Prospero's Progress

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    Year after year, moreover, he wrote, usually at night, sometimes in the bathroom, where the light would disturb noone. By 1938 he had turned out nine novels, nine plays, and scores of stories and Poems in Russian. But he had made almost no money and, apart from fellow Russians, he was virtually unknown. Nearing 40, he had yet to write anything in English.

    In the two decades between Cambridge and World War II, three pieces of great good fortune befell Nabokov. In 1925 he married Vera Evseena Slolum, the slim and beautiful daughter of a Jewish St. Petersburg industrialist also ruined by the revolution. In 1934 they had a son, Dmitri, an only child now studying opera in Italy. In 1939, having moved from Berlin to Paris to avoid the Nazis, Nabokov quite by chance received and accepted a proposal to lecture on Slavic languages at Stanford.

    Life in California freed Nabokov of the need to write in the bathroom. But he needed all his astonishing powers of concentration and creative effort for the challenge now facing him. "It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe," he wrote of the problem, "and now I was faced by the task of inventing America."

    First at Stanford, then for seven years as a part-time lecturer in the Russian language at Wellesley, with side jobs as a lepidopterist in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (plus a few more tennis lessons), and finally as a professor at Cornell from 1948 to 1958, Nabokov studied America, as a colleague at Cornell puts it, like someone "in Madagascar observing the natives." In 1945 he became an American citizen. They occupied a succession of rented houses -- more or less bivouacked in the quarters of a different absentee professor each year -- partly for lack of cash, partly because Nabokov, having lost everything once, has absolutely no interest in acquiring physical possessions.

    As a teacher, Nabokov was provocative, tough, highhanded. At Wellesley, anxious to get off on a June butterfly hunt, he startled the registrar's office by wanting to turn in his grades before the final exam. He already knew, he said, exactly what each of his students was worth. When be did give an exam, it was demanding. Appalled by the constant cheating, he browbeat students to go to the toilet before the papers were passed out and pressed fresh pencils into the hands of examinees rather than let them go to the sharpener.

    Despite such goings-on, at Cornell Nabokov's course in Modern Fiction (also known as Dirty Lit) became famous. Nabokov detested "old-fashioned human interest criticism." It consists, he once reprovingly wrote old-fashioned, human interest Critic Edmund Wilson, "of removing the characters from an author's imaginary world to the imaginary, but generally far less plausible, world of the critic, who then proceeds to examine these displaced characters as if they were 'real people.'" He refused to deal in such "dreadful things as trends," or offer traditional chatter about themes and schools of literature. Instead, he performed brilliant, instant autopsies on each book, taking it apart and flinging the pieces on the table, then reassembling them so that students for the first time grasped how a book is constructed. Once summing up the Soviet novel of social realism, he acted out the vibrant love story of two jackhammer operators who said I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-L-L-L-L-L-O-O-OV-V-V-E-E-Y-Y-O-O-U-U-U to each other to the gyrations of their drills.

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