had a brother, a father, or a
sweetheart in the armed services; and patriotism was very much in
fashion. Wellesley girls turned in their food ration cards to the
college, took turns waiting on table at our sit-down dinners, and
cheerfully ate soybean loaf and other, nameless, concoctions
designed to camouflage shortages in meat, butter, and sugar.

I'm not sure if it was a student or a faculty member who first
decided that it was incumbent upon Americans to learn the
language of our new Soviet allies, but sometime that year the
college agreed to offer a noncredit course in Russian and hired
Vladimir Nabokov to come out from Cambridge two or three times a
week to teach it. Nabokov was then an impoverished emigre with a
precarious appointment as an entomologist at the Harvard
zoological museum. Although he occasionally published pieces in
"The Atlantic Monthly" and "The New Yorker," he was not generally
well known as a writer. He was known at Wellesley, however, and
the year before I arrived had been invited to give some lectures
on Russian literature. My own interest, as nearly as I can
recall, was primarily in the opportunity to learn another

That first year Nabokov taught two separate classes, one for
faculty and one for students. My recollection is that the student
class was quite large initially, but shrank by about half when
the attendees discovered how difficult it was to keep up with the
lessons. In any case, when I went to sign up for the continuing
class in fall of 1943 I found I was the only surviving student.
Thus, with some trepidation, I joined the class composed of
faculty--mostly language teachers--including the rather austere
woman with whom I was studying French.

My situation was particularly awkward because the Russian class
followed immediately after my physical education class in tennis,
for which I was required to wear the singularly unattractive
Wellesley gym suit of those days--royal blue, coarse cotton shirt
and bloomers. The tennis courts were in a far corner of the
campus. Not only did I not have time to change, but even running
as fast as I could I was invariably a few minutes late for
Russian. Red-faced and sweaty in my unbecoming garb, I would try
to sneak in unobserved, but invariably Mr. Nabokov (as we always
called him) would stop in mid-sentence, acknowledge my entrance
with a graceful bow, and inquire in courteous tones, "How was
tennis today, Miss Brenner?"

As a teacher he was always kind and patient (despite our
undoubtedly painful mutilations of his beloved Russian language),
but we knew he could have a scathing tongue from his occasional
digressions on the USSR, Sigmund Freud, and other objects of his
scorn. He was fascinating both to watch and to listen to. In
1942-43 he was slim and elegant. Although smoking was not
permitted in the classrooms at Wellesley, he always had a lighted
cigarette in his hand, and since there were no ashtrays we used
to watch in rapt anticipation as the ash grew until it dropped to
the floor. In the summer of 1943 he took off for Utah to hunt for
butterflies, and when he returned in the fall he had given up
smoking and gained forty pounds. The change was almost as
dramatic as the difference between the two jacket photographs on
volumes one and two of Brian Boyd's superb biography. (I just
checked Boyd and find that he dates Nabokov's giving up smoking
and his momentous weight gain to the summer of 1945, but I am
telling what I remember. In case anyone wonders, by the way, I am
*not* one of the girls in the photograph in Boyd captioned,
"Nabokov with Russian language class at Wellesley, 1944." My
class never met outdoors.)

Nabokov's voice--with its Cambridge-overlaid Russian accent--was
musical and unforgettable. When I heard it again on the tape
"Lolita and Poems Read by Vladimir Nabokov" (SAC-1; Spoken Arts,
Inc., Box 289, New Rochelle, NY 10801), especially in the poem
"An Evening of Russian Poetry," I was instantly transported back
to that class fifty years ago. He was sometimes very funny, as
when he announced to us, "Today I have something very sad I must
tell you about," and then proceeded to explain the aspects of the
verb. (Boyd quotes this line as preceding an explanation of the
instrumental case, but I think I am right that it was the
aspects.) His language was always vivid, and I remember his
description of the sound "shch" as "a butterfly struggling to get
out from behind your teeth."

As for his teaching, I can't say that I became fluent in either
written or spoken Russian, though we went through all the grammar
exercises, and I have evidence that I was at one time able to
compose simple sentences. Part of the problem was finding a good
textbook. For a time we used "A New Russian Grammar," by Anna H.
Semeonoff (4th ed.; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1941), but we
switched to a British publication called "A Modern Russian
Course," by G. A. Birkett (2nd ed.; London: Methuen, 1942).
Nabokov preferred the latter, though he made fun of its
translation exercises, particularly their recurring references to
a brother who played the organ. I still have my copy of Birkett,
which Nabokov borrowed to use when his Russian courses later
became a regular part of the Wellesley curriculum and books were
still in short supply. Perhaps forgetting that it was not his own
copy, he annotated it freely with lesson notes (e.g., "for
Thursday, read from p. 87 to p. 90"), corrections, and written-in
translations, but finally returned it with a treasured
inscription: "N.B. Best regards from V. Nabokov." We also had a
UK-published Russian reader, of which I remember only the opening
sentence, translated as, "John and Mary Peters lived in London."

I did gain an abiding appreciation for the expressive subtleties
of the Russian language. Nabokov sometimes read Russian poetry to
us, particularly some of the works of Tyutchev, which he was then
translating. He was also already at work on his translation of
"Eugene Onegin," and he spoke sometimes of the difficulties of
translating the writing of the supreme Russian poet.

You can probably understand from my little tale why I have been
an enthusiastic "lurker" on the Nabokov list. I would not presume
to participate in the critical discussions of his various works,
though I have bought and read just about everything that has been
published in English (and even his Russian version of "Alice in
Wonderland"), starting with the 1941 New Directions edition of
"The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" in the red homespun binding.

Naomi B. Pascal
Associate Director and Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington Press