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4.0 out of 5 stars The Telltale Tingle, 7 Dec 2012
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This review is from: Lectures on Literature (Harvest Book) (Paperback)
Vladimir Nabokov delivered his lectures on literature at Wellesley and Cornell between 1941 and 1958. The tone is chatty and eloquent, pedagogical and playful, the persistent punning and alliteration reminiscent of his fictional works. Nevertheless, these posthumously published essays are fragmentary and cobbled together with much editorial meddling, the rhythm and cadence of the prose nothing compared to the polish of the published Nabokov. They are unapologetically frank and doctrinaire, although Nabokov's strictly aesthetic approach, stripped of historical context and ideological influence, makes for some blinkered results.

It is the first lecture, however, 'Good Readers and Good Writers', which is of most interest. In this brief introduction, Nabokov constructs the ideal Nabokovian reader. They must 'fondle details', read with the 'telltale tingle' in the spine, and be in possession of a quartet of essentials, namely a dictionary, good memory, artistic sense, and imagination. The reader must never identify themselves with the hero/heroine, nor should they measure the work against reality. All art is deception, and the novel's world adheres to its own autonomous rules, rules to which the reader must submit.

Nabokov explodes a bomb beneath these tenets and the debris descends upon the various lectures. Although the narratives are linearly tackled, Nabokov is more daring on the aspects of form (structure + style), and his elucidation of Flaubert's poetic precision and the unfolding metaphors of Proust's In Search of Lost Time are gracefully handled. The mammoth essay on Ulysses is an immense achievement, the perfect companion piece to such a complex work, and Nabokov's painstaking recreation of Bloom's Dublin (complete with detailed diagrams) is a testament to the necessity of close reading (he even solves the riddle of The Man in the Brown Macintosh).

The sole grumble is aimed at the publisher. Nabokov liked to quote large chunks of the novel under discussion, but the publisher (or editor) takes no pains to differentiate the quoted text from Nabokov's, thus making it hard to follow who's writing what. It becomes an irritating muddle that could, and should, have been avoided.

As far as literary criticism goes, then, Nabokov's is not overly sophisticated, but he expertly unpicks the tapestries of the novels and exposes their mysterious weaves. Although Nabokov's prodding pedagogy can become tiresome, his enthusiasm disperses such mounting annoyance, as his infectious words goad the reader into confronting the beautiful and blissful art of the novel.
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