He got an “A” from Nabokov


Six feet tall and balding.

Delightful piece over at the New York Review of Books by Edward Jay Epstein, recalling his 1954 class with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell.  We’ve written about Nabokov’s time at Stanford in 1941 here, but that was before he was quite the big-shot.

Here’s an excerpt:

The professor was Vladimir Nabokov, an émigré from tsarist Russia. About six feet tall and balding, he stood, with what I took to be an aristocratic bearing, on the stage of the two-hundred-fifty-seat lecture hall in Goldwin Smith. Facing him on the stage was his white-haired wife Vera, whom he identified only as “my course assistant.” He made it clear from the first lecture that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number. Mine was 121. He said his only rule was that we could not leave his lecture, even to use the bathroom, without a doctor’s note.

He then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

Read the rest here.  It’s very short and a lot of fun.

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4 Responses to “He got an “A” from Nabokov”

  1. ann haley Says:

    Vladimir Nabokov also taught at Stanford during the period 1954-1956. I remember seeing his name on the class schedules. I also passed him on the stairway each day when attending my history classes as an undergraduate. One of my friends insisted I take his class, but I was too intimidated, unfortunately.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ann!

  3. J. R. Oxon Says:

    Hello Cynthia.
    Nabokov is indeed a fascinating and mysterious man.

    What I particularly like about this author, is that the richness of his novels go well beyond what is offered at first sight.

    As Nabokov admitted in two interviews in the 60s, there is a subjacent level of reading in several of his books, among them he named “Lolita” explicitly.

    For instance in one of these interviews he said: “(Lolita) was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle – its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look”.

    And indeed, we can see phenomenons of reflexion in the novel (e.g. Pratt / Trapp, Blanche Schwarzman / Melanie Weiss, the widow Haze / the widow Hays, etc…).

    Here’s a link about this subject if you’re interested:

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, J.R. I’ll take a look.