Lectures on Russian Literature -- Summer Book 14

Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov

A few years ago, I read Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, which covers several English and French authors (Dickens, Proust, Austen...) and is a very enjoyable read, though Nabokov is weirdly anti-women authors and really doesn't like Jane Austen at all except for Mansfield Park, which he thinks is wonderful.  I also wanted to read this collection of lectures on Russian literature, but I felt like I ought to know more about Russian literature before I did.  Now that I've read a bit of all the authors he covers (though of course not as much as I would like), I felt like I could tackle this.

We start with Gogol, and I got a lot out of that chapter.  I would like to re-read Dead Souls now, armed with some of the insights I got.  The Turgenev chapter is similar and I want to read more Turgenev.  (Odd fact: Turgenev admired Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, and was bewildered by the general reception of his character.)

Then it's Dostoevsky.  Holy moley, Nabokov hates Dostoevsky.  I mean he really can't stand the guy and insists that Dostoevsky is sentimental, platitudinous, and generally mediocre and preachy.  I will admit that Dostoevsky is pretty sentimental, okay, but wow.  There is a very long section ripping Dostoevsky to shreds.

Tolstoy, though...the wonders of Tolstoy take up a very large chunk of the book.  Mostly it's focused on Anna Karenina, but just about everything gets a nod, and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is also covered in depth.  Nabokov cannot say enough about the genius of Tolstoy.

After that there is a very nice bit on the particular genius of Chekhov (I really must read more Chekhov) and a very short chapter on Gorky.

I took this book on the trip to Portland, and my sister-in-law, who is Russian and a literature major, spotted me with it.  She gleefully asked me if I'd gotten to the part about Dostoevsky and proclaimed her agreement with Nabokov.  She's a Tolstoyan too and I have sometimes commiserated with her on the awfulness of casting Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina.  Someday I'll catch up and be able to discuss Tolstoy properly (don't I wish, ha).


  1. This sounds interesting. I'm going to add it to my TBR, but I'll need to read Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov, first. Somehow, I've avoided them. Jane Austen gets so much hate from heavyweight male authors; it's really a shame. Twain, Dickens, and now Nabokov? I think their delicate masculine egos needed to get out of their own way. I'm not surprised to hear he appreciated/preferred MANSFIELD PARK, though. I too think that's her crowning achievement (though not my personal favorite).

  2. It's so odd; he disparages Austen and then goes on to demonstrate the real genius in MP.

  3. The value of an author, to Nabokov, is exactly proportional to how much the author fits into Nabokovian aesthetics. Dostoevsky is way, way, way off. VN parodies Dostoevsky all the time in his fiction.

    Nabokov barely knew Austen until Edmund Wilson pushed MP on him for the class specifically and he saw that he fit his aesthetics better than he had realized. I wonder if Austen had been able to "sink in" a little more, if VN had read her when he was younger - but he was never good with women authors.


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