lepidopterist considers literature
July 5, 2007 2:02 PM   Subscribe

If only my Lit class was that interesting...
posted by ageispolis at 2:10 PM on July 5, 2007

Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote were a constant source of inspiration to me when I was writing my dissertation. My favorite quotation, which I had taped to my monitor, was this:
Don Quixote has been called the greatest novel ever written. This, of course, is nonsense.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:42 PM on July 5, 2007

Enjoyable, but he way overdoes the accent. Nabokov went to Cambridge, for chrissake; he had a noticeable accent, but he didn't sound like Clouseau (and he pronounced the plural endings on words). There's a good description here:
Nabokov’s English pronunciation is difficult to characterize, but one thing it certainly isn’t - it’s no Russian accent. If he ever had a typical Russian accent in English, he’d done as thorough job of getting rid of it as any I’d ever heard - my own clumsy, heavy English sounds can only whistle in wistful admiration of those immaculate consonants and well-articulated vowels scrubbed clean of all traits Slavonic. Why, then, is it still impossible to mistake this spotless sound-stream for the speech of a native speaker of English? Well, the curiously trilled [r] (especially the initial r’s that sound as if he’s grabbing an extra quarter-mouthful of air every time to start up those trills), the European [l], the vowels themselves, sometimes strangely misplaced (”want” is a Teutonic vahnt near the beginning of An Evening of Russian Poetry), and, last but foremost, the articulation itself: the excess of clarity, each syllable dwelled upon and delivered in just-the-right manner, too-right a manner.
posted by languagehat at 3:34 PM on July 5, 2007

Excellent link. Thank you.
posted by WPW at 3:41 PM on July 5, 2007

N. on teaching, from the 1964 Playboy interview -

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 Karenin, 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 w^ith 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 rustle 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.
posted by vronsky at 3:41 PM on July 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

just-the-right manner, too-right a manner

A good description of Humbert Humbert's prose, as well.
posted by otio at 3:48 PM on July 5, 2007

I for one would like to see the "earliest productions of the play" in which Dmitri played the role of his father. Nabokov is a giant. If there's one thing Plummer doesn't capture about his speech, it's that grasping, out of breath quality that Julia Child had when she reached to pluck the perfect phrase. Plummer seems a tad too well composed. But who cares. It's wonderful hearing it anyway. Thanks for the link.
posted by bukharin at 4:11 PM on July 5, 2007

languagehat, this BBC RealPlayer link from the comments thread at 3quarksdaily, posted by the source of their link, one "ghostman," has audio of Nabokov during an interview.
posted by cgc373 at 5:32 PM on July 5, 2007

Great post.
posted by brundlefly at 5:51 PM on July 5, 2007

Not only did he attend Cambridge, he learned French and English as a tot from his nannies. And they were the prefered languages in his aristocratic hosehold.

And you may be able to answer this Lh. Nabokov was adamant that the translated spelling of Anna Karenina was wrong. He argued that it should be Karenin, adding that we "don't want to turn her into a ballerina." Can you explain this to me?

And to those of you put off by the accent, listen again. It hit my ear funny at first too, though I wouldn't go so far as to compare it to Clouseau. Plummer is pretty much the smartest performer out there (didn't Kael call him the greatest living actor). I'm sure he did his homework. This gets better every time I watch it.
posted by vronsky at 6:26 PM on July 5, 2007

languagehat, this BBC RealPlayer link... has audio of Nabokov during an interview.

I've heard him speak English. I think this is greatly exaggerated. Which is not to say that I didn't thoroughly enjoy it.

Nabokov was adamant that the translated spelling of Anna Karenina was wrong. He argued that it should be Karenin, adding that we "don't want to turn her into a ballerina." Can you explain this to me?

Nabokov, like many great writers, was a crank. He thought (or claimed to think) that poetry should be translated absolutely word-for-word literally, no matter how terrible the result sounded; he thought (or claimed to think) that Cyrillic was a bad alphabet for Russian and that it should be written in the Latin one; and he had that cockamamie idea about using the masculine form for the names of women. Whenever anyone brings this up, I say "Fine: if you're willing to talk about Martina Navratil, you can talk about Anna Karenin." Somehow no one wants to say "Martina Navratil," which would be exactly the same cockamamie principle.
posted by languagehat at 6:54 PM on July 5, 2007

The rest of the fantastic Playboy interview. It delights me to no end when Nabokov sings the praises of America.

(hey Steve!)
posted by vronsky at 6:58 PM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mefi makes me so happy when it gets literate.
posted by mediareport at 7:13 PM on July 5, 2007

Nabokov reads from Lolita (mp3)
posted by vronsky at 8:25 PM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nabokov reads from Lolita (mp3)

Oh my god, I've died and gone to heaven. I never imagined that one of my most beloved novels had such a riveting cadence as this. What a stunning performance. These Internets, they ain't all that bad sometime.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:43 PM on July 5, 2007

"When dedicating personal copies of his work to his wife Vèra, Nabokov often sketched different and sometimes imaginary species of butterflies inside the front pages. Here are eight examples of his illustrations."

Nabokov under glass (NYPL)
posted by vronsky at 6:18 PM on July 6, 2007

And a delightful essay on inspiration.
posted by vronsky at 8:06 PM on July 6, 2007

I saw that exhibit in person, vronsky. I was in NYC for a meeting, but arrived the night before for some touristing. I was just wandering around, seeing what I could see, and saw the advertising banners outside the library. I had the exhibit pretty much to myself. It was an amazing bit of serendipity, since I had gotten so much inspiration from his written works.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:48 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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