Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German Writers

Vladimir Nabokov, according to the published testimony of several of his students at Cornell during the 1950s, was an extraordinary teacher--unorthodox in his methods, alternately beguiling and amusing in his manner, and above all compelling in the vision of literary art he conveyed to his classes. Nabokov's striking success as a teacher might in itself raise questions about the quality of relentlessly self-admiring aloofness which certain critics have attributed to him. Few full-time writers make good teachers (Nabokov's friend of those years, Edmund Wilson, is an apposite case in point) for the obvious and understandable reason that they are too wrapped up in their own writing to exercise much attentiveness to the special intellectual needs and deficiencies of the young. Nabokov, however, once exile and poverty had cast him unexpectedly onto the lecturer's podium, was able to kindle his students with the carefully written texts he read out to them because, for all his witty playfulness, he felt, if I may use an appropriately old-fashioned phrase, a moral passion about what he was teaching.

During the last years of his life, Nabokov intimated several times that he intended to prepare for publication his Cornell lectures on modern fiction. Now that the first volume of them has appeared--a second, devoted solely to Russian writers, will be published next year--one readily sees the practical difficulty that must have made Nabokov hesitate about reworking his Cornell material. These are very much classroom lectures rather than critical essays, complete with illustrations of Nabokov's pedagogic diagrams and drawing in this scrupulous edition by Fredson Bowers from the author's holograph. Though Nabokov affirms an overriding interest in style and structure, and occasionally has interesting perceptions to share on these matters of form, mode of exposition is demonstrative rather than analytic. He proceeds on the assumption, no doubt warranted for the students of Literature 311-312 that his audience is made up of innocent readers going, or perhaps stumbling, through the books under consideration for the first time.

His principal strategy, then, for explaining Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary, "The Metamorphosis," Ulysses, and other works is to retell the story of each in considerable detail, with frequent quotation of lengthy passages, often followed by the simple comment that the passage just read is "wonderfully artistic." Sustained by Nabokov's vivid personal presence and his distinctive style of oral delivery, this method, as John Updike observes in his engaging introduction, could have a thoroughly magnetic effect; but on the printed page the synopses, however gracefully written, are still synopses, and the quotations are, alas, no more than quotations. The limitations of such a mode of presentation are perhaps most evident in the lecture on Proust, a writer Nabokov loved dearly, and whom he saw as a model of what might be achieved through the art of literature. Apart from a few nice observations on Proust's style and in particular on his use of metaphor, the lecture is a series of passages from the novel, with bridges of paraphrase by the lecturer from one large island of quotation to the next.

There are, I should add, some instructive perceptions in the lectures, instructive even for the experienced reader. Nabokov of course views these novelists with the canny eye of a fellow craftsman, and at times he is acute in seeing how things are put together, how the writer leads up to a particular scene, synchronizes and intermeshes different subplots and groups of characters, announces a theme and then cunningly weaves it in and out of the fabric of his fiction. Thus, it is Nabokov’s practical feeling for the difficulties of assembling a complex fictional structure that brings him to the shrewd detection of what he calls the “layers” theme in Madame Bovary, beginning with young Charles’s grotesquely layered cap in the opening scene, resurfacing in Charles’s and Emma’s layered wedding cake, then in the elaborately described tiers of their house at Toste, and concluding wryly in the triple-tiered construction of Emma’s coffin.

This attention to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of great novels is combined with an exquisitely tuned sensibility that sometimes, even in the inertness of the printed page, justifies the demonstrative method. That is, in some instances the illustrative passages are so perfectly chosen, the brief commentary on them so apt, that one gets a renewed and refined sense of the particular novel's special magic, as when Nabokov shows us a magisterial description in Bleak House of the fog rising like a curtain above the Thames to reveal a sun shining through clouds and "making silvery pools in the dark sea" which bustles with the motion of ships coming and going. Nabokov quotes a paragraph of the description, then comments for another paragraph on the visual precision, the musical felicity of what he has quoted, and on the place of the scene in the artistic economy of the novel. It is a lovely exercise of critical tact, and it communicates, as more conventionally academic analyses might not, the sheer pleasure of reading.

In any case, what chiefly makes Lectures on Literature a book to be cherished, despite its longueurs of summary and citation, is the moving sense it conveys of what great fiction is for. Nabokov articulates here not a poetics but a metaphysics of fiction. The writer, he repeatedly proclaims, is above all else an enchanter. This insistence has a certain polemic edge, cutting against the stolidly representational function ascribed to the novel--"the epic of bourgeois society"--by most critical schools until the advent of French structuralism. But if Nabokov rejects simple representational views of the novel, shrewdly showing how even supposedly realistic novels casually flaunt the laws of quotidian reality, or invent their own laws, he does not move in the direction many readers might expect, toward the notion of the self-referentiality of the literary text so fashionable among followers today of the nouvelle critique. There is, as he sees it, a definite relation between fiction and reality but it is not so much reflective or mimetic as constitutive. This is the ultimate justification of his conceiving the artist as magician: the magician is someone who at once performs tricks by sleight of hand and calls things into being, conjures them up out of seeming thin air.

An antithetical image of bad writing may make clearer what lies behind this notion of fiction and reality. It occurs as part of a protest against didactic and documentary fiction in the compact essay, "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," which serves here as a concluding lecture and is the one perfect gem of the volume. Nabokov observes:

The writer's pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy moat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.

The brilliance of the wit, the elegant interlocking of alliterative sound and cadence in order to realize the figurative scene of course constitute a counter-example of something made out of words that will stand a while in time, but I should like to call attention in particular to what is implied by the imagery. Reality, Nabokov avers at a number of points with a flourish of philosophical subjectivism, is what each of us makes of it in the darkroom of his mind. The average mind, however, being lazy or fearful or both, prefers to work with stock concepts, prefabricated notions shared by multitudes, and it is to this tacit conspiracy of intellectual sloth or cowardice that the popularity of popular literature, from the cheapest sentimental fiction and pornography to the bogus idealism of middlebrow poshlost, can be traced. The producers of such literature not only build on sand, but, childlike, with sand, slapping together what comes to hand; and their work, lacking the strong cement of imagination, is no more than seeming structure, doomed in a moment to slide back into formlessness.

Those mousy nibbling waves at the end of Nabokov's little vignette suggest what, in his view, the serious writer is faced with. The sea is ultimately an image of chaos, and chaos is an active, menacing presence, undercutting every moment we breathe with impermanence and the negation of meaning. Chaos is invoked explicitly at the beginning of the introductory lecture in a most Nabokovian refashioning of Genesis I:

The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says 'go!' allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.

The writer does not settle for fragments and random particles, building sand castles, but, on the contrary, makes his own whole out of the jumbled elements of experience; and so the aim of his enterprise is not to recuperate reality but to achieve it.

There is a complicated paradox here that can be fully understood only by following Nabokov's readings of particular novels, and especially of Bleak House (in several respects the best of the lectures). On the one hand, he insists on the primacy of fantasy in constituting the work of fiction; on the other hand, he clearly does not assume that any old fantasy will do, that the writer's power to make worlds out of words is absolutely arbitrary. The effect of a great work of literature, he proposes with an instructive switch of expected epithets, is "the Precision of Poetry and the Excitement of Science." Both the precision and the excitement, I think, point simultaneously to the fashioning of the artwork itself and to the materials of the world out of which it was fashioned. That is, the excitement is obviously the excitement of discovery, but this is both the discovery of the cunning interrelation of parts in the work (like the recurrence of layered things in Madame Bovary) and the discovery within the work of something perfectly seen that we may have glimpsed briefly and badly in our extra-literary experience (like the cloud-veiled sun silvering the surface of the water in Bleak House). Similarly, poetry is precise both because of the exquisite internal adjustment of its minute parts and because it uses just the right word sound, rhythm, image to catch the desired nuance of feeling, visual value, moral relation, or whatever the case may be. If for Nabokov there can be no accepted reality for the writer to represent, literature nevertheless constantly deals with realities, focusing them, crystallizing them, giving them permanence through its power of artistic definition, which might be succinctly characterized as the architectonic exercise of bold fantasy sustained by close observation.

One decisive element needs to be added to this picture of Nabokov's metaphysics of fiction, and that is time. Though perhaps in any case he would have been a writer preoccupied with time, that subject was given a special poignancy and urgency by the temporal cataclysm through which he lived, the whole world in which he had grown up being swept away irrevocably by the Russian Revolution at the moment he was entering manhood. We all are trapped by time, Nabokov came to feel, we are all time’s victims, unless we can find a way to prevail against it through art. The rodent sea, nibbling away fragile structures--one thinks of the remembered Riviera beach idyll in Speak, Memory! and of its transmutation in Lolita--might also be an image of tempus edax, time devourer of human things. Thus memory is an essential component in the process of artistic creation as Nabokov describes it (and hence Proust is an exemplary figure for him), but it is memory dynamically interacting with unconscious feeling, with lucid perception of the present, and with the ordering sense that produces coherent artistic form. The writer does not recapture the past but rather incorporates it into the transcendence of time’s terrible flux which he experiences through his writing: “it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together with a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist.”

Interestingly, these climactic moments of creation engender in Nabokov not a feeling of godlike elevation but an almost mystic sense of merging with the world outside himself:

It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe around you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner--who is already dancing in the open.

With all this in mind, we may better understand why Nabokov took his lectureship as an urgent occasion for demonstrating to students the supreme importance of literary art, and why he associated art not only with lucidity and harmony but also with compassion and--he does not shrink from the word--goodness. Art is man's articulate refusal to acquiesce in the reality of chaos, whether chaos is embodied in the blind rush of time, the imbecilities of mass culture, or the murderous reign of totalitarian states. It is that vision of art realized in fiction which accounts for the underlying moral seriousness, amidst all the stratagems and games, of The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Lolita, Pale Fire, and makes them deserve to stand with the enduring achievements of the novel in our century.

Robert Alter is author of a biography of Stendhal, A Lion for Love (Basic Books) and The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books).

By Robert Alter