Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000838, Mon, 27 Nov 1995 14:26:04 -0800

Teaching VN's story "Music"
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Nabokov. NABOKV-L, inter aliia, affords a forum for the exchange
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topic shall share the Subject line "Teaching VN". Comments and further
accounts are invited.
We initiate the series with Dr. Nassim Berdjis' account of
teaching the story "Music" (from VN's collection _Tyrants Destroyed_. Dr.
Berdjis is the author of the new book _Imagery in Vladimir Nabokov's Last
Russian Novel (Dar"GIFT")_, just published by Peter Lang. An abstract
appeared on NABOKV-L on November 16th. Our thanks to Dr. Berdjis for the
thoughtful discussion that follows. DBJ
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 27 Nov 1995 11:54:01 -0800 (PST)
From: Nassim Berdjis <nwberdjis@ucdavis.edu>

The Composition Program of the English Department at the
University of California at Davis offers a course entitled "English 3"
which combines the teaching of composition with an introduction to
literature. The instructors focus on English and American literature,
but they may also include a small number of works in English
translation. This quarter, I taught Nabokov's story "Music."
The session was structured as follows:
1) A short presentation on Nabokov's life and works provided
some background information on the Nabokov family's life style in
Russia and on their life as emigres. The students were thrilled to
hear that Nabokov wrote both in Russian and in English. As a large
number of the students learned English as their second language
when their families emigrated to America, they seemed especially
interested in hearing about a multilingual Russian family and about
an artist's fame as a writer in more than one language.
2) Having explained that Nabokov taught at several American
universities, the students were introduced to the major thoughts in
Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" such as
a) focusing on details (moving from the study of details to an
understanding of larger literary entities);
b) the characteristics of a "good reader";
c) the interaction of the author's and the reader's minds;
d) the implications of Nabokov's appeal to employ "an artist's
passion and a scientist's patience."
[I also quoted Nabokov's description of "reading with one's spine" as
we had discussed a quotation by Emily Dickinson earlier on in which
she describes the 'physical' effect of good poetry.]
3) I then asked the students to summarize the plot of the story,
to define the theme, to reflect on the relationship between the
protagonist's name and the plot, and to discuss the implications of
the title.
4) The class then worked in groups, applying Nabokov's
"reading technique" to several works of prose and poetry. The group
analyzing "Music" was asked to scrutinize four image complexes:
a) light/shadow/ghostly reflection
b) forest/hunting
c) sound and water (ocean and rain)
d) prison.
In their presentation to the class, the students pointed out the
parallel stages they saw between the performed piano music and
Victor's recollections of his marriage. They stressed the ambiguity of
the image of drowning as well as the method of contrast (e.g., sound
vs. silence). The tone of the story struck them as being full of
remorse and confusion. Interestingly enough, they also discussed
hints at the relationship between Wolf and his wife (the way he slaps
back and then turns the page after she had turned it too early; Mrs.
Wolf parrotting her husband's words). One wonders about the
implications of these elements with regard to Victor's violent
outbursts when his wife decides to separate from him.
5) At the end of the discussion, I stressed that several image
complexes merge when the music ends and that the dissolving prison
becomes blissful and enchanting, but still as suffocating as a "glass
dome." Instances like this one prepare the (re-)reader to consider the
potential ambiguity of images. The whole class then talked about the
implications of the ending and about hints at the supposed music
expert's and especially the narrator's attitudes towards Victor and
his reaction to music.

All in all, the students responded well to the story and seemed
interested in Nabokov's use of imagery in "Music." As we had studied
both other works of poetry and fiction before talking about
Nabokov's story and as we had discussed imagery, the group work
described above assisted the students in understanding how imagery
can be a key to the structure and content of a literary work.

Nassim W. Berdjis
English Department
University of California Davis
Davis, CA 95616
phone: (916) 752-5371 (w)
phone: (916) 750-2759 (h)