Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0002445, Thu, 9 Oct 1997 11:16:22 -0700

Offering for Nabokov List (fwd)
From: ltaylor <ljt@dti.net>

My friend Jen Haus of NYU Law School sent me the following article, from
the October/November 1997 Civilization magazine. It is an excerpt from the
July-August 1997 issue of Cornell Magazine. Cornell University got more
than it bargained for when Vladimir Nabokov arrived on campus in 1948 to
teach a course called Russian Literature 151-52. The future author of
Lolita proved a memorable teacher. "Caress the details," Nabokov would
utter, rolling the R, "the divine details," remembers Ross Wetzeon '54.
‹ if somewhat eccentric‹ instructor, writes
Paul Cody in Cornell Magazine: "Although this course is called a survey
in the catalog," Nabokov began his first lecture, "it is not a survey at
all. Anybody is able to survey with a skimming eye the entire literature
of Russia in one laborious night by consuming a textbook or an
encyclopedia article. That is much too simple. In this course, ladies and
gentlemen, I am not concerned with generalities, with ideas and schools of
thought, with groups of mediocrities under a fancy flag. I am concerned
with the specific text, the thing itself." He gave grades to various
Russian writers: Tolstoy received an A-plus and Chekhov an A, but
Dostoevsky, a titan of the Russian novel, rated only a C-minus. In one
exam, Nabokov's first question was, "List the contents of Anna Karenina's
little red bag." It wasn't an exercise in trivia. The contents of Anna's
bag are crucial to an understanding of her mind.

In 1955 Nabokov began to teach Masters of European
Fiction. One student remembers his opening remarks: "The seats are
numbered. I would like you to choose your seat and stick to it. This is
because I would like to link up your faces with your names. All satisfied
with your seats? Okay. No talking, no smoking, no knitting, no newspaper
reading, no sleeping, and for God's sake take notes." John Updike wrote
that before an exam, Nabokov said, ³One clear head, one blue book, ink,
think, abbreviate obvious names, for example, Madame Bovary. Do not pad
ignorance with eloquence. Unless medical evidence is produced nobody will
be permitted to retire to the W.C."

€ THE EXILE appeared in the July-August 1997 issue of Cornell Magazine.
Back issues are available from 55 Brown Road Ithaca, N.Y. 14850-1247.