Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 01, 2005 7:46 am 
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Sitting at the feet of Vladimir Nabokov

This TV movie starring Christopher Plummer is an unusually accurate evocation of the great writer Vladimir Nabokov giving one of his lectures on European literature at Cornell University in the Fifties. It just so happens that these lectures -- which are available now in two volumes, one of European and one of Russian literature, meticulously edited by the Shakespearean textual scholar Fredson Bowers -- were written down, not improvised. Nabokov delivered them, the same ones, year after year during his decade or so at Cornell, after which the publication and universal fame of Lolita made him -- lucky for Nabokov and for us -- successful enough to stop teaching and go and live and write undisturbed for the rest of his life in the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland.

Nabokov's lectures, of which this is hardly the most interesting example, aren't great criticism; but they are of considerable interest for what they reveal about a writer's ways of looking at fiction and Nabokov's notions of what makes great literature. He often approaches the subject from a somewhat mechanistic angle. When he discusses Proust's Swann's Way he meticulously describes the trajectories of the two paths, Swann's way and the Guermantes' way. And when he lectures on Kafka's "Metamorphosis" there is much detail about the structure of the room, the sizes of the objects and the bug, and what type of beetle Gregor Samsa has been turned into. This was the kind of point that keenly interested Nabokov both because as a writer he is thinking of how the tale is constructed, and because he knew a lot about entomology.

Nabokov was a serious and passionate lepidopterist and actually discovered some hitherto unknown butterflies; hence his "invention" of the term "nymphet" for the pubescent sex kitten represented by Lolita is really the adoption of a lepidopterist's term, and the motel-hopping trips across America of Humbert Humbert and Lolita were based on Nabokov's own frequent "lepping" (butterfly hunting) expeditions with his wife Véra. His knowledge of botany was detailed and precise and he could be sharply critical of writers who wrote about nature without being well informed about flowers and trees and insects. But though he had a brilliant mind and was an extraordinary linguist who went from already being a wonderful writer in Russian to becoming an even more wonderful one in English -- and who was fluent in French -- still, he had some serious gaps in his own sympathies and interests. He detested certain quite famous writers and had no use whatever for music, so he has nothing to say about it and rarely mentions it in his own writing: all the possibilities of musical structure in fiction are lost on him. He expressed his detestation of Freud at every opportunity, and though it might be helpful to discuss Freudian symbols in relation to Kafka, Nabokov would never do so. As an expatriate he was painfully aware of modern history, but he usually had little to say about philosophy or politics. His lecture on Kafka may be more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it includes.

Plummer doesn't look exactly like Nabokov in the face but he's a good physical stand-in for the writer and does a good job of imitating the formal Russian manner and the accent, and his clothes are right too -- as are the clothes and haircuts and overall looks of the Cornell students, not to mention the old fashioned banked-seating university lecture hall. Every physical detail is carefully seen to. And since as we've mentioned Nabokov's lectures were written down, the one Plummer delivers is word-by-word the one the writer gave.

No doubt about the fact that for most people the content of this short film on the face of it is pretty dry stuff. It's not only a lecture, which to begin with is undramatic; it's a lecture of limited content, being largely just a retelling of the Kafka story. This is no entertaining and informative improvisation like Joseph Campbell's rambles about mythology. And even as a literary discussion it doesn't impart profound insights or make wide-ranging connections. It's just a time capsule. It's important chiefly if you're interested in Nabokov.

But since he's one of the unquestionably great writers of the twentieth century there are presumably plenty of people, myself included, who still find this movie worth a watch. So extraordinary was Nabokov, so great was his genius, that being able to imagine -- as this film enables us to do -- what it was like to sit in a hall and hear the man lecture on Kafka is, for fans like myself, inexpressibly thrilling.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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