On Quizzes, Movies, and Vladimir Nabokov

Edward Jay Epstein, in a piece for The New York Review of Books titled “An A from Nabokov,” recollects the fall of 1954 when he took a course at Cornell with Vladimir Nabokov as the instructor:

He [Nabokov] then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

It’s a great story of how a pop quiz led Epstein to a side job watching movies and conversing with the great author.


One of my all-time favorite books, listed in the Classics page on this site, is Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Redesigning the Cover of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

In 2009, Venus febriculosa, a blog run by John Bertram, held a book cover competition, asking entrants to redesign Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita. Now, Bertram is publishing an entire book of new covers for the novel, each contributed by a prominent designer. Bertram told Imprint that the idea for the contest came after stumbling across Nabokov scholar and translator Dieter E. Zimmer’s gallery of Lolita covers and realizing that they were, well, pretty bad. The contest was marginally successfully, and John Bertram adds:

I sought out well-known designers and artists who I thought would be able to embrace the challenge.

At the same time, I sensed that Nabokov scholars had their own important contributions to make toward such a study and envisioned a multidisciplinary project of images and texts that addressed what such a cover means. I was especially anxious that Lolita herself not get lost in the shuffle, so I sought advice and recommendations from Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, co-founder of the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, and currently director of graduate studies in graphic design at the Yale School of Art. I am delighted that Sian Cook and Teal Triggs, co-founders of the Women’s Design + Research Unit, agreed to be involved as well as Ellen Pifer, whose essays about Lolita are constant reminders that at the heart of the novel is an innocent abused child. At one point I entertained the notion of only having contributions by women, but, as it is, nearly two-thirds of the covers and half of the essays are by women.

A selection of final designs are below:

Lolita cover design by Ben Wiseman

Lolita cover design by Kelly Blair

Lolita cover design by Rachel Berger

But my favorite design is the one below by Peter Mendesulnd. I think it evokes the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon that Nabokov wants the reader to feel as you read the first sentence (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.):

Lolita cover by Peter Mendelsund.

The version of Lolita that I own is this one (Megan Wilson for the Vintage edition), and I think it’s a great cover. But certainly, I’d love to see any of the designs featured above on my bookshelf.


If this topic fascinates you, then check out the following resources:

1) “Recovering Lolita” at Imprint Mag.

2) Jacket Mechanical’s two posts on book cover redesign of Lolita.

3) A Flickr set of more than 160 redesigns of the Lolita cover.

Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of the Self-Interview

Sarah Fay writes a fantastic piece on Vladimir Nabokov and the art of the self-interview in this month’s Paris Review.

She mentions her father, who attended Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell. This is how Nabokov taught:

My father took Nabokov’s American literature course and says he can’t remember anything about it except for the way that Nabokov, wearing a black cape, used to sweep into the lecture hall with Vera, his wife and assistant, in tow. Nabokov would then deliver his lecture from prepared notes to great affect. His dramatic performances in class drew students to him, and, according to Nabokov’s most meticulous biographer Brian Boyd, his European literature course was second in enrollment to Pete Seger’s folk-song course. As a literature teacher, Nabokov emphasized the importance of reading for detail, assigning students fewer books in order to read them slowly. He quizzed students on the pattern of Madame Bovary’s wallpaper and sketched the path that Bloom walks in Ulysses on the blackboard. According to Nabokov, this approach “‘irritated or puzzled such students of literature (and their professors) as were accustomed to ‘serious’ courses replete with ‘trends,’ and ‘schools,’ and ‘myths,’ and ‘symbols,’ and ‘social comment,’ and something unspeakably spooky called ‘climate of thought.’ Actually these ‘serious’ courses were quite easy ones with the students required to know not the books but about the books.”

In case you didn’t know, this is good trivia. Nabokov took the pen name “Sirin” in his life. But why?

To taunt the critic Georgy Adamovich, Nabokov published under the pen name Sirin. In a review of one of “Sirin’s” books, Adamovich, after having dismissed Nabokov as a writer, wrote that “Sirin” promised to be one of the world’s great talents.

And perhaps the most relevant part of the piece: doing the self interview. According to Sarah Fay, Nabokov is the only author in the world to conduct an interview by requiring the interviewer to send questions in advance:

Although Nabokov is one of the many practitioners of the self-interview, a tradition which includes Oscar Wilde, James Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Glenn Gould, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth, he was the only writer who always conducted his own interviews. Nabokov—to my knowledge—never conducted an interview without having received and answered the questions in advance.

Read the full piece in Paris Review, and don’t miss the embedded video.


Related and highly recommended: Nabokov’s Invitation to an Interview. See also my book review of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.

Vladimir Nabokov: Invitation to an Interview

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favorite authors. His command of the English language is rivaled by few other authors.

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita, Pale Fire (recently profiled in my newly-created page of classics), The Luzhin Defense, Invitation to a Beheading (read my review), and portions of his autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. I’ve learned a lot about Nabokov through those books…

But the point of this post is to highlight my incredulity of his personality after reading Nabokov’s interview with Paris Review (#40, Winter-Spring 1967). As I highlight below, Nabokov comes across as pedantic, cynical, snarky, and yes, even arrogant. I knew Nabokov held himself in high regard, but as you’ll see below (and if you read the entire interview), he may be on another level here. The most important bits (in my opinion), I bold.

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

Today, I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading. It’s a fairly short novel, at around 220 pages, and I finished reading it in a span of two days.

This is an interesting work, full of vivid imagery, surreal settings, and twisted, sometimes irrational, dialogue. The plot revolves around a young man named Cincinnatus C., who is condemned to death (by beheading) for committing a crime of “gnostical turpitude.” The crime itself is imaginary, so no definition is provided. The majority of the novel takes place inside a prison cell, where Cincinnatus is visited by jailers, an executioner who pretends to be a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who bring their furniture (not to mention household utensils and “sections of walls”) with them into Cincinnatus’s prison cell. The musings of Cincinnatus are bizarre: in one part of the novel, the protagonist imagines the characters as miniature people.

You’re unsure at first, but you discover maybe a quarter through the novel that Cincinnatus has grand visions (or illusions of grandeur). He has a notebook where he writes down his thoughts and what he encounters in his daily life (“to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena”) within the fortress in which he is confined. At times you think he is absolutely clueless about his situation, as the questions he asks may be mistaken for those coming from a child. Still, he tries to reconcile his (grim) situation…

You don’t really read this novel for its plot, absurd as it may be. You read it to digest the dialogue and Nabokov’s eloquent narration. At the end of the novel, Cincinnatus is taken to be hanged, and the way the ending unfolds is just sublime. I read it over multiple times just to make sure I followed (a foreshadowing three-fourths of the way into the novel: “Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself”).

If you haven’t read any of Nabokov’s work, don’t make this your first. I would recommend reading Nabokov’s Magnum opus, Lolita, first. Then, I highly recommend reading Pale Fire (which I enjoyed much more than Invitation to a Beheading).

Nabokov himself said of this novel: “The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures.” But prior to that sentence, the best line: “It [Invitation to a Beheading] is a violin in a void.” Take it for what it is.

The rest of this review is the presentation of certain quotes I found interesting, and where appropriate, my dissection of these quotes.

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