Lectures on Literature

What an odd and wonderful book Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature is. I enjoyed it very much, although I have some caveats to make, and I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you have read the books Nabokov discusses or you plan to read them alongside the lectures. He goes much too in-depth about his chosen books for it to be at all enjoyable if you’re not familiar with them.

What makes this book odd and unusual is the fact that it is a transcript of lectures Nabokov gave while at Cornell, so they are written with a classroom performance in mind and not necessarily meant for general readers. The course was called “Masters of European Fiction,” and covers Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Swann’s Way, The Metamorphosis, and Ulysses. The book’s editor makes it clear that he had to do a lot of editing, as the text is based on written-out lectures that weren’t always complete and where the organization wasn’t always clear. But the text we ended up with is very readable and clear, and it includes lots of pictures of Nabokov’s notes and marked-up copies of novels.

Nabokov makes a very strong argument for looking at the novels themselves and not paying any attention to biographical, historical, or cultural context. He believes in close reading and nothing but close reading. He wants readers to focus on the novel’s details, noticing patterns and making connections and focusing on how those details are structured. Here is what he says about how people should read:

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.

“Great novels are great fairy tales,” he argues, and should be treated as independent worlds, following their own rules, and existing without any connection to the world we live in.

I think I may post more on this book later, as there are so, so many interesting passages to quote and discuss, but for now I’ll say that I find his argument intriguing but limited. I love reading novels closely and focusing on structure and doing all the things he thinks readers should do, but I also love to think about biographical, social, and historical context, and I think there is value in doing so. So I suppose I see Nabokov’s way of reading as one very good way that exists alongside other good ways.

At times I found this book utterly brilliant, and at times it was … a bit dull. Nabokov is focused on details to such an extreme degree that he sometimes gets bogged down in plot summary. In each lecture he follows the chronology of the novel, analyzing it as he moves through its sections, and sometimes this works well, and at other times he stops analyzing and begins summarizing. On the plus side, these summaries make the lectures an excellent way to review each book if the details have gotten hazy.

The lectures reminded me of one of my English professors in college who was fairly traditional in his approach to literature and focused on close reading in just the way Nabokov does, moving through each work we studied and analyzing its structure in a methodical way. This seemed like a reasonably good way to learn about the literature we read, but I didn’t love that class as much as I did others where the professors took a broader approach and looked at context and history and theory as well as looking at the texts themselves. Nabokov is best, I think, when he uses the novels as a jumping off point to discuss what literature is and how we can best read it — when the details lead him to some larger point.

Who knows what I’ll end up doing, but I would like to return to this book and close at some of Nabokov’s claims more specifically.


Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Lectures on Literature

  1. I think Nabokov’s argument is less limited than you do. Turning, for example, to the first page or two of the Mansfield Park lecture, I see that Nabokov gives us the dates and location of composition, the names of two other books published in 1814, and a reference to the poor ward as a stock type of the fiction of the time.

    Off to the left is a page of the novel scrawled with clues allowing N. to pin down the date of the story. Turning the page, I find a hand drawn map of England, with the novel’s locations marked.

    That’s a lot of context! I think it’s actually useful to approach this book in context, as well. The argument is really against readers who skip over, as irrelevant detail, the description of Charles and Emma’s wedding cake.

    Nabokov reads that and thinks, that’s amazing, I wish I’d written that. His students didn’t know it, but these lectures were a writer’s justification of his own craft.

    Well, my opinion of all this is easy enough to guess – you’ve read my writing. Very much looking forward to more of your views on this book.


  2. I do like close reading (and I’m guessing he was doing it before it had a name), but his insistence that everything is a fairy tale irked me as well as the fact that at times it seems that his idea of close reading is something more like cataloguing, as though the details of a novel were like so many butterflies rather than clues to a grand puzzle. Taxonomy has its limits when you’re talking about fiction.


  3. This makes me think I really must read some Nabokov! The urge to focus on textual detail was itself a historical move. I have no idea when N was writing – early-ish in the 20th century, I suppose? 40s? There was a strong reaction to the criticism of the 19th century that was about everything BUT the book. Nabokov must surely have been influenced by the Russian formalists who rigorously excluded contextual material (although they mostly dealt with poetry). I’m with you, in thinking that there are many different approaches and you can bring them together in interesting ways without any harm being done to the text. But it’s fun to see other people working their specific theories.


  4. verbivore

    I’ve been slowly reading his lectures after each of the books he discusses and I did the first few rapidly, but took a break before Proust and Kafka. So I’ll hopefully get back into that later this summer or next fall.

    I really enjoy his focus on close reading, possibly because of my translator’s background. Fiction is first and foremost for me about breaking down the text, looking at its smaller parts and seeing how they fit to form the whole. Nabokov does this beautifully. I love the details he chooses.

    But I don’t have anything against other readings, and, like you, think they can bring a lot to a novel.


  5. Oh, so interesting! I have this book and have been thinking of reading it. Thanks for the tip that I should read the novel he is talking about first. I think I’ve read half of them but a few were a long time ago. I like a close reading and think that in theory, one should be able do only that, but I also like to bring in biography and historical context which I think, after a close reading, adds even more depth and richness to a book.


  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful review! I’ve not read any of N.’s works, but I’ll certainly give them a closer look at the bookstore.


  7. His idea of “close reading” sounds very similar to the theory that Francine Prose espouses in her book, How to Read Like a Writer. She also believes in close reading to the point of breaking down sentences to look at word choice, the development of the sentence, paragraph, etc. However, she does stop short of saying this is the only way to read. I have to agree with you that this type of reading is important, but I also enjoy context. After all, as much as one may want to say so, nothing is created in a vacuum, and nothing is read in a vacuum. I think it’s impossible to come to a book with a clean slate. We are a product of all of our previous experience, after all.


  8. I think I tend to want to put a book in context and am curious about the author and his/her life and how everything fits together, but it might be fun to try it Nabokov’s way sometime (at least as a starting point–as you mention). I should see if my library has this book and copy the Bleak House section–a book that I’ve let languish far too long and have been thinking that I need to finish it this summer. Please do post more on this book–I love hearing about authors/critics and their way of working.


  9. Amateur Reader — you’re absolutely right that Nabokov does discuss context, at least a little bit. He spends a good deal of time comparing works to each other as well, which is its own form of context. So it’s not right to say he ignores context entirely, but it’s clearly not his focus, which is structure. The contextual stuff leads him back to structure, not to discussions of how the books engage with the culture of the time. I liked this book a lot too; I just think Nabokov’s way of reading is one among many.

    Bud — interesting point about taxonomy and his cataloguing the details of these novels; I definitely felt at times that the cataloguing took over the pursuit of the grand puzzle, as you put it. That happened in the weakest of the chapters at least. I didn’t think he was particularly good with Austen, but I liked the Dickens section much more.

    Litlove — it WAS fun to see Nabokov at work. These lectures came from the early 50s, and although I’m not entirely sure what theories he was influenced by, if any, he seems of his time in his focus on detail and structure. His emphasis on emotion, though, strikes me as unique — and appealing. Definitely do read some Nabokov! Pale Fire is my personal favorite.

    Verbivore — in terms of the things I write, I’m drawn to close reading the most too, although I like reading critics who work in different ways. I think that’s an excellent way to read this book — as you read the novels. Does that mean you will be reading Ulysses?

    Stefanie — I read a number of the books he discusses quite a long time ago too, and that worked fine. The only one I haven’t read is the Kafka, but I felt I knew the basic idea of it well enough to go ahead and read the chapter. Nabokov helped me remember the things I’d read long ago, which was nice. He just gives away the entire plot of each book, so if you don’t want spoilers, definitely avoid him!

    Debby — this is an interesting book for those studying how fiction is put together, I think. I’m a Nabokov fan, but his works are challenging, in a whole range of ways, from stylistically to morally. He’s such an interesting figure!

    Lisa — I enjoyed Prose’s book too, and I agree that both these books are setting out to do similar things — they both want to teach readers/students how to read sensitively and understand how fiction is put together. I think Nabokov would agree that we don’t read in a vacuum; I think he would say we should read in our own way, but also make an attempt to understand the author’s perspective as well and what the author is trying to do.

    Danielle — Nabokov gives away the entire plot of the novels he discusses, so you’d want to be careful about spoilers, but he would be great to read in sections or to read once you have finished the book. I thought the Bleak House chapter was really great. I like to read about an author’s life and historical context too, and there’s no reason we can’t!


  10. Your post, and the comments, have helped me better understand the pedagogical aspect of this book. Should seem obvious – they’re his classroom lectures – but I’d never quite thought of them that way. Meaning, I now see how N. was addressing what he saw as the specific problems of specific students.

    Bud’s mention of butterfly collecting is certainly appropriate. Somewhere N. described butterfly collecting as the second greatest pleasure in life, behind writing fiction. Maybe it’s relevant that Nabokov’s scientific discoveries were entirely based on his work with the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s butterfly collection. Taxonomy led to discovery.


  11. You’ve reminded me that I need to go back and read the Proust chapter, since I’ve now read Proust. I started it beforehand, then realized he was saying too much.

    Meanwhile, when are you going to be reading “The Metamorphosis”? It’s 50 pages long! I’m teasing, of course; by coincidence, I just re-read it and naturally noticed so much more in it.

    Meanwhile, nearly three years ago, I made use of his Austen chapter in my meandering post sort of about Despair, if anyone’s interested:


  12. Richard — Nabokov certainly doesn’t shy away from telling you all the details of everything that happens. I think he’d be excellent to read immediately after finishing the novel itself. And yes, I should definitely read The Metamorphosis!


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