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THE HISTORY of Russian literature is brief; virtually all its masterpieces were produced in a period of 100 years. The lives and careers of the great authors overlapped; indeed, they all seemed to have known one another personally. Every Russian author was constantly cross-referencing, borrowing, comparing himself with the past. He would carry on a conversation, in his own art, with his literary ancestors. Every writer became the sum of all the writers who came before him: Gogol absorbing Pushkin, Dostoevsky absorbing both Gogol and Pushkin, and so on.
Vladimir Nabokov, in the end an American novelist, always included himself in the mainstream of this self-contained, self-sustaining Russian tradition. He may well have been the last great participant in the conversation, so who better to hear on the subject of Russian literature?
This was the rationale behind the recent publication of Nabokov's college lectures on Russian literature. Volume One of these notes, last year's Christmas special, dealt with English, French, and German masterpieces. It turns out that Nabokov knew a great deal more about Russian literature than about any other. Certainly he is more comfortable in this second volume. He is still, as always, petulant, self-indulgent, and pompous, and since Nabokov insists upon his own status in the Pantheon of literature--which was not so obvious when he was writing these lectures--he has made a conspicuous target of himself.
Nabokov's original audiences were undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940s and 1950s. He had sojourned in England and Germany before moving to America in 1940. He began to write in English and taught college literature courses (including a seminar at Harvard) for a living. The extraordinary success of Lolita in 1958 allowed him to retire from the world.
His two volumes of lectures reveal a method and manner of teaching almost as fascinating as the content. It is amusing to see a famous novelist insisting upon numbered seats, cracking jokes about life in Ithaca or working out grading formulas. Nabokov's usual procedure is to introduce each novelist with a few choice and highly opinionated general comments, and then turn to the text and tackle it almost word by word. Not afraid to rank his favorites, 1-2-3, he is equally unafraid to slander his least favorites.
Only occasionally will Nabokov descend to biography or history or philosophy. Great art, says he, is sufficient unto itself. Nabokov is interested in words: what they sound like, and how they can be arranged. With words, the artist creates his own imaginary world, a world without values, ideas, or social relevance. For Nabokov, literature is a detective game: The reader tries of solve the word code and enter the imaginary world. Nabokov describes the sensual pleasure he finds in art: a certain tingling feeling in the spinal cord, he says. His cowering pupils are told over and over again that the social, cultural, or intellectual context of a work of art is simply irrelevant.
For all this, the old aristocrat cannot help dropping a few historical observations in his Russian course. History, after all, forced him into exile in the first place. He unequivocally condemns the Soviet Union and the literature it has produced. Beyond this point, however, his politics are naive. Nabokov was fond of arguing in vaguely libertarian terms: that the ideal state would be one where everyone left everyone else alone. With this, he would wash his hands of politics, along with philosophy, theology, ethics, and any other stray ideas.
NABOKOV hated many things--popular culture, for instance, including advertising, journalism, and psychology (Freud was the Viennese witch doctor). He hated Thomas Mann. And most interesting of all, he hated Dostoevsky. Nabokov is at his most provocative when he ranks the great Russians. Most of his own emotions, it seems, were poured into his worshipping of Tolstoy, on the one hand, and his vicious debunking of Dostoevsky, on the other. The final ranking is, officially: 1. Tolstoy; 2. Gogol; 3. Chekhov; 4. Turgenev. Dostoevsky is dead last. Nabokov accuses him of sloppy and melodramatic Christianity, reactionary slavophilism (which Nabokov links with both Fascism and Communism), lack of artistic sense or taste, and a hackneyed, long-winded style. He doesn't have much to say about the works themselves, and, in fact, Nabokov ignores The Brothers Karamazov altogether. When, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov kills an old woman "for some reason or other," Nabokov asks, "Who cares?" He passes off all Dostoevsky's characters as either neurotic or insane, the stuff of "pseudo-literature."
Nabokov's rankings are dogmatic but for the most part congenial. Yet, something seems wrong in his assessment of Dostoevsky: His tone is too violent, too bitter. The attack on Dostoevsky apparently became obsession for the writer. His criticism of Crime and Punishment as petty and simple-minded seems also to have entirely missed the point of Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky, after all, was a novelist of ideas; Nabokov is unwilling to deal with him on his own terms. Perhaps if he paid more attention to the larger intellectual context of Dostoevsky's work, he would appreciate the importance of the famous Crystal Palace as a cultural rallying point, as something more than a mere "journalistic" symbol. Most of all, Nabokov seems insensitive to Dostoevsky's vast and sympathetic humanity--a quality he singles out and apotheosizes in Tolstoy. How indeed can Nabokov hate a novelist who owed so much to Gogol, and who was so close in spirit to Tolstoy?
FOR, NABOKOV THE NOVELIST has a special affinity with Gogol. They are both obsessed with words, with the curious and beautiful poetic possibilities of their languages. They both love a story for its own sake; they shy away from messages and morals. They twist the literary conventions. Above all, they challenge the imagination. Nabokov treats Gogol lovingly; it makes for a delightful and intelligent opening chapter.
After perfunctorily and unenthusiastically praising Turgenev, the professor arrives at Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a moralizer if ever there was one, and he was never known for his poetry or stylistic ingenuity--and yet Nabokov approves. He scolds Tolstoy, of course, for his digressions on agriculture, but he does seem to appreciate, for once, the human elements of the story. And there are indeed human elements in Tolstoy. His insights into Tolstoy's use of time sequences and sense of timing seem keen and impressive.
After Tolstoy, Nabokov serves up a pleasant dessert of Chekhov. Chekhov occupies a distant but secure third place in the official ranking. He is neither poetic nor playful, but his wisdom and good taste capture Nabokov's heart. The survey ends with a small but appetite-killing dose of Gorki. Except for a couple of untranslatable modernists (Blok and Bely), Nabokov says, the future of Russian literature lies with the expatriates.
The final essay of the volume, "On Translation," reveals Nabokov's understanding of the art he describes. Indeed, he has written in two languages, he has translated the works of others, he has translated his own works, and he has seen his own works translated by others. Even in this essay, however, Nabokov exudes a conceited pedantry, inventing some silly translations of names and titles. Gogol's story "The Overcoat," for example, becomes "The Carrick." Memoirs from a Mousehold, rather than Notes from Underground. And the nickname of Prince Stepan Rkadyevich Oblonsky. One cannot help but wonder whether Nabokov is more concerned with shock value than accuracy.
It is easier to criticize Nabokov's lectures on literature than his novels. His fiction is complex and elusive, sometimes maddeningly obscure. The prose is lush and polychromatic, the plots ingenious. He fashions the most exquisite narrative structures out of the most fragile allusions and symbolic patterns, and ices it all with an arch sense of humor. His late works, such as Ada, hint at layers of meaning that will keep scholars guessing for decades. His works will probably last: Lolita is already available in an annotated critical edition. Still, there is something missing in all of Nabokov's work. His starchy aestheticism comes through as cold, crystalline, and almost inhuman. We wait in vain for that warm human glow that pervades all the works of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. And his work lacks the psychological or emotional depth that might have compensated for the limited range of characters and situations. Nabokov must have been a fiery lecturer, but somehow the fire chills.
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