Vladimir Nabokov—like Hemingway, Lorca, and Borges—was born in 1899, began life in the stable Victorian era, lived through the horrors of the Great War, and came to artistic maturity in the 1920’s. Driven out of Russia by the revolution of 1917, exiled in Berlin and Paris for the next two decades, Nabokov reached New York in 1940. Like the magnificent butterflies he so lovingly studied, he adapted perfectly to his American habitat. He was handsome, witty, and athletic, multilingual, sophisticated, cosmopolitan—and nice. He had an engaging personality and a brilliant mind, and he was a versatile man of letters with a catholic interest in both science and art.
Nabokov’s training as an entomologist inspired his interest in minute details and the exactness of his literary works. Unlike the scientifically trained Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, and Norman Mailer (with his Reichian orgone box), however, Nabokov never derailed into fuzzy mysticism. As an amusing, flamboyant, and formidable teacher at Wellesley College (1941-48) and Cornell University (1948-59), he combined the precision and patience of the scientist with the passion and pity of the artist. His regal demeanor, aristocratic manners and old-world charm, superb acting, rich Russian-French intonation and eccentric personality, idiosyncratic ideas, lively wit, and enthusiasm for literature all made a profound impression on his eager but largely uncomprehending students.
Nabokov, an uneven writer, created his best work in English and mainly at Cornell. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), a parodic biography, was (he cunningly wrote) “shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” He found the kernel of the perverse yet poignant relationship of Humbert and Lolita, the antiheroes of his greatest novel (1955), in Leopold Bloom’s fantasy-infatuation with the dreamy adolescent Gerty MacDowell in the Nausicaa chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962) were wickedly funny academic satires with a Cornell setting. His autobiography Speak, Memory (1967), a Proustian remembrance of things past, was (as he wrote of Proust in a characteristically sinuous sentence) “the transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotion such as desire, jealousy and artistic euphoria—this is the material of the . . . singularly light and translucid work.”
His Lectures on Literature (1980) and Lectures on Russian Literature (1981) were meticulously prepared (nothing was off-the-Nabocuff) and remained exactly the same for two decades. Though flawed by his categorical dismissal of all social, political, and philosophical issues as extraneous to pure art, they offered precious insights (accompanied by drawings of Anna Karenina’s railroad compartment and Gregor Samsa’s buglike form in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) into the technique, structure, style, imagery, and “background of words, their fashions, history and period associations” in major works of Western literature.
The astonishing success of Lolita, which sold over 14 million copies, freed him at last from the bondage of teaching and allowed the eternal itinerant to move to a luxurious suite in the Montreux Palace Hotel. He drank heavily at the end of his life and—like Joyce and Mann—died in Switzerland, in 1977. Nabokov transcended the loss of his heritage, his country, and his language, and, in an unusual expression of optimism and satisfaction, exclaimed that “he had accomplished what he wished in life and art, and was a truly happy man.”
Joyce slyly said of Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” In a similar fashion, Nabokov, who “toys and Tolstoys with words,” also loved stylistic fireworks: puns, wordplay, parody, puzzles, and obscure multilingual allusions that have inspired legions of lean lecturers and full professors to burrow endlessly into his work.
Nabokov at Cornell is not about Nabokov at Cornell. There is no discussion, as one would expect, of his great performances as a teacher, no illuminating reminiscences by colleagues and students of his fabled personality. Instead, this book offers 25 twelve-page, mostly deadly academic essays, the products of a 1988 conference at the university, many of them about minor works in Russian. These scholarly incursions have no interest for the general reader nor even, most likely, for the other contributors. One can imagine members of the audience (those still awake) running for the exit as these lectures, many of them in leaden prose and Russian-accented English, began. There are typos in “painter” (122) and “Sterne” (163); a reference to a nonexistent periodical (54 n9); and a false assertion, quoting another “authority,” that Nabokov and Edmund Wilson “began and ended their relationship through the agency of . . . Alexandr Pushkin.” In fact, Pushkin had nothing to do with the start of their friendship.
The worst essays are a speculative attempt to link Nabokov to P.D. Ouspensky, whose mystical rubbish he would (if he had ever heard of it) have loathed; the opaque “Semiotic Validity of the Mirror Image in Despair” (which does make one despair); and the pretentious “‘Signs and Symbols’ and Silentology.” The survey of Nabokov scholarship, congratulating many people in the original audience, is complacent and completely uncritical. Like Browning’s Last Duchess, the surveyor smiles on all alike. He also obediently consigns to the dustbin the pioneering biography of Andrew Field—anathema and “unperson” to Nabokov’s son Dmitri, the guardian of the flame—because Field first revealed that the gallant Nabokov publicly expressed devotion to his wife in all his dedications while carrying on a number of serious love affairs. Dmitri’s keynote address offers a familiar, sanitized, and self-serving account of his parents.
A notable lacuna in the three discussions of Pushkin (who, like the novelist Mikhail Lermontov, was killed in a duel) is Nabokov’s early story “An Affair of Honor” (1927), a witty parody and satiric send-up of the romantic conventions of the duel. Like Dostoyevsky’s insulted and injured Underground Man, Nabokov’s absurd antihero suffers abject humiliation—and while contriving to survive his ordeal loses his wife, his honor, and his self-respect.
Of marginal interest are the essays on the source of Despair in sensational contemporary murders and the source of “Scenes From the Life of a Double Monster” (a superb title) in the 18th-century Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus; on the two film versions of Lolita and the tour-de-force translation of Alice in Wonderland by Nabokov, who, with the help of childhood tutors, “knew how to read and write English before he was literate in Russian”; and the “attention to detail, fascination with the convex mirror, and authorial presence reflected in such a mirror” that Nabokov may have learned from such early Netherlandish painters as Jan van Eyck.
The most potentially promising essay, on Nabokov’s intense hostility to André Malraux’s masterpiece Man’s Fate (1933), is seriously defective. The summary of the novel, which describes
Chiang Kai-shek’s destruction of his former communist allies during the Shanghai revolution of 1927, is hopelessly inadequate. The author does not mention Malraux’s pertinent dispute in 1931 with the exiled Leon Trotsky about Malraux’s earlier novel The Conquerors (1928) and the fact that Nabokov disliked Man’s Fate because the heroes were his lifelong enemies, the communists. The author also fails to point out that Malraux was yet another example of Nabokov’s notorious blind spots about many great writers: Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Freud, Mann, Lawrence, Pasternak, Faulkner, and Hemingway.
[Nabokov at Cornell, edited by Gavriel Shapiro (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 287 pp., $39.95]