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Vladimir Nabokov, the Professor of Desire

“Nabokov's reputation as a novelist, scholar, translator, and lepidop­terist is unassailable, but not many people know that he was also a great teacher (on the other hand, those of us who took his courses in the early '50s didn't have the vaguest notion he'd written a single word of fiction)”

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“I want you to copy this down exactly as I draw it on the blackboard,” Vladimir Nabokov instructed us, after explaining that he was going to diagram the themes of Bleak House. He turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and scrawled “the theme of inheritances” in a weird arching loop. “The theme of generations” dipped and rose and dipped in an undulating line. “The theme of social consciousness” wiggled crazily toward the other lines, then veered sharply away.

Nabokov turned from the blackboard and peered over the rims of his glasses, parodying a professorial twinkle. “I want you to be sure to copy this as I draw it.”

After consulting a sheet of paper on the lectern, he turned back to the blackboard and scrawled “the theme of economic conditions” in a nearly vertical line. “The theme of poverty,” “the theme of political (the chalk snapped under the pressure, he picked up another piece and continued) protest,” “the theme of social environment” — all leaping and dipping wildly across the blackboard. Some people simply can’t draw a straight line.

Again he peered at us, over his shoulder and over his glasses, in silent reminder to copy this “exactly.”

And finally he scrawled the last “theme” in a neat dipping curve, a half-moon on its side, “the theme of art” — and we suddenly realized he had drawn a cat’s face, the last line its wry smile, and for the rest of the term that cat smiled out of our notebooks in mockery of the didactic approach to literature.

I think of that incident whenever I read a critical analysis of Nabokov’s novels — all those “thematic lines,” darting wildly over the pages, up and down and criss-crossing, explaining everything, every­thing (to borrow a Nabokovian inflection), but lacking that final neat line, that Nabokovian smile, that “theme of art.”

But the most Nabokovian aspect of the anecdote is that I’m not at all sure it really happened. I “remember” it as clearly as any number of anecdotes from his course (“By the way,” he explained in casual audacity, seeming to exaggerate his Russian accent to heighten the effect, “Joyce made only one error in English in Ulysses, the use of the word ‘supine’ when it should have been ‘prone'”), but it may very well be one of those sharp, bright, crystalline “memories,” lifted from a dream, imposed by imagination, of something that never happened.

Nabokov’s reputation as a novelist, scholar, translator, and lepidop­terist is unassailable, but not many people know that he was also a great teacher (on the other hand, those of us who took his courses in the early ’50s didn’t have the vaguest notion he’d written a single word of fiction). Of course, everyone has had a “great teacher” usually that kindly, white-haired gentleman whose orderly affection for our favorite subject gave intellectual justification to our incoherent raptures, so in jotting down some of my memories of Nabokov as a teacher, I’ve tried to exclude the merely eccentric and personal, leaving only those reminiscences which might illuminate his novels — or perhaps even provide a footnote for that 21st-century scholar who will write a book on the four great novelists of the 20th century: Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Fulmerford.

“Great novels are above all great fairy tales,” he would begin, or rather he begins, memory being present tense and already, only a sentence in, and a decade and a half late, I realize that foggy memory and sketchy notes are going to make any kind of systematic development or accurate quotation impossible.

“Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up. The first literature was the boy crying wolf … ‘Wolf!’ ‘Wolf!'” Nabokov would cry out, then pause. “But no wolf. Something between the nonexistent wolf and the boy … the dream about the wolf … the shadow of the invented wolf … Literature.”

“Art is useful only when it is futile,” we would read (but he was such a superb actor, one of the basic requirements of a “great teacher,” that no one knew he wrote out his lectures word for word, down to the wryest “asides”). “The artist is a sublime liar … Art is not ‘about’ something but is the thing itself … Art is not a simple arithmetic but a delicate calculus … In art, the roundabout hits the center … Life is the least realistic of all fictions.”

And then, in a gambit he was to use as many as three or four times a term, he would refer to “the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist,” pause for a moment as if he hadn’t heard himself quite right, then ask in a mock-baffled tone: “Have I made a mistake? Don’t I mean ‘the passion of the artist and the precision of the scientist’?” Another pausc, peering gleefully over the rims of his lasses, as if awaiting our answer, then, “No! The passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist!” — a phrase which could well stand as an epigraph (if one were allowed half a dozen) for his own work.

“Great writers invent their own world,” but “minor writers merely ornament the commonplace” — and he would also refer to “minor readers,” particularly those who (a unique Nabokovan mixture of delight and scorn would come into his voice) “identify with the characters.”

(One should always hear this special tone of voice in the mind’s ear when reading his sarcastic remarks about philistines, for he seemed even more amused by than disdainful of bourgeois vulgarity, and remarks that seem devastatingly snide in cold print seemed almost affectionate in his warm lectures. He particularly enjoyed reading bad literature aloud — “I can’t stop quoting!” he would chortle in glee as he read from the masterpieces of socialist realism.)

“There are two million words in this course,” Nabokov would say, explaining that the novels added up to a million words but that we were to read them — “every single one of them” — twice, the first time merely to get such trivial concerns as “plot suspense” out of the way. I seem to recall a comparison to painting — one should approach a novel as one approaches a painting, not going from left to right but taking in the whole, a simultaneous totality of experience. But just to make sure, he made a point of giving away the plots in the first lecture so that the poshlosts among us …

Poshlost? He would look up, mimicking surprise that we didn’t know the word, then explain that it was a peculiarly Russian word (as untranslatable as “corny,” with as many specific instances and as little specific “meaning” as “camp”), a kind of subtle vulgarity, not crude or coarse, but verging on sensitivity, sensitivity with a slight tinge of mold — Olivier’s Hamlet for instance, with its “Freudian staircase,” or “the great ideas,” or the novels of Thomas Mann. (We quickly learned that he was the master of the parenthetical put-down, the seeming “aside” which is all the more devastating because the parentheses give it an invulnerable position in the sentence. Everyone is familiar with his description of Lawrence as “a pornographer,” his disdain for Dos­toevsky (“memoirs from a mouseholed”), but his wittiest assassination was reserved for Hemingway: “I read a novel of his in 1940 … I can’t remember the title … Bulls? Bells? Balls?”)

But to return to the way to read novels: What makes a good reader? he would ask rhetorically, giving us a list of ten to choose from, beginning with “belongs to a book club” or “has seen the movie,” and ending with “likes to browse in the dictionary.” The proper answers, of course, were imagination and memory and the dictionary. And since this list was itself verging on the poshlost (he flirted with philistinism not because he wanted to possess it but simply because he liked to see it having a good time) he would suddenly vocally raise a forefinger utter one of those aphorisms which seemed so eccentric at the time (the weird juxtaposition of words caused, no doubt, by the fact that “he probably doesn’t know English well”) but which linger in the memory precisely because of their odd flair: “Let us worship the spine … the upper spine … the vertebrate tipped at the head with a divine flame!”

(In retrospect, it seems that Nabokov was telling us how we should someday read his own novels, and telling us in a steady stream of aphorisms at that, but of course these are the two spurs to my memory.)

After the initial lecture on good literature and good readers (the course was taught in Goldwin-Smith Hall, by the way, a fact which might be of interest to anyone doing research into the sources of the names in Pale Fire), we were told to be sure to bring our copies of the novel to the next class, for the first lecture on each novel consisted largely of a long list of corrections of the wretched translation.

“Turn to page 15, line eight — cross out ‘violet’ and write in ‘purple.’ ‘Violet,'” he would blurt out in a kind of disdainful glee. “Imagine, violet,” he would almost quiver in delight at the exquisite vulgarity of the translator’s word-choice.

“Page 18, third line from the bottom — change ‘umbrella’ to ‘parasol.’ ” He would hold up the book like something damp and greenish found under the sink: “This wingless Penguin … ”

I almost remember the translation corrections better than the novels. In Madame Bovary, for instance, “steward” became “butler,” “fluttered” became “rippled,” “pavement” became “sidewalk” — but was Rudolf Emma’s first or second lover? Never mind. The course was about Emma’s eyes, Emma’s hair (“smooth,” to “sleek,” “curved” to “dipped,” “head” to “skull”).

“Caress the details,” Nabokov would utter, rolling the R, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue. “The divine details!” (“General ideas” were anathema to him — because he knew too much about the differences between things to generalize about anything; because, as he wrote in The Gift, the word “cosmic” is always in danger of losing its S.)

And so, studying for exams (which is what college was in the fifties, certainly not “getting an education”), we would simply memorize the colors, telling each other that last year he had asked: “What color was the bottle containing the arsenic with which Emma poisoned herself?” (brown?).

(And speaking of exams, the mock-horror with which — no, not mock horror, for though “the horrified professor” was one of his many roles, roles always played with a subtly gleeful irony, this time he was genuinely aghast — the horror with which he returned our papers one day, for nearly half of the class, baffled by his accent, had referred to somebody’s “epidramatic,” rather than “epigrammatic” style, a willing­ness to parrot what one doesn’t understand that is still my private, if trivial symbol —along with the fact that his course was called, ap­pallingly, “dirty lit” (Anna Karenina! Madame Bovary!) — for the under-25 generation of the Eisenhower years.)

Vera Nabokov was as legendary as her husband, a breathtakingly beautiful, regal, and dignified (I still think of her hair whenever I hear the phrase “White Russian”), attending all his lectures, always seated in the front row — presumably in order to rush to his side with some sort of pills in the event of a heart attack (recalling, or foreshadowing, in this least autobiographical of authors, the attacks suffered behind a lectern by Timofey Pnin and John Shade). Or at least that was the rumor, and rumor, as someone has written, is “the poetry of truth.”

But “the enchanted eyes of nostalgia” (Nabokov on Gogol) are carrying me far from that pledge to write down only those memories which might illuminate his novels (I wish I could work in that day when a bee flew in the window and the entomologist gently rebuked the fears of his students — “just a humble bumblebee.” But it won’t fit) (And speaking of entomology, it turns out that Gregor Samsa wasn’t transformed into a cockroach after all, as most people, especially New Yorkers, assume, but into a beetle, a domed beetle, a winged beetle, in fact; and Nabokov told us something neither Gregor nor Kafka knew — ­if he’d wanted to escape, all Gregor had to do was fly out the window.)

In summation, then, Nabokov was a great teacher not because he taught the subject well but because he exemplified, and stimulated in his students, a profound and loving attitude toward it. Of course his eccentric personality intrigued us (as a matter of fact, he was considered a kind of Pnin-figure), but his vivid enthusiasms entranced us, and we emerged from the course not so much “educated” as transfigured. Nabokov didn’t “teach” novels, in short, he gazed at them with such joyful and tender devotion that they became for us what they already were for him — “shimmering prisms.”

***

Now it seems there was one more thing … Oh yes, Andrew Field.

Skimming through his book, the way it came in the mail, knowing already that it was going to be more or less a pre-text: first of all, the resonance of his ardent enthusiasm (there have been eight masterpieces in the 20th century, he writes, and only Nabokov has written two); then it’s quickly clear that he’s as confident, as audacious as his subject (“Nabokov, I have mastered your themes,” he announces, probably in an intentional echo of a passage in The Gift), that he has nothing but scorn for the pedants and puzzle solvers, that a kind of gossipy nonchalance is not beneath him, and that even his index has a Nabokovian fla­vor (knowing, knowing he would have jokes in his index, I made a point of reading it, and sure enough, “schools of writing, trends and influences” bang and clatter in self-contained isolation from the body of the book, refer­ring to nothing but themselves).  Field even takes up the pronunciation of Nabokov (the accent, please, on the second syllable).  Fine. Fine. This is clearly the book on Nabokov we’ve been waiting for.

After reading it, I realized that Field had written the book I’d long dreamed of writing — and now that it was written, I realized I couldn’t have done it — and now that it was written, I wondered if I necessarily wanted it done in the first place. As in a hand­book on magic, the magic is missing, and after all his acts are explained, Nabokov merely points his finger at the explain­er, goes “poof,” and the explainer disappears in a cloud of smoke.

This is blatantly unfair “false expectations” criticism, of course (expecting, if not a book by Nabokov, at least one vibrating to his tuning fork), but I say that “this is the best book ever written about Nabokov” in a listless, let-down voice.

Field claims two “unusual aspects” for his book: first, it con­siders Nabokov’s entire work (Field reads Russian), and sec­ond, it has an “innovatory na­ture as a work of criticism.” I have no quarrel with the first — in fact, it sums up the book’s primary and considerable value. As for the second, Field writes of his book: ”it is formed (italicized), that is, it is structured in a way roughly corresponding to that of (sic) the narrative in fic­tion … I have treated Nabokov’s novels, poems, stories, plays, and essays as characters in a novel, and each has its role and place carefully prefigured and integrated into the whole.” This is all called “narrative cri­ticism,” and “questions” (the jacket informs us) “the most basic assumptions and practices of literary criticism.”

Frankly, I wouldn’t have guessed it he hadn’t told me, and even after reading the book one and a half times I’ll still have to take his word for it. I wonder just what “basic assumptions and practices” he’s radically reject­ing — unformed? carelessly unfig­ured? scattered chaotically in fragments? I’m afraid Field has to share some of the blame for “false expectations.”

But with the exception of a few other quibbles (the most impor­tant: Field measures the “truly startling distance” between “art” and “life” by pointing to the astonishing fact that the author of Lolita has actually been married to “the same woman” since 1925!! — who wants Lolita “defended” by this kind of banal argument, by a critic who has this vision of “art” and “life”?, and isn’t it far more likely, even it we accept these terms, that the tenderness and devotion revealed in the novel would make any other kind of au­thor highly unlikely?; the most trivial: if Field is going to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of a character by pointing out that he even misspells “Finnegans Wake,” he’d better learn how to spell it himself) — with the exception of a few quibbles, then, this book seems to me so thorough in its analysis, so balanced in its as­sessments, so “correct” in its conclusions that I’d rather save apace for other things and simply recommend it (but only, and I think Field is a devoted enough reader to agree, after one has read nearly every word Nabokov has written.)

It seems so self-evident that the major themes of Nabokov’s fiction (smile when you say that) are art, death, madness, memory, time, illusion, love, consciousness, and the relationship between the artist and his creation (Field on Pale Fire: “In the relationship between John Shade and Charles Kinbote, Nabokov has given us the best and truest allegorical portrait of ‘the literary process’ that we have or are likely ever to get”), that one wonders why it needs saying. But the misunder­standing of Nabokov’s fiction is so widespread that the self-evi­dent doesn’t merely need saying, it needs insisting upon.

At a recent writer’s conference, a Canadian writer whose verse (he likes to call it “poetry”), though intended to be inflamma­tory, has an unfortunate lulling effect, argued that all great writ­ers were “socially conscious.” When Nabokov’s name was men­tioned, the Canadian denied that he was a great writer (because he wasn’t “socially conscious,” the other half-circle in his argument), whereupon another participant insisted that he was a great writer precisely because he wasn’t “socially conscious” — “ex­cept for all those cute tricks,” he added apologetically, “he does too much of that” (One would like to suggest that these gentle­men stick to fiction; then one realizes the suggestion is un­necessary).

Now there are hundreds of ways to approach Nabokov: “mi­rage and reality merge in love,” ecstatic nostalgia, the negation of time in art, the choice of pat­tern over meaning, the prefer­ence for the white crayon (precisely because its lines are invisible and one can imagine anything one likes) — but the one way not to approach him, and the one way most readers do, and the one aspect of his work I want to discuss this time around, is as a trickster, a conjuror, a gay deceiver. All those clues, those ana­grams, those “false trails,” those chess games — it’s nothing but verbal adventurism — it’s all a  great pointless joke, with the reader the butt. (The matter is not helped by those admirers who speak only of “keys,” as if his novels were boxes to be un­locked, and inside, another locked box, this one full of puzzles.) All this makes readers uneasy, even “clever” readers — for no matter how clever they are, they suspect, they know, that Nabokov is cleverer. Even the meta­phor game (e. g., the delicate angling of mirrors to capture, if only in fragments, if only in re­flection, glimpses of an unattainable paradise), the second most frequent approach, is less offensive — it’s just as baffled, but at least its ardent.

It can be said flatly: there are no pointless jokes or tricks in Nabokov’s books. In his autobio­graphy, just to give one example, Nabokov writes of himself as a boy of 10 or 12, still in Russia, pursuing a particularly rare and beautiful butterfly; the pursuit continues through marshes and bogs, up hillsides, down into val­leys — until finally he catches the butterfly — near Longs Peak. Na­turalists probably recognized the strange flora and fauna of this pursuit; my own recognition was geographic — Longs Peak is in Colorado! So he started after that butterfly in Russia and finally captured it in Colorado, a third of a century later. The “clever” reader has caught the “joke.”

But the next paragraph begins: “I confess I do not believe in time,” and the “joke” not only has a point, but a profound and moving one —for in emotional value, that pursuit from Russia to Colorado was a single experi­ence; but more than that, it was one of those “immaculate mo­ments” of the simultaneity of experience, the superimposition of memory upon the present, time folding in on itself, timelessness in time — and articulated in such a way that the reader does not grin at Nabokov’s “joke” but shares in his ecstasy.

And when the “clever” reader suddenly realizes the identity of the supposedly uninvolved narra­tor of “Pnin,” he is not rewarded with the lusterless joy of solving a puzzle, but with a glorious arch, lifting back over the book, sur­f using it with the radiant glow of a passionate tenderness.

“It is a pity to disrupt the en­chantment with a hollow excla­mation of ecstasy,” with those spiritual throes and vague raptures and sentimental enthusi­asms Nabokov deplored to his students (“chitchat”) — but it’s a risk I’m willing to take in at­tempting to express what en­chants me in Nabokov’s writing.

Although he’s generally regard­ed as a “comic” writer, I value his art for its bright, rejoicing tenderness (just as I value Chap­lin’s movies not because they’re funny, but because, even in their funniest scenes, they’re extraordinarily beautiful), because he is matched only by Dickens and Tolstoy in his ability to articu­late joy and happiness, because he shapes and transmits emotions in his prose with such tactility that his books are a physical pleasure to read. As John Updike has said, Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written — ­ ecstatically; and in reading his prose one experiences a kind of sensuality of the mind.

It is currently fashionable to deplore language, to say that words are merely the shadows of ideas, which are themselves merely the shadows of sensations, and so on. “The often repeated complaints of poets (one can hear the affectionate laughter in his voice as one reads his novels) ‘that, alas, no words are available, that words are pale corpses, I that words are incapable of expressing our thingummy-bob feelings … seemed to him just as senseless as the staid conviction of the eldest inhabitant of a mountain hamlet that yonder mountain has never been climbed by anyone and never will be; one fine, cold morning a long lean Englishman appears — and cheer­fully scrambles up to the top.”

“Good-bye, my book!” the writer cries out, at the end of The Gift, and losing a beat of the heart, simultaneously sorrow­ing and laughing (for the lovers have forgotten their keys, and will not be able to get into the house), all the reader’s emotions are equalized, as in the supremest art, as in all of Nabokov’s art, in a burst of radiance — suffering and joy, grief and plea­sure, tears and laughter, all transfigured into the sustained, immortal ecstasy of aesthetic bliss. ❖

NABOKOV: HIS LIFE IN ART
A Book by Andrew Field, Little, Brown, $8.95

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2020

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