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Lectures on Literature

22 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0156027755
ISBN-10: 0156027755
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First read by millions worldwide in The New York Times. Gratitude brings together four essays written over the last two years of Sacks' life. Check out "Gratitude". | See more by Oliver Sacks
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Editorial Reviews


Not really essays, not genial and general E. M. Forster-ish talks either, nor stirring defenses nor rhetorical destructions, these lectures Nabokov prepared and gave at Cornell in the Fifties are just that: he talks and reads, we listen (the same general approach - heirophant picking out the mystery from the dross - that Nabokov used in his own fiction); and literature is taken apart like a boxful of toys: "impersonal imagination and artistic delight," "the supremacy of the detail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole." There are diagrams and drawings, quiddities made visual: a map of Sotherton Court in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park; exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa turned into in "The Metamorphosis" the facade of 7 Eccles St., Bloom's house in Ulysses; what Odette's orchid looked like in Swann's Way. The more specific and crammed the writer, the more specific and crammed Nabokov's lecture: Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce. He finds Bleak House's tricks delicious, the richness and the pity; in Ulysses he swats away the Freudian interpretations ("a thousand and one nights [made] into a convention of Shriners") in favor of the devilish intricacy of Joycean synchronicity: "the hopeless past, the ridiculous and tragic present, and the pathetic future." Where sheer lush orchestration is less the thing, Nabokov falls back on thematic layering and transformation; before Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" he is almost brief, enchantedly synopsizing although with microscopic attention still. In Nabokov a crankiness is always near the surface (here he rants against movies, even music); and he betrays a certain anxiety by detailing so much, as though a great work might try and fool him: there's something at the same time eccentric and regimental to his appreciation. But finally there is a personal, fussy, high rapture to these lessons and illustrations, not quite analytical (Nabokov was too defensive and contentious for analysis - maybe too brilliant, too) - more a delight in literature-as-camouflage. Distinctive and demanding. (Kirkus Reviews ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Russian-born poet, novelist, literary critic, translator, and essayist was awarded the National Medal for Literature for his life's work in 1973. He taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard. He is the author of many works including Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada, and Speak, Memory.

Product Details

  • Series: Harvest Book
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (December 16, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156027755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156027755
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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85 of 104 people found the following review helpful By Zane Parks on February 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
In his opening lecture, Nabokov says, " ... great novels are great fairy tales -- and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales." The tales discussed are Austen's "Mansfield Park," Dickens' "Bleak House," Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Proust's "The Walk by Swann's Place," Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," and Joyce's "Ulysses." In addition, there are lectures "Good Readers and Good Writers," "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," and "L'Envoi" -- the first being his opening and the last being his closing comments on the course. These are lectures not polished by Nabokov for publication. There is a companion volume on Russian literature.
The examination of the works here is purely literary. The works are examined in minute detail. For example, in "The Metamorphosis," Nabokov goes to some length to determine what insect Gregor became. Not a cockroach, as some suggest, but rather a beetle. And he draws pictures. He wants us to understand the layout of the rooms in the Samsa flat. The devil -- that is, the art -- is in the details. Some might object that there is more to some of these works than is discerned by such a point of view. Granted, but nothing precludes looking elsewhere for (say) a more philosophical treatment of "The Metamorphosis," or God forbid, thinking about it on one's own.
In his closing comments, Nabokov says, "In this course I have tried to reveal the mechanism of those wonderful toys -- literary masterpieces. I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By J.E.Robinson on April 4, 2006
Format: Paperback
I would like to thank reviewer Bruce Kendall for pointing out this book to me. This is a great book.

By the way, I have one reservation about this book: it has seven chapters, one on each of seven novels, and do not read a chapter on one of the seven novel until you have read the novel. He gives lots of details and it will ruin your reading experience. Just read one novel at a time and then read Nakobov's lecture notes on that particular novel. The only exception might be "Ulysses" where most readers need help and often use a reading guide. He gives a very detailed analysis of the plot and characters for all seven works, and for one book - "The Metamorphosis" - the comments are almost as long as the 55 page story.

It would be quite an experience if one could sit in on the classes of say Saul Bellow in Chicago in the 1930s and 40s when he taught literature. He recommended Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Joyce, and Dreiser, among others. Anyway, this is the next best thing. It is the course notes with an introduction by John Updike on the course taught by Nabokov at Cornell around 1950 or so.

He was born in Russia but learned English and French at an early age. His father was murdered in Russia, and was carrying a copy of Madame Bovary at the time of his death.

He went to university in England but then lived in Germany for 15 years, and then came to the Boston area where he taught at Wellesley College as just an Assistant Prof. teaching Russian 201, a survey of Russian literature. He worked simultaneously at Harvard for about 10 years, but not in literature. He then got a position as Associate Prof. of Slavic Literature at Cornell.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Steven Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 6, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Some time back, I reviewed "Crime and Punishment" for Amazon. One of the commentators on my review suggested that I take a look at Vladimir Nabokov's critical analysis of Dostoevsky. So, via Amazon, I purchased Vladimir Nabokov's book, "Lectures in Literature." As luck would have it, this was not the volume covering Dostoevsky! However, I did take a look anyhow, my curiosity piqued by the comment on my review. The end result? A greater appreciation for Nabokov--and also a sense that I'm not apt to invest a great deal of time reading other of his literary analysis.

The essays in this book represent lectures that he gave at Wellesley College and Cornell University. The introductory comments note that (Page ix): "The fact cannot and need not be disguised that the texts for these essays represent Vladimir Nabokov's written-out notes for delivery as classroom lectures and that they cannot be recognized as a finished literary work. . . ." John Updike's Introduction also provides some context for this work. He notes that Nabokov's lectures provide (Page xxv): ". . .a dazzling demonstration, for those lucky Cornell students in the remote, clean-cut fifties, of the irresistible artistic sensibility." He also notes, in Nabokov's words, the truth of novels, that (Pages xxv-xxvi): ". . .great novels are great fairy tales--and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales. . . ." Nabokov himself points out that a writer can be considered as (a) a storyteller, (b) a teacher, and (c) an enchanter (Page 5). And, above all, he values style and structure in authors' creations.

Maybe a few examples will illustrate his critical approach. First, Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." Let me confess. . . . I'm not particularly excited about Jane Austen's work.
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