Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004411, Sun, 26 Sep 1999 19:29:10 -0700

Cornell Chronicle (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE. Galya Diment <galya@u.washington.edu>, co-editor of
NABOKV-L, ran across this account of the September 1998 Cornell Nabokov
Centenary Festival, the first of the numerous celebrations that spanned
the planet from Tallin Estonia to China.


Nabokov Centenary Festival casts the literary giant's net far and wide

William F. Buckley Jr., left, and Dmitri Nabokov acknowledge the audience
after their performance of "Dear Bunny/Dear Volodya" Thursday.
Robert Barker/University Photography

By James Stevens

With a flurry of film screenings, dramatic readings, exhibitions and
conference sessions, Cornell held a double celebration Sept. 9-12 for the
internationally renowned novelist and former Cornell professor Vladimir
Nabokov. The Nabokov Centenary Festival observed both the golden jubilee
of Nabokov's joining the Department of Russian Literature faculty and the
inauguration of Nabokov centenary activities around the world for 1999.
Such a rich weekend of activities was only appropriate for the writer and
lecturer who not only composed over 17 novels and dozens of short stories,
but was a playwright, translator, chess master and expert lepidopterist --
that is, a butterfly collector and researcher.

During all of the weekend's activities, butterfly pins, earrings, ties and
patches swarmed among the crowds, consisting mostly of visiting academics
as well as members of the Ithaca community and Cornell students, some of
whom could occasionally be heard reciting lyrics from The Police's 1980
pop hit "Don't Stand So Close to Me": It's no use, he sees her; he starts
to shake, he starts to cough. Just like the old man in that famous book by

That famous book, Lolita, led to Nabokov's celebrity, financial
independence and subsequent departure from Cornell. Appropriately, the
centenary festival opened Wednesday night with one of the first U.S.
screenings of the book's 1996 film adaptation, with background and
commentary provided by the author's son, Dmitri Nabokov, and the film's
screenwriter, Stephen Schiff. Far more explicit in its treatment of
pedophilia and murder than Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation, Adrian
Lynne's Lolita has met nearly as much controversy as the novel during the
late 1950s and early 1960s.

"I sometimes think of these two films as cultural bookends," Schiff told
the sellout audience after the screening. "The first Lolita marked a
moment where the liberation of the culture began; the near-banning of our
Lolita marks a moment where we see how the culture is shrinking back from
its earlier risks and pursuits."

Dmitri Nabokov informed the audience that his "little sister Lo" came to
life in Ithaca as a series of note cards later developed into the
celebrated novel which, he added, "ranked in the German press behind jazz,
the Beatles, and Playboy as one of the 'evils of our permissive society'."

As many Nabokovians, such as biographer Brian Boyd, have observed, the
expatriate author's 11 years in Ithaca (1948-1959) comprised one of the
most stable and productive periods in a literary career marked by frequent
relocations around the world. According to University of Washington
professor Galya Diment, "Nabokov's Cornell years produced many of his most
memorable and mature works," including Lolita, the autobiography
Conclusive Evidence (later revised and republished as Speak, Memory) and
Pnin, which was nominated for the National Book Award and featured the
fictional "Wendell University."

"Some wonder, however, whether Nabokov enjoyed teaching at all, but did it
primarily because he needed a steady paycheck," Diment said. "Something
similar to the host-houseguest relationship between [James Joyce's
characters in the novel Ulysses] Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus
happened between Cornell and Nabokov: for the guest, Cornell offered the
relative security of a domicile and a study where Nabokov could write some
of his best work; for the host, Nabokov could offer some of his talent and
intelligence as well as the possible satisfaction of watching one of
Cornell's own become a gloriously famous author."

On the afternoon of Sept. 10, the College of Arts and Sciences
commemorated its satisfaction with Nabokov's success and his tenure at
Cornell with a plaque installed outside of room 278 in Goldwin Smith Hall,
near the spot where Nabokov's office once stood prior to the building's

That evening, Nabokov's personality and literary career were
remembered in a performance of Terry Quinn's "Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya" --
a dramatization of selected letters between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson.
With William F. Buckley Jr. in the role of Wilson and Dmitri Nabokov
reading his father's letters, the remarkable friendship and bitter falling
out between these literary giants from opposite ends of the political,
aesthetic and personal spectra nearly came alive.

Nabokov's labyrinthine plots and literary puzzles were better
remembered in the festival's three-day centenary conference, the inaugural
conference of its kind and only the second to be held at Cornell since the
university's 1983 Nabokov Festival, which was hailed by this year's
festival organizer and chair of Cornell's Department of Russian
Literature, Gavriel Shapiro, as "the benchmark of all Nabokov celebrations
to come."

A vocal music concert, including Dmitri Nabokov singing bass, and a
Saturday-evening private banquet for conference participants helped bring
the festival to a close, though an exhibit of Nabokoviana, including
international editions of Lolita and Nabokov's butterfly net, will be on
display at the Carl A. Kroch Library's Nabokov Centenary Exhibition
through Sept. 30.

September 17, 1998

[Minor changes to the web version of this story have been made, based on a
correction published in the September 24,1998 edition of the Chronicle.]