LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE

These 1950s Cornell lectures address a subject on which you would expect Nabokov to be nonpareil. And indeed things start off in brisk, trumpeting fashion, with a 1958 overview entitled "Russian Writers, Censors, and Reading": "If we exclude one medieval masterpiece"—it's very much like Nabokov not to tell us which it is—"the beautifully commodious thing about Russian prose is that it is all contained in the amphora of one round century." Then, hard on that, comes the book's north star, an essay on Gogol: "Fancy is fertile only when it is futile"; the "remarkable creative faculty of Russians . . . of working in a void." Yet as spectacular and epiphanous (and basic to Nabokov's belief in what literature should be) as this essay is, it is nothing new; it is an excerpt from Nabokov's great book on Gogol, which is still in print. The original material here consists, rather, of lesser lectures on other Russian masters. True, as in last year's Lectures on Literature (English and American masterworks), these textual guidings take us chapter-by-chapter through the book in question, with excerpts. But while those excerpts are unusually, unnecessarily copious—far bulkier than usual in critical writing—Nabokov's own interpretations and examinations often seem skimpy or capricious. He's tepid on Turgenev, lightly dismissive: "When Turgenev sits down to discuss a landscape, you notice that he is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the color of his socks." And even more perfunctory are the quick back-of-the-hand smacks he gives to Dostoevsky (whom Nabokov sees as an overwrought playwright at best, no novelist) and the equally despised Gorky. Fuller, yet never quite full, are the discussions of the two Russians, apart from Gogol, whom Nabokov does approve of: Tolstoy and Chekhov. On Anna Karenina, he is as energetically specific as he was on Dickens' Bleak House in Lectures on Literature; he loves Chekhov for the "odd little details which at the same time are perfectly true to life." But, unlike last year's collection, this one never develops a consistent, coherent sense of fictional values: Nabokov begins by crowning Gogol for his supra-realism, for the plasticity and surprise of his prose—and then he completely switches his criteria to praise the humanitarian, minute qualities of Tolstoy and Chekhov . . . while damning their supra-realistic, surprising contemporaries. Furthermore, he never even acknowledges this contradiction; and so one merely finds him in alternating, extreme states here—in a mandarin pet over the writers he so unprofoundly dismisses, milkily docile and restrained about those post-Gogol writers he admires. Why this iffiness from a great critic hardly known for waffling? It could be, perhaps, that Nabokov felt himself in competition with these writers of his mother tongue. And this book may well be more revealing about VN himself than about his literary forebears. In any case, it's a disappointing follow-up to the previous, dazzling Lectures—with only one great essay (available elsewhere) and much of the space taken up by over-extensive excerpts.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1981

ISBN: 0156027763

Page Count: 356

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1981

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NUTCRACKER

This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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