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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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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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on June 30, 2017
Vladimir Nabokov's insights into literature are fascinating.
These lectures are as close to having him as a teacher as one
will ever get in 2017,
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on April 12, 2007
Nabokov writes about literature the way some write about wine: savoring nuances and discussing it with delight. A writer of elegant books and a scientist devoted to meticulous classification of detail, he could match Robert Parker's ability to rate 10,000 wines a year with his capacity of analyzing literary works. His illuminating writing is itself full of light and spark and makes his "Lectures on Literature" an esthetic experience.

In Nabokov's world, art fully defines a literary work. Here writer is an "enchanter" and a story teller, rather than historian, philosopher or instructor in any practical matter. His lectures are devoted to detecting the elements of style and structure in some of the most remarkable novels of European Literature.

One of these elements is symphony. Nabokov once confessed that he never found much pleasure in music. If we imagine for a second that he did, he probably would have preferred symphonies to chamber music and big band to jazz trio. He delighted in complex structures, where multiple parts fit neatly together: symphony of people in Flaubert's agriculture scene in "Madame Bovary", where "all the characters of ... book intermingled in action and in dialogue", symphony of simultaneous events in "Ulysses", symphony of senses in Proust's pairing of the visual and musical effects of moon light in "The Walk by Swann's Place", which he considered more complete and elegant than moon light's description in Gogol's "Dead Souls" where only visual perception is called to work.

Many other elements of personal style are noted: Dickensian imagery and word play, Proust's evolving sentences where A leads to B leads to C, the theme of layers in "Madame Bovary", variation of style in "Ulysses".

Nabokov's method of detecting these elements is to pay special attention to detail. The natural scientist in him believes that any general conclusion would develop naturally after the facts have been collected and taken in. Nabokov expected his students to draw street maps and family trees, visualize hairdos and notice the exact way one catches a coin tossed in the air.

Having answered the how of reading literature, Nabokov considers the why. The answer he offers is to acquire a taste for it. He believes that seeing the novel through its author's eyes, rising to the level of "the joys and difficulties of creation" is one of the most intense pleasures, and shares this pleasure with his students.
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on April 8, 2015
An excellent overview of the major Russian Masters of Literature by... one of the major Russian Literature Master! More then that, Nabokov is one of the few in the history of literature who could master the second language (English) to the level of his original one (Russian).
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on November 14, 2016
A must-read. Of course those who esteem Dostoyevski will be angry with Nobokov's caustic comments, but the Chapter on Tolstoy is breath-taking.
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on November 20, 2017
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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 December 10, 2014
Magnificent book, in pristine condition! Waw!
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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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