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.