Monday, May 13, 2013

Essayist of the Day: Nabokov

Courtesy of
Courtesy of
The Wikipedia page on Literary Criticism made me want to delve into Nabokov's criticism. I enjoyed his grumpy curmudgeonliness, his fidelity to close readings of the text, and his rules for being a good reader.

Elizabeth Hardwick gives a good crash course on Nabokov in this New York Times article from 1980.

The first of Nabokov's Cornell lectures ... was given to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. ... In any case, Mansfield Park finds Nabokov laying out the plot with a draftsman's care, patiently showing that one parson must die so that another can, so to speak, wear the dead man's shoes. And Sir Bertram must be sent off to the West Indies so that his household can relax into the "mild orgy" of the theatrical presentation of a sentimental play called "Lovers' Vows."

Mansfield Park was one of my first encounters with the primacy of setting. My Goodreads review, replicated here:

Fanny Price is not scintillating, not a go-getter, not a modern girl: h*ll, she's not even that interesting. But, as the title might suggest, this book isn't really ABOUT Fanny Price: it's about place, about social upheaval, about virtue, reasons to get married, and money. Its width of scope is refreshing: it's more weighty than Emma without the tediousness of a Vanity Fair. This novel really grew on me after chapter 30. Its ending is truly surprising, in a very Sherlock Homlesian or O. Henryesque way. That alone makes it a worthwhile read.

"Good Readers and Good Writers" is a wonderful piece of creative non-fiction. (It's the first search result; you can download the PDF.)

I love his rules for being a good reader.

1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

Guess how many a reader needs?

The last four. I love that he strikes down 2, 5, and 6. Nabokov gives us a lot to chew on with his literary criticism, as he does with his novels. (For the record, I gave Lolita three stars.)


  1. I LOVE all the words I learn from your posts. Perhaps I'm ignorant, but curmudgeon was a new one for me. Curmudgeonliness. I feel that might be helpful in describing someone someday...when it needs to sound as euphemistic as possible. :)

    Love your review of Mansfield Park.

    This is a fantastic post. Such a vague compliment, but I really enjoyed it.

  2. Okay, now I want to read Mansfield Park. I have only read two of Jane Austins books and Mansfield Park is not one of them. And I am glad to see that I qualify as a good reader (especially since he knocked some of them out)! Thanks for the post!