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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Imagine you attend Cornell, you smart devil you. You wander into the Lit class and a hawk-browed very serious tall man with glinting eyes leans out at you over the faded wooden podium. Behind him on the blackboard are a maze of drawings, dates, crisscrossing lines and circles. You look again at your syllabus - Russian Literature in translation. The black bell above the door rings, the tired muted clatter of a halting iron clanger. A rustle of books, restless students, and dead air from the closed winter storm windows rises up for just a second, then, hovering in the room shrinks to silence. The teacher begins,
"Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction. Leaving aside his percursors Pushkin and Lermentov, we might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Checkov; fourth, Turgenev. This is rather like grading student's papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks."
So begin the lectures on Anna Karenina. By the time Nabokov is done you will know more than you thought possible about the novel. You'll be comfortably familiar with the inside of an 1872 Russian railroad passenger car traveling as the night express between Moscow and St. Peterburg. To help you picture it, Nabokov draws a highly detailed sketch, with the position of each occupant, doors, windows, stove; even the direction of travel is rememebered.
Wonderful as all this is, for sheer incandescent brilliance, no essay on any work in Russian Literature by any critic comes close to Nabokov's examination of Gogol's Dead Souls. Unlike Nabokov's own listing of Russian prose masters, he also comes in second as well as first, with the fulsomely captivating essay on Anna Karenina. The others offer a cross between a kaleidoscope's rendering of the fantasy behind the dummy facades with the exactitude born out of years of scientific reading.
Nabokov's particular and unique genius treats us with a plethora of acute and uncanny observations, viewpoints derived from the closest possible scrutiny of the works. No book compares in this field - a marvel!
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2007
Nabokov is a native of world literature. So it is no surprise that as he is taking the reader on a guided tour of his land, his strong literary opinions easily navigate centuries and continents of literary landscape. However, being an emotional as well as scholarly narrator, Nabokov naturally gravitates to his favorite corners of the world. He is a guide giving a tour of his native city and adding more intimate detail and color when talking about the streets where he grew up. Russian literature must occupy a very special place in his heart, since it permeated his Russian childhood, his longing for which he so beautifully described in "Speak, Memory". In "Lectures on Russian Literature", Nabokov is noticeably closer to the Russian writers than he is to the European writers in his previous volume, "Lectures on Literature" (itself very enjoyable). His spectrum of vision is wider, embracing multiple works of a writer and his personal qualities. The resulting picture is richer, the contrasts of the temperaments and styles make the writers stand out: Chekhov's altruism and Turgenev's vanity, Gogol's impressionist colors and Gorky's clichés, Dostoevsky's cold reason overwhelming his art and Tolstoy's "mighty" art "transcending the sermon", the believable and coherent worlds of Chekhov or Tolstoy and Dostoevsky's internally contradicting world or Gorky's "schematic characters and the mechanical structure of the story"...

Here Nabokov continues his thought that a writer is mostly a creative artist, rather than a historian or philosopher. This is how he summarized Gogol's desperate attempts to collect facts for the second part of "Dead Souls": "[Gogol] was in the worst plight that a writer can be in: he had lost the gift of imagining facts and believed that facts may exist by themselves" (Gogol was asking his friends to supply him with descriptions of life around them which he could use in his art). Contrast with it Nabokov's admiration of Chekhov's writing for being so true to life. Chekhov invented his characters, but did it so well that they naturally created a coherent world. Nabokov always put imagination and style at the top of the writer's arsenal, and much above any "reality" (which he always mentioned in quotation marks).

Nabokov clearly prefers characters to reveal themselves rather than be explained by the author: for example, where Chekhov let his characters act (not surprisingly, Chekhov was a great playwright), Turgenev tended to over-explain. In "Fathers and Sons", he uses epilogue to describe what happened next in the story. In the scene where Bazarov's father embraces his wife "harder than ever", Turgenev feels the need to explain that this happened because "she had consoled him in his grief". For the same reason Dostoevsky, whose characters Nabokov sees as "mainly ideas in the likeness of people", was not one of his favorite authors. Primacy of idea over form and style was anathema to Nabokov. Both Turgenev and Dostoevsky were too visible on the page for his taste.

Personal style of a writer enjoys a special consideration throughout these lectures. While Chekhov is presented as a master of light touch, of suggestion, Dostoevsky appears repetitive, dogmatic, hurried and over-working. As an illustration, Nabokov points out that to set up the murder in "Crime and Punishment" the author needed a whole confluence of circumstances: "Raskolnikov's poverty, self-sacrifice of his sister and utter moral debasement of the intended victim".

Nabokov believes that literature should not be gulped, but "taken and broken into bits, pulled apart, squashed", gradually releasing its flavors. One could hear a master chef admiring the virtues of spice freshly crushed in a mortar. His obvious delight in attending to the minute flavors of the novel makes his lectures so enjoyable and unique.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2012
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.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
This work presents no overall theoretical structure in regard to the reading of Russian literature. What makes it so valuable is the brilliant insights into the work of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski,Tolstoy, Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. These are the observations not of a literary critic but of a fellow writer and creator.

A few gems:

" Both Gogol and Ivanov were constantly pestered by impatient people rebuking them for their slowness; both were highstrung,ill- tempered, uneducated, and ridiculously clumsy in all worldly manners."

"One will observe a queer feature of Turgenev's structure. He takes tremendous trouble to introduce his characters properly , endowing them with pedigrees and recognizable traits, but when he has finally assembled them all, lo and behold the tale is finished and the curtain has gone down whilst a ponderous epilogue takes of whatever is supposed to happen to his invented creatures beyond the horizon of the novel."

"Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction. Leaving aside his precursors Pushkin and Lermontov , we light list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy, second, Gogol, third, Chekhov, fourth Turgenev. This is rather like grading students papers and no doubt Dostoevski and Saltykov are waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks."
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2006
Several of the other reviews have this product confused with another book (Lectures on Literature). The contents of this one (Lectures on RUSSIAN Literature) are:

Nikolay Gogol: Dead Souls; "The Overcoat"

Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons

Fyodor Dostoevski: Crime and Punishment; Memoirs from a Mousehole; The Idiot; The Possessed

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenin; The Death of Ivan Ilych

Anton Chekhov: "The Lady with the Little Dog"; "In the Gully"; Notes on The Seagull

Maxim Gorki: "On the Rafts"

Three Essays: Philistines and Philistinism; The Art of Translation; L'Envoi
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2013
Oh, I so love love getting glimpses into the head of my idol, [though doing so would never interest me in the case of any other writer], and this collection of lectures says much more about Nabokov than it does about the Russian literary giants he profiles.

So, Nabokov gives lectures on Russian literature, pretending that he himself was a pure artist, though before he reinvented himself as such in America, his early [Russian ] novels were filled with both politics and ideas-something which he accuses Dostoevsky of pandering to. And though I agree Dostoevsky is better read while young, was in dire need of a more ruthless editor and often wrote very quickly while under great psychological and financial pressure, I cannot agree with the way Nabokov, a man who created Humbert Humbert and Hermann [ yes, I know Despair was a parody of the Big D's oeuvre ] dismisses him out of hand. For despite his shortcomings, his neurotic creations, and his hysterical and cliched fallen women, The Big D's characters , especially his female characters, will always be more interesting than the more elegant Tolstoy's rich twits and boring broodmares.

So on to Tolstoy, and though I have a personal bias against every writer who throws their 'merely sensual' heroine under the proverbial train, regardless of their rationale, I enjoyed this lecture very much--it gave me a new perspective on Tolstoy's style, use of time etc. Btw Nabokov is annoyed with the problematic feminization of the surname Karenin to Karenina, but not by the fact that Dasha is translated as Dolly, Katya as as Kitty and Steva as Steve--are you kidding me?

The Chekhov sections were absolutely gorgeous, insightful and enjoyable and the marvelous analysis of Lady with the Dog and In the Ravine improved my reading. Chekhov is my other favorite writer, and I so enjoyed the ideas of one about the other.

The translation of Gogol's Dead Souls I've tried to read is so bad that I gave up, but I do think Nabokov overrates the Overcoat, which was merely meh, as far as I was concerned. Likewise I think he overrates Turgenev, a writer I've always found rather dull.

Though I've never read Gorky, I fully understand and agree with Nabokov on political propaganda masquerading as art, yet I enjoyed reading Nabokov's insights into this writer's poverty stricken early life and milieu. Nabokov also has some unforgiving thoughts on translators and translations, as well as what constitutes a good reader and separates him/her from a philistine-hilarious in some parts.

If you like or love Nabokov, this collection of lectures is wonderfully funny,insightful, playful, brilliant, opinionated, snobbish and elitist, at least in the literary sense, as he himself was. Recommended.

An afterthought: might Nabokov's vehement preference for Tolstoy over Dostoevsky have been a bit colored by the prejudicial concepts he no doubt encountered in the West? As a Slav , I often think Westerners perceive us [ if they think about us at all] as knuckle dragging peasants, Jew haters, unibrowed homo sovieticus era workers , red army heroes/rapists, hysterical mystics or firebrand revolutionaries and nowadays, corrupt biznis people and scheming mail order brides--and now that I think about it, Nabokov did cover the Russian in a strange land -so touchingly in Pnin and so wittily in Pale Fire.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2012
As literature a good book, however the print is quite small, perhaps a 9pt in Times Roman and the print is not centered on the page. The print begins perhaps 1/2 inch from the top of the page while there is perhaps 2 inches at the bottom of the page. Reading is much easier when the text is centered and just a little larger, 11pt - 12pt would be a big improvement. Not large print - large print books are usually 16pt, just a little larger to make for ease of reading.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2011
Man a class with him must have been wild.

Nabokov carries the student through all of the major writers after Pushkin except Lermontov. (Maybe Pushkin was a different class?)

Whether you agree with his attacks on Turgenev's lack of realism while respecting Gogol's fancifulness, or if you find Dosktoevski more important and more interesting than Nabakov does, you will still enjoy this assemblage of lectures.

His coverage of Anna Karenina might ruin the book for anybody who hasn't read it, but is brilliant.

I would suggest any reader of the Russian classics pick this one up.
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on May 26, 2014
Nabokov's critical thought is here reconstructed from his lecture notes. In this volume and in the companion volume concerning Western literature in general, Nabokov shows you how to follow the arc of a plot and what are the touches of specificity that make a reader enter into the author's created world. He helps you notice style, that is, how words carry the individual mind along its individual way.
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on May 11, 2014
Essential reading for anyone interested in Russian writers. His take on writers, translations and the history of Russian literature is extremely insightful.
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