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.”