Nabokov's Russians

AFTER years of lecturing in universities, one of my colleagues was discovered bent over a Xerox machine making copies of his head. I once began a lecture and talked for several minutes before noticing that I was in the wrong room. I'd have noticed sooner if the students weren't taking notes.
It is difficult work, year after year, listening to your own voice. Nevertheless, some do it magnificently. One still hears remarks like ''I sat at the feet of Heidegger.'' Such abject adoration is a mysterious thing, a sort of religious phenomenon. Father Ong, the great literary scholar, has written an essay called ''Voice As a Summons for Belief.'' Something like this can be heard in the published lectures of Vladimir Nabokov. His voice summons us to a belief in high art.
The first volume, ''Lectures on Literature'' (1980), was received with much praise. The second, ''Lectures on Russian Literature,'' will be similarly received. It deals mainly with Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorki. The lectures are very learned, very rich in critical insight, and often funny, but they are most extraordinary for the way Nabokov re-creates, in concrete sensuous detail, his experience of reading these Russian writers.
Fredson Bowers, who edited both volumes, says Nabokov's lectures were mainly handwritten. Sometimes they lacked clear organization, and parts remained in rough notes. Though Mr. Bowers has made them into excellently readable essays, you wouldn't appreciate his achievement if you believed Nabokov's remark in ''Strong Opinions'':
''Every lecture I delivered had been carefully, lovingly handwritten and typed out, and I leisurely read it out in class.''
This humorous pretension, or curious lie, is not entirely inconsistent with the lectures themselves, for it indicates a certain complexity in Nabokov's attitude toward matters of fact. In his Chekhov lecture, for example, he says:
''On the 2nd of July, 1904, he died far from his family and friends, amidst strangers, in a strange town.'' Nabokov was aware that Chekhov's wife claimed to be present and to remember, in poignant detail, the hours preceding Chekhov's death.Presumably, Nabokov doesn't believe her, and, with magnificent courtesy, chooses never to say as much, though he does say the marriage was unhappy.
It is also possible that Nabokov wants to believe in the ultimate isolation of artistic genius, somewhat as he wants to believe in the complete and careful preparation of every lecture he delivered. ''My method of teaching,'' he says in ''Strange Opinions,'' ''precluded genuine contact with my students.'' Genius is always alone, even in the classroom; certainly in the deathbed. Whatever the case, Nabokov definitely believes in the dialectical relation of reality and illusion. Discussing Tolstoy, he says:
''Some of you may still wonder why I and Tolstoy mention such trifles (historical data contemporary with the time in novels). To make his magic, fiction, look real the artist sometimes places it, as Tolstoy does, within a definite, specific historical frame, citing facts that can be checked in a library - that citadel of illusion.''
Given this notion of a library, a novelist might as well invent everything. More relevant is that Nabokov presents Tolstoy - a ''moralist'' who invented enormously yet resisted inventing - as someone who shares Nabokov's ontological vision, and, like him, captures the unreal in the very fabric of the real. But while Nabokov's word for fiction is ''magic,'' he tells us that, for Tolstoy, the word is ''Truth.''
''What obsessed Tolstoy, what obscured his genius, what now distresses the good reader, was that, somehow, the process of seeking the Truth seemed more important to him than the easy, vivid, brilliant discovery of the illusion of truth through the medium of his artistic genius. Old Russian Truth was never a comfortable companion; it had a violent temper and a heavy tread. It was not simply truth, not merely everyday pravda but immortal istina - not truth but the inner light of truth. When Tolstoy did happen to find it in himself, in the splendor of his creative imagination, then, almost unconsciously, he was on the right path. What does his tussle with the ruling Greek-Catholic Church matter, what importance do his ethical opinions have, in the light of this or that imaginative passage in any of his novels?''
If Tolstoy leans too far one way, maybe Nabokov leans too far the other way, but the difference between them doesn't prevent Nabokov from making Tolstoy similar to himself without, thereby, betraying Tolstoy. For example, on ideas in literature generally and in Tolstoy particularly, he says:
''... we should always bear in mind that literature is not a pattern of ideas but a pattern of images. Ideas do not matter much in comparison to a book's imagery and magic. What interests us here is not what Lyovin thought (as he watched a bug creep up a blade of grass) ... but that little bug that expresses so neatly the turn, the switch, the gesture of thought.''
This is a lovely perception, and, whether or not moral Tolstoy would agree, it feels true. In Nabokov's Gogol essay, excerpted from his book on Gogol and reprinted in the ''Lectures,'' he observes something similar to the above:
''The faceless saloon-walker ... is again seen a minute later coming down from Chichikov's room and spelling out the name on a slip of paper as he walks down the steps. 'Pa-vel I-va-no-vich Chi-chikov'; and these syllables have a taxonomic value for the identification of that particular staircase.''
Thus a physical action paralleling a mental action renders it kinesthetically. Nabokov's concentration on the poetics of superlative prose recalls his own prose. He does such Gogolian things himself.
My point is that Nabokov lectures in a very personal way. What he sees, he is equipped to see by virtue of his peculiar genius, and this gives special illumination and pleasure to his lectures. One also detects a faintly distorting pressure sometimes in his generalizations, which is again attributable to the personal note. For example, on Chekhov's technique:
''Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features, with perfect contempt for the sustained descriptions, repetition, and strong emphasis of ordinary authors.''
Much of this description, even the phrase ''exact and rich characterization,'' and especially ''perfect contempt,'' seems more appropriate to the spirit of Nabokov's writing than to Chekhov's. Chekhov is always plain. It is ironically relevant to notice that Nabokov's writing is often thrilling in ''sustained descriptions'' and ''strong emphasis,'' but he is not by any means an ''ordinary'' author. ''
It is interesting, though probably meaningless, that while Nabokov says he is indifferent to anyone's praise or dispraise of his fiction, which he calls ''my circles, my special islands, infinitely safe from exasperated readers'' (''Strong Opinions''), he dispenses his own judgments liberally:
''... we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading students' papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.''
Surely, in his dialectical imagination, Nabokov wondered what the great Russian artists might think of his work. If so, it occurred to him that Tolstoy and Chekhov would have found it objectionable, especially ''Lolita,'' a novel that Dostoyevsky - whom Nabokov virtually hates - would have hugely envied and perversely loved.
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