How to get an A from Nabokov

Wonderful little memoir by Edward Jay Epstein in the New York Review of Books about his first paid employment — working for Vladimir Nabokov, who what then teaching his Eng Lit course at Cornell.

So began the course. Unfortunately, distracted by the gorges, lakes, movie houses, corridor dates, and other more local enchantments of Ithaca, I did not get around to reading any of Anna Karenina before Nabokov sprang a pop quiz. It consisted of an essay question: “Describe the train station in which Anna first met Vronsky.”

Initially, I was stymied by this question because, having not yet read the book, I did not know how Tolstoy had portrayed the station. But I did recall the station shown in the 1948 movie starring Vivien Leigh. Having something of an eidetic memory, I was able to visualize a vulnerable-looking Leigh in her black dress wandering through the station, and, to fill the exam book, I described in great detail everything shown in the movie, from a bearded vendor hawking tea in a potbellied copper samovar to two white doves practically nesting overhead. Only after the exam did I learn that many of the details I described from the movie were not in the book. Evidently, the director Julien Duvivier had had ideas of his own. Consequently, when Nabokov asked “seat 121” to report to his office after class, I fully expected to be failed, or even thrown out of Dirty Lit.

What I had not taken into account was Nabokov’s theory that great novelists create pictures in the minds of their readers that go far beyond what they describe in the words in their books. In any case, since I was presumably the only one taking the exam to confirm his theory by describing what was not in the book, and since he apparently had no idea of Duvivier’s film, he not only gave me the numerical equivalent of an A, but offered me a one-day-a-week job as an “auxiliary course assistant.” I was to be paid $10 a week.

I guess that this was the course which eventually led tp one of my favourite books — Lectures on Literature. It contains some of the best dissections of novels that I have ever read.

It is also highly idiosyncratic (which is probably why, as a non-literary type, I love it). There’s a neat review of it on Amazon which says:

Vladimir Nabokov’s approach to European literary masterpieces is both funny and enlightening. Of special interest for the uninitiated into the Nabokovian world view are the essays “Good Readers and Good Writers” and “The Art of Literature and Commonsense”. But beware: if you want to read a straight academic approach to the writers treated in this book you have chosen the wrong book. Some of Nabokov’s comments are fantastic, especially his reading of Flaubert and Proust are exceptionally good, but they are not wissenschaft in the traditional manner. These lectures say more about Nabokov the writer than they say about other writers.

Quite so.

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