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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nabokov on teaching


Nabokov was professor of literature at Cornell from 1948-1959. The excerpt below is from a 1964 Playboy interview, reproduced at longform.org (a site I highly recommend).
Nabokov: I gave up teaching—that’s about all in the way of change. Mind you, I loved teaching, I loved Cornell, I loved composing and delivering my lectures on Russian writers and European great books. But around 60, and especially in winter, one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching, the getting up at a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle with the snow in the driveway, the march through long corridors to the classroom, the effort of drawing on the blackboard a map of James Joyce’s Dublin or the arrangement of the semi-sleeping car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the early 1870s—without an understanding of which neither Ulysses nor Anna Karenina, respectively, makes sense. For some reason my most vivid memories concern examinations. Big amphitheater in Goldwin Smith. Exam from 8 a.m. to 10:30. About 150 students—unwashed, unshaven young males and reasonably well-groomed young females. A general sense of tedium and disaster. Half-past eight. Little coughs, the clearing of nervous throats, coming in clusters of sound, rustling of pages. Some of the martyrs plunged in meditation, their arms locked behind their heads. I meet a dull gaze directed at me, seeing in me with hope and hate the source of forbidden knowledge. Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask: “Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that…? Or do you want us to answer only the first part of the question?” The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily scribbling on. A rustic arising simultaneously, the majority turning a page in their bluebooks, good teamwork. The shaking of a cramped wrist, the failing ink, the deodorant that breaks down. When I catch eyes directed at me, they are forthwith raised to the ceiling in pious meditation. Windowpanes getting misty. Boys peeling off sweaters. Girls chewing gum in rapid cadence. Ten minutes, five, three, time’s up.
The first paragraph of Lolita, one of my favorites in all of literature:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

11 comments:

SethTS said...

I once heard a story about a Nabokov exam -- apparently he was fond of asking students to recall details like the color/pattern of the wallpaper as described in a specific scene in a novel. Of a piece with the semi-sleeping car diagram he considered essential to understanding Anna Karenina.


Have you read "Pale Fire"? Such an entertaining puzzle-box! The intellectually fully realized sibling of the more intimate and poignant "Pnin".

Diogenes said...

this guy was a pervert. like all teachers. someone remarked to me recently that she believed all male public school teachers were gay, and that it was sad.

DK said...

the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap

Is that really true? When I say it, my tongue goes step up and then step down: lo (on the teeth), lee (on the palate), ta (back to the teeth). Never liked his flowery prose anyway. And of course it is utter BS to claim that Anna Karenina does not make sense without knowing an arrangement of the semi-sleeping car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the early 1870s. What does not make sense for sure is Nabokov's translation of Alicee in Wonderland into Russian. Just completely terrible.

BobSykes said...

Today the book qualifies as child pornography, and the movie is borderline.

Raymond Shaver said...

From the linked interview:

However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy “L” and a long “o.” No, the first syllable should be as in “lollipop,” the “L” liquid and delicate, the “lee” not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress.

DK said...

He should have written in Italian then, if that's what he cares so much about. And settled in Italy instead of getting a cushy position at Cornell. And remain unknown to the rest of the world after publishing his novel. Jeez, what a humbug.

Diogenes said...

"The first paragraph of Lolita, one of my favorites in all of literature:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta:
the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to
tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

it makes me want to throw up. now the ultimate fighting and professoring are making sense.

here's a better one:

"Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still
harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom
was a light."

stevesailer said...

Because Nabokov makes it seem cool to be pedantic, let me point out that somebody's autocorrect spellchecker messed this quote up:

"A rustic arising simultaneously"



should be


"A rustle arising simultaneously"

Albertosaurus said...

When I was just 21 I came to California and taught driving. I had to do something. Driving around San Francisco was not a bad job. But you do find yourself somewhere in the car with a half hour to kill before the next appointment.
My solution - Lolita.
I kept a paperback of Lolita with me in the back seat. I knew I could always pick it up randomly and read a page or a passage that would delight me with its style. Nabokov is the best English language stylist I've ever read.
Many years later I too taught a class with well over a hundred students (not literature, computers) but I was less fatigued than he. No snow.

Diogenes said...

"Nabokov is the best English language stylist I've ever read." right and i've read that pollock conrad described in the same way.


ANY author who writes in a language he didn't learn from birth is going to be BAD as literateurs go. what passes for good writing is not only subjective but the standard in america for good is BAD.


i have an ax to grind. 50 on gmat verbal, 6 th percentile on "analytic writing".


my judgement based on experience: it is IMPOSSIBLE to write well by american standards and say anything interesting. it's like chomsky's "standard of concision" in "manufacturing consent".

Di Nguyen said...

Your comment is ridiculous. 1st, Lolita is not the name of the character- she is Dolores Haze, otherwise known as Lola or Dolly or Lo. Lolita is only the name Humbert Humbert gives her in his fantasies. 2nd, it's the name Humbert Humbert comes up with, and he can pronounce it the way he wants to- the Italian or Spanish way. Why not? 3rd, Humbert Humbert is European, not American.

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