This is a very good book that offers insights into great Russian authors, their works, and techniques. Chekhov the master of the detail that illuminates the whole character or scene. Tolstoy with his great cinematic eye, for the gestures, and movements of his characters, and whom Nabokov credits for being the first author to use the stream of consciousness technique, although at a very rudimentary level. Gogol who wistfully humanized his descriptions.
But despite it's insightfulness , one of the annoying things about Nabokov's book on Russian Literature is his idea that the language of a literature seperates it from "a universal art to a national one," i.e, to fully appreciate literature one must understand its language, which may in fact be true, as Nabokov shows us how various translaters of Russian literature, omit, distort, make banal, and prim the works they are translating. Also Nabokov's requirements of a good translator seem impossible: the translator in Nabokov's opinion must be on the level of the writer whom he is transating. But to create a book on Russian Literature and analyze it only to put up the disclaimer that you cannot truly appreciate or care about Russian literature because you cannot understand Russian seems a poor way to introduce or share insights to Russian Literature.
My other pet peeve about this book is his analysis of Dostoevsky. In Nabokov's opinion, Dostoevsky wrote crime novels, about crazy people, and crime novels in Nabokov's opinion cannot aspire to art, and crazy people have no humanity and therefore their actions cannot be taken seriously. I will limit my argument to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and say, yes he was pathological and grandiose, but he was a human, who was remorseful, and realized his motive for killing the pawnbroker was entirely delusional. Nabokov fails to understand this book because he fails to realize the motive for Raskolnikov's murder because he simply dismisses it, as "inhuman, and stupid," and fails to connect all the dots of the motive, which I can explain as Raskolnikov's need to be daring and willful, because those who take up power, and those who are benefactors of humankind, must be daring, in order to defy authority, and the revered but conventional and outmoded way of doing things, and are willful because they defy and destroy authority and the old, and set a new way. Galileo and Darwin are a few examples of benefactors of humankind who defied the church, and set new standards for science. But what makes Raskolnikov human is that yes he proves he can be daring and frighteningly willlful, but he lacks the third and most key element to justify his crime, genius, which he becomes clearly and powerfully aware of, as he realizes his actions and their consequences. In my mind Nabokov simply dismisses Dostoevsky, and doesn't feel the need to analyze his work, which is made clear when he talks about Brothers Karamzaov as a whodunit, and does not examine the most noteworthy chapter in Brothers K., The Grand Inquisitor, which is a glaring omission one would not expect from a scholar or even a student.
Don't get me wrong I learned alot from this book, and the best thing that can be said for it is that it makes you want to revisit all the classics that it analyzes. But to simply dismiss Dostoevsky, and his admirerers is something I didn't expect.