Cornell Festival/New York Times (fwd)
Toasting (and Analyzing) Nabokov
By MEL GUSSOW
ITHACA, N.Y. -- On July 1, 1948, Vladimir Nabokov, a 49-year-old Russian
emigre, arrived at Cornell University. For the next 11 years, his longest
residence at any one place in the United States, he taught Russian literature
and other courses. During that period he wrote his signature novel, "Lolita,"
along with "Pnin," about the comic misadventures of a Russian emigre to an
American campus very much like Cornell. He also began to conceive "Pale Fire,"
which many Nabokovians regard as the pivotal book in his considerable body of
In the years since his death in 1977, Nabokov -- as novelist, memoirist and
translator -- has become a towering figure on the international scene, often
placed alongside James Joyce and Marcel Proust as one of the great innovative
writers of the 20th century. As an artist, he stubbornly followed his own
unconventional path, found his voice (in two languages) and became an
influence on writers who followed him, novelists as diverse as John Updike and
Nabokov's books -- 17 novels; a memoir, "Speak Memory"; short stories,
essays and criticism -- are now widely in print in many languages.
He is read and discussed over the Internet as well as in university
classrooms. The recent Adrian Lyne film of "Lolita" will presumably bring new
readers to his work, as did the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film.
The Cornell festival was a cornucopia of Nabokoviana, with more than 30
scholars from Seattle to Zagreb presenting papers on diverse and often arcane
aspects of the writer's career. By the count of one participant, among them
they had written 43 books about the author. Other academics listened and asked
questions about the virtuosity of Nabokov as writer, teacher and expert
The dramatic highlight was a performance of "Dear Bunny/Dear Volodya," a
dialogue adapted from the correspondence of Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, with
Dmitri Nabokov playing his father and William F. Buckley Jr. playing Wilson.
Nabokov himself might have been amused by the deep and sometimes
overreactive textual analyses at the festival. He was clear about his
detestation of symbols and allegories. In his afterword to "Lolita," he
scoffed at readers who alternately described the book as "Old Europe
debauching young America" and "Young America debauching old Europe."
His approach was to emphasize details, not generalities. He loved the
limpidity of language, and with infinite finesse he made English dance to his
wit and imagination, as he had apparently done with his earlier works in
Russian. As an experimentalist, he is a most natural subject for spectroscopic
examination, as practiced by a floating body of dedicated Nabokovians.
Brian Boyd, the author of a two-volume biography of the novelist, who came
to the conference from his home in Auckland, New Zealand, said: "He was a
little like Joyce, who said he put puzzles in his work to keep professors busy
for a thousand years -- the only way of insuring your immortality. There are a
lot of inquisitive readers here who have discovered the hidden plums."
Literary Inventions And Intentions
Boyd delivered a paper on "Pale Fire," confronting that crucial quandary:
did Shade (the poet) invent Kinbote (the commentator) or vice versa? After a
heated debate on the Internet, Dmitri Nabokov, the man at the center of the
Cornell conference, settled the issue: "My father said it would make just as
much sense to say that they reciprocally invented each other. Basically people
seem to forget that Nabokov invented both."
During the conference, one Nabokov scholar delivered a learned but debatable
paper equating the character of Lolita with the monster in Mary Shelley's
"Frankenstein," suggesting that both deal with the "betrayal of a child's
innocence." Another speaker read her entire paper in Russian, severely testing
the language ability of the other participants.
A professor who is also a professional cartoonist talked about the
importance of comic strips to Nabokov and described him as "a novelist of
astounding visual acuity" whose "medium was language." Several drew parallels
between his art and his lifelong passion for collecting and categorizing
Glimpses of Life In Two Countries
There were also fascinating glimpses into his life in Russia and in Ithaca,
where he and his wife, Vera, became serial renters, moving from house to
house, occupying the homes of professors on leave. Even in residence at
Cornell, he maintained his nomadic existence.
The festival featured a library exhibition of Nabokov's books including rare
copies of his earliest works; his first book of poems, privately published in
1916, and his Russian translation of "Alice in Wonderland," for which he was
In "Dear Bunny/Dear Volodya," adapted by Terry Quinn, Dmitri Nabokov and
Buckley filled their respective roles with dry acerbity. In this friendship
that eventually turned into a feud, Wilson often seemed to express a critical
cutting edge, as in his early suggestion that Nabokov limit his punning.
Nabokov, in turn, could be forcefully dismissive in his literary assessments,
banishing Faulkner (despite Wilson's protestations) and admitting that he was
prejudiced against all female writers.
Dmitri Nabokov, who gave the keynote speech at the festival, is a basso who
made his debut with Luciano Pavarotti in "La Boheme" in Italy in 1961 and put
aside his flourishing operatic career to devote himself to what he called his
"literary patrimony." Explaining his switch in professions, he said: "I
thought there were fewer Nabokovs around than bassos. Actually there was only
one Nabokov, so I thought the best thing I could do for him and for art was to
occupy myself with the stewardship."
At the conference, Nabokov briefly returned to his previous career,
performing a concert of songs related to the work of his father, including one
of his own composition.
Stephen Jan Parker, who studied with Nabokov at Cornell in 1958 and teaches
at the University of Kansas, said that in the 15 years since the first Nabokov
festival at Cornell, "there has been an explosion of information and sources,
criticism and commentary." A fledgling Nabokov Society has grown into an
international one, there is an active Web site, and the Library of America
published three volumes of his writings.
And, Parker said, there is an urge to position Nabokov as a modernist, a
post-modernist, a post-post-modernist, a metafictionist -- "or none of the
above." He added, "I can imagine Nabokov gently smiling at all this
Since the mid-1980's, when Nabokov's books began to be published in Russia,
he has been embraced there as well. Russia has its own Nabokov journal.
During the centenary, there will be celebrations around the world -- in
London, Paris, Berlin, Montreux and Moscow. New York will offer an exhibition
of his work at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (the primary
repository of Nabokoviana), and there will be an evening at Town Hall, with
Nabokov showing clips from film and television representations of his father's
work. He supervises publication and translation, as well as authorizes
dramatic and film adaptations.
"Thank God my father had two birthdays, one by the old calendar, one by the
new," he said. "This way I can satisfy those who want to have a birthday
celebration in St. Petersburg on April 10," while also toasting his father in
another city on April 23.
Currently he is helping to restore a family estate near St. Petersburg
(which he will turn into an arts foundation) and is completing a book about
his father's butterflies.
At the core of Nabokov's reputation, of course, is "Lolita." It is now
accepted as a modern classic, but it had a most difficult birth. The author
said that in writing it he faced the task of "inventing America," and several
times was at the point of burning the manuscript.
His son recalled: "He didn't think it would ever be published. He was on the
way to the incinerator with it when Mother stopped him."
Once it was published (by Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press in Paris),
it became infamous. Surrounded by outrage and threats of censorship, "Lolita"
survived intact. A turning point was Graham Greene's praise in The Sunday
Times of London. He named it as one of three best books of 1955.
When it was finally published in the United States, "Lolita" became a
phenomenal success, allowing the author to leave Cornell. Although Nabokov
said he was sick of teaching, his son said that he "deeply loved Cornell, a
university that gave him untrammeled academic freedom."
Left Behind, An Unfinished Book
With the profits from "Lolita," he was able to become a full-time writer. At
the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland, he completed "Pale Fire," wrote
"Ada" and other major works and also revised his historic translation of
Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." In his final years, he was working on a novel
entitled "The Original of Laura."
As his father's heir, Dmitri Nabokov is still undecided about what to do
with the uncompleted manuscript. Written on index cards, the text, if printed,
would run about 30 pages. It would have been, he said, "a brilliant, original
and potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense, very different
from the rest of his ouevre."
But he does not think the work could stand alone. "My father gave the order
to destroy it," he said. "He was against publishing anything that was not
finished. If I burn it, it's gone forever. If I don't and don't publish it,
eventually it will fall into somebody's hands. Probably the right thing to do
would be to make a rare contravention of my father's wishes and make what
there is available to scholars."
Looking back on his childhood, Nabokov said, "Father never failed to allot
to me what is vulgarly called quality time, teaching me sports, chess,
It is with gratitude that the son has taken up his Nabokovian career.
Tracing the arc of his father's fortunes, he said: "Ten or so years after a
writer's death, he either slides downhill into the bottom drawer or he stays
on hold -- or else he begins a gradual ascent into a wonderful pantheon in the
sky. The last seems to be what's happening with my father. Undoubtedly, he
would have gone to the pantheon without me, but I think I'm helping things
Tuesday, September 15, 1998