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Posts Tagged ‘professor’

Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of the Self-Interview

July 2, 2011 | by

Today, as you may know, is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov’s death. There won’t be parades, but there will be an abundance of talk, mainly on NPR, about his most famous novel Lolita or his penchant for butterflies. On no other day will the words lepidopterist—one who studies a large order of winged insects, including butterflies and moths—and nymphet—which Nabokov forever altered to mean “a sexually attractive or sexually mature young girl”—be used with such frequency. What probably won’t be discussed is Nabokov’s shrewd and savvy approach to publicity and fame. Perhaps more than any other writer in the twentieth century, he knew how to control his image. As John Updike wrote in Assorted Prose, Nabokov was not only one of the best writers in English, but also “a solid personality” giving a performance “scarcely precedented in American literature.” It would be hyperbolic to place Nabokov in the same category as celebrity doyens like Madonna or Lady Gaga, but he could certainly have taught them a thing or two about fame and the art of the interview.

Fame descended on Nabokov after the 1958 publication of Lolita. He was sixty years old at the time and held a lectureship at Cornell. 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.”

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A Week in Culture: Dan Chiasson, Poet

December 1, 2010 | by

DAY ONE

6:15 A.M. Our children wake us up. Nobody wants anything read to them this morning. They are involved in some kind of acrimonious negotiation involving Lego heads (“That’s my head!” “It’s MY head!” “No, mine!” et cetera) so I go into the next room and start thinking about a class I am guest teaching today at BU. I’ve been reading (and writing) father-son poems, and I think, Why not just tell the students what’s on my mind: Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem for his son, “Three Things There Be.” The poem comes in several variants; I print them out and look at a brief discussion of the variants as well as the provocative “spoiled riddle” poems (poems that act like riddles but give their solutions away) on Slate, by Robert Pinsky.

I go to the Times website, and there is (fortuitously) this article on metaphor and the brain. I skim it for something I can say to the class. Neuroscience is very keen on poets and poetry these days: It turns out that when you call someone a cockroach, you activate the same part of your brain that can recall the picture of an actual cockroach

8:30 A.M. I head into Boston. It’s an hour drive this time of day. I get a four-shot latte at Karma Coffee, Route 20 in Sudbury (do yourself a favor). I am listening a lot to the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo these days, especially “One Hundred Years from Now.” I have a problem that technology has solved. When I like a song, I listen to it over and over for weeks at a time. You used to have to keep rewinding the tape, and the tape would snap or come unraveled. Now, with iPods, it’s no problem.

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Frank Kermode (1919-2010)

September 7, 2010 | by

The writer and critic Frank Kermode, who died last month at the age of 91, was, for the many colleagues and readers who loved and admired him in America and England, sui generis. Over more than sixty years, in more than fifty books and hundreds—no, thousands—of vigorous, elegant review articles, not to mention his classes and lectures, we came to know his never-failing equipoise; his stupendous literary, scholastic and philosophical learning; and a precision and lightness of touch that gave even his most difficult work an aura of grace. What was he up to? He was much more than a professor of literature, as his label described him, however high-minded and admirable that profession may be. For one thing, he disregarded the usual boundaries, teaching and writing about literature from the Renaissance to the present day—dramas, novels, histories, letters, scriptures, poetry. He analyzed the way criticism of various genres evolved, how readers and writers treated novelty or adhered to tradition; he instructed us on the many strategies developed for trying to understand what writers of this poem or that narrative meant to say—wie es eigentlich gemeint, to paraphrase the great Ranke. And he gave us unforced judgments on the greatest literary works ancient and modern, whose breathtaking splendors, which he clearly loved, he taught us to comprehend.

Where did this amazing person come from? Who was he? In a fine memoir composed in his seventies, Not Entitled, Kermode wrote about his childhood in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, where his father was a grocery clerk and his mother a café waitress. It’s all there in his early years, of course, or a lot of it—the mother with no parents, no family, no past, but with a rich sense of language, both Manx and English, along with a practiced, lively social style that was deferential to strangers yet easy with them, to whom Frank owed, as he put it, not only his “early training in politeness and motiveless civility” but also the “association of gaiety with terror, giggling with desolation”; the father, well-liked, very hardworking, strong, hot-tempered yet anxious, whose characteristic “patient good humour” was eventually destroyed by “disappointment, hard labour and diabetes.” And then there was their oblique, many-layered awareness of England as a foreign governing power, and their attachment to the Anglican Church, which conveniently signaled that the Kermodes were not, in the Manx world, either low-born “dissenters” or, worse, Irish Catholic. These were parents who didn’t quite know what to do with their mysteriously gifted though clumsy and short-sighted son, except to complain about him (his father) or push him to try harder (his mother). If nothing else, they taught Frank “what it meant to work, however unseasonably, however against the grain.” Read More »

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