IT MUST HAVE BEEN FUN to have sat in Vladimir Nabokov's classes in Russian litrerature at Wellesley and Cornell, but woe to the poor student who had to pass a major examination in the field under more conventional auspices! For Nabokov was of course not a professional pedagogue, concerned with imparting information and giving his listeners some acquaintance with a "field"--in this case, the Russian literature of which he was one of the most eminent living representatives. And so some of those whom Nabokov affectionately called "the backbone of the nation, the industrious army of grade Cs," may have been a little put off by Professor Nabokov's free-wheeling ways.
But the majority probably found him as endearingly nutty as his own Professor Pnin. And what a feast he was for those with some literary sensibility, who were capable of appreciating his flashing wit, his pungently expressive language and his keen insight into literature as a craft!
The present volume is a carefully edited reconstruction, from notes and drafts left among Nabokov's papers, of the course he gave on Russian literatue. Putting them together was a daunting job, and the editor Fredson Bowers is to be congratulated that they read as well as they do. The prospective reader, however, should know that much of the book is quotation, since a good deal of classroom time was taken up with reading extracts aloud (of course in English) accompanied with a running fire of scornful remarks about the translation and appropriate corrections. Ample room is given to a fine display of Nabokov's usual crotchets and whimsies. He laboriously figures out the exact date on which the action of Anna Karenin (no "a," please) begins, even though Tolstoy did not think it important enough to mention. And Nabokov in one of his favorite roles--the mad pedant with a fanatical gleam in his eye --is fully evident in the 30 pages of commentary that he intended for a (never-published) edition of Anna Karenin(a). For example, under the entry for "cabbage soup and groats," we learn that "in my time, forty year later (than the novel) to slurp shchi was as chic as to toy with any French fare."
The book, however, contains much more than such eccentricities. It begins with a superb and lively lecture, delivered in 1958, which views Russian literature as having been continuously subject to two censorships in the 19th century--that of the Tsarist state on the one hand, and of the radical critics on the other. The first insisted that writers be loyal to the state, the second to the welfare of the masses. "The two lines of thought were bound to meet and join forces when at last, in our times, a new kind of regime, the synthesis of a Hegelian triad, combined the idea of the masses with the idea of the state." No better discription has ever been given of the situation that produced so much dreadfully didactic Soviet literature, whose absurdities Nabokov punctures with a few selected quotations. Nor, it should be noted, does he accept the fashionable cant that the indirect pressures of the marketplace on writers in free countries amounts to the same thing as the direct pressures of the police state.
Individual chapters are then devoted to Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorki. Usually one or two works are discussed, though overall impressions are also briefly conveyed, and after a few background facts Nabokov gets down to textual details. For as he writes, "let us not look for the soul of Russia in the Russian novel: let us look for the individual genius. Look at the masterpiece, and not the frame--and not at the faces of the people looking at the frame." This is Nabokov's response to the overwhelming demand on Russian writers, both by the radical critics of the past and the state-supported critics of the present, to concern themselves with a "message" of some kind and write "special delivery" works (as he calls them). As a reaction, both Nabokov and the Russian Formalist critics who were his contemporaries desired to free art from such ideological constraints and to view it in terms of a series of technical "devices." One can understand this response and sympathize with it, without believing it necessary to import so stringent a conception into our own more liberal cultural climate of ideas, or finding that the taste in literature it engenders is necessarily compelling or definitive.
Gogol of course is one of Nabokov's favorite writers, whose stylistic antics in Dead Souls and The Overcoat he explores lovingly while carrying on a polemic both with translators and the standard view of Gogol as a "realist." He focuses mainly on what he calls Gogol's "life-generating syntax," the manner in which "the peripheral characters of his novel (Dead Souls) are engendered by the subordinate clauses of his various metaphors, comparisons and lyrical outbursts." But he also considers the main character Chichikov, as Russian Symbolist critics had done earlier, to be "an ill-paid representative of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades," who works to extend the influence of Satan & Co. through "the essential stupidity of universal poshlust (mediocrity, Philistinism)." Nabokov also remarks, at the end of his consideration of The Overcoat, that the work "approaches to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships." The Devil and "the shadows of other worlds" may not be "the Russian soul," but we seem to be getting dangerously close to its vicinity all the same.
Nabokov then moves on to Turgenev, whom he labels "not a great writer but a pleasant one," and who is admired rather patronizingly for the delicacy of his landscapes and his feel for textures and colors. But he finds his style patchy--some passages are too highly worked over--and, since Turgenev lacked "literary imagination," he could never discover "ways of telling the story which would equal the originality of his discriptions." These are shrewd and telling observations; but despite such weaknesses, Nabokov still considers Fathers and Sons "one of the most brilliant novels of the nineteenth century," and he works through it perceptively. Turgenev also inspires him to one of his most delightful and sustained outbursts of criticism by slightly parodistic summary:
"Russia in those days was one huge dream: the masses slept--figuratively; the intellectuals spent sleepless nights--literally--sitting up and talking about things, or just meditating until five in the morning and then going out for a walk. There was a lot of flinging-oneself- down-on-one's-bed-without-undressing-and-sinking-in- to-a-heavy-slumber stuff, or jumping into one's clothes. Turgenev's maidens are generally good get-uppers, jumping into their crinolines, sprinkling their faces with cold water, and running out, as fresh as roses, into the garden, where the inevitable meeting takes place in a bower."
After reading such a passage, few will ever be able to take certain scenes in Turgenev with the same solemnity as in the past.
Nabokov's invariably hostile pronouncements on Dostoevsky have always aroused much curiosity and opposition, and of course he did not miss the chance to take some healthy sideswipes in his classes at his perennial punching bag. His dislike of Dostoevsky goes back a long way, and may plausibly be traced to two causes. One is that Dostoevsky's works were used in turn-of-the-century Russian culture as reinforcement for the most reactionary elements of Russian society, and good Russian liberals like the Nabokov family would have naturally detested the harnessing of such a great writer to so sleazy a cause. One way of meeting the problem was thus to tear down his literary status. But, at the same time, Nabokov as a writer could not escape his enormous influence, and certain elements in his own work are unquestionably indebted to Dostoevsky. This only further increased his irritability and resentment, and it became all the more imperative to ridicule and denigrate those aspects of Dostoevsky which he deplored and could not use.
He does so, however, in terms that are hardly new in Russian criticism, though they have long since been out of date. Dostoevsky was heartily disliked, during his own lifetime, by a sizeable section of critical opinion because of the crude sensationalism of his murder-plots, his use of character-types like the virtuous prostitute and the saintly idiot reminiscent of sentimental melodrama, and his general depiction of the more sordid sides of human existence. Such traits were unfavorably contrasted with the more elegant, aristocratic, country- house traditions of the Russian novel descending from Pushkin and carried on by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Goncharov and many others. Nabokov simply revives this sort of critical nitpicking, based on a refined dislike of Dostoevsky's presumed artistic vulgarity, and refuses to see anything in his work except the plebeian origins of his raw materials and his unseemly display of a somewhat hysterical religiosity. Dostoevsky's genius, of course, consisted precisely in being able to take such crude materials and raise them to the level of high tragedy. But if you think that Raskolnikov's motivation in Crime and Punishment is "terribly muddled," and that The Brothers Karamazov "is a typical detective story, a riotous whodunit--in slow motion," then what is there to say in reply? Nothing at all, except to remark that, just as Nabokov admits that he lacks "an ear for music," so too he lacks whatever organ is necessary to appreciate Dostoevsky.
Or at least the major Dostoevsky's art. He rates The Double, an early and uncomplicated story, Dostoevsky's finest achievement, no doubt because so many of his own characters are haunted by doubles both real and imaginary. And he praises the strain of wild grotesquerie in Dostoevsky, his "wonderful flair" for a "humor always on the verge of hysterics and people hurting each other in a wild exchange of insults." Grotesque comedy is also Nabokov's forte, though usually in a more restrained key. His dislike of Dostoevsky is so intense, though, that he even loses his abundent sense of humor while discussing him--or so it seems, unless he is once again pulling our leg. For he solemnly argues that Dostoevsky's major charactes are all such "poor, deformed and warped souls" that their reactions can scarcely be accepted as human. And he goes on to list the various types of mental illness under which they can be classified, using categories culled from an article in--of all places, and despite his antipathy to Freud--the Psychoanalytic Review! Will wonders never cease, or are we hearing the voice of Dr. John Ray Jr. Ph. D., the learned psychiatrist who prefaced Lolita? After all, what sort of characters does Nabokov himself portray? Pillars of mental health?
Nabokov is, of course, much more sympathetic to Tolstoy, whom he calls "the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction." In view of his dislike of writers with "messages," he has a little trouble here in adjusting his prejudices with his preferences; but he decides that Tolstoy's art "was so powerful, so tiger bright, so original and universal that it easily tramscends the sermon." In any case, he only discusses Anna Karenin(a) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich; War and Peace would have been a tougher nut to crack. He has an interesting but rather obscure theory about Tolstoy's use of "time," penetratingly analyzes the many details foreshadowing Anna's suicide under a train, and rather clerically states the theme of the book to be the contrast between metaphysical and carnal love. The first, "based on wiliingness for self-sacrifice, or mutual respect," is embodied in the Kitty-Levin relationship; "the Anna-Vronski alliance was founded only on carnal love and therein lay its doom."
Two short stories of Chekhov, and a long note on The Seagull, bring out some of Nabokov's most tender and evocative prose. He savors the casual delicacy of Chekhov's art, his use of throwaway detail to create mood, and most of all his unwillingness to take sides in the raging political warfare of his day, preferring the sheerly human to the ideological. Chekhov also possesses that mixture of whimsicality and sadness that appeals so much to Nabokov's sensibility, and he was himself an archetypical Russian liberal (though personally a very successful one) who chronicled the strivings, illusions and defeats of those close to Nabokov's heart. Nabokov's paean of praise for this type ("the intellectual, the Russian idealist . . . a good man who cannot make good") is too long to quote entire; but it reveals a good deal about his own values. So does his celebration of "all this pathetic dimness, all this lovely weakness, all this Chekhovian dove-grey world," which "is worth treasuring in the glare of those strong, self-sufficient worlds that are promised us by the worshippers of totalitarian states."
The book concludes with a brief dismissal of Gorki as a writer, though the sketch of his life is respectful, a few amusing pages on poshlust again, and some familiar considerations on the art of translation. On the whole, it is more an anthology of great passages of Russian literature than a series of lectures; but the commentary is by Nabokov, and there is never a dull or conventional moment. One may agree or disagree, but the pleasure of being in such engaging and civilized company never flags. For all lovers of Russian literature, and for all those who aspire to be lovers of Russian literature, Nabokov's volume is a garden of delights.