My Favorite Russian on the Russians

Giuseppe Pino, via Wikimedia Commons.

Giuseppe Pino, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the early part of my long train ride home yesterday (blessed with the sight of a fellow passenger boarding with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one of my favorites, in her hand), I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. Of course I loved it; that guy could have written instruction manuals on packing cardboard boxes, or analyzed the design of dreary spreadsheets, and it all would have come out seeming like a deliciously nostalgic journey through a softly lit autumn evening. And so it should come as no surprise that I devoured the book less to pick up and/or push against particular lines of thought or interpretation, and more to enjoy the fact, as the author himself put it when discussing Anna Karenin, “that literature is not a pattern of ideas but a pattern of images. Ideas do not matter much in comparison to a book’s imagery and magic.” (1)

But lest you think that such an assertion made for a dreamy romp through the work of his countrymen’s writing, this collection features plenty of dismissive or irritated or simply disapproving criticism of mostly 19th-century authors from the man who was incredibly happy with one student’s response to his question of why s/he (?) was taking the course: “Because I like stories.” (2) I would hate to have been at the receiving end of Nabokov’s censure, probably because I would have known that you couldn’t have argued with such a huge store of both taste and talent. And while I tend to be wary of literary criticism, reading it from someone who obviously, just like his student, loves stories, is more like sharing a mutual excitement with another person than being dictated to about what’s good, what’s bad, and which rules are being conjured up as supposedly universal criteria in order to determine the quality of what’s under discussion. While I’m not at all sure how he would have felt about some of my own favorites– David Foster Wallace, pre-socialism Julio Cortázar, Mark Z. Danielewski only in his House of Leaves phase– I would love to see what Nabokov would have had to say about them, given his ability to keep complicated plots and their times and places and characters not only straight, but magnificently clear on their own terms.

And so, not able (or willing, actually) to offer any real engagement with the authors or works that Nabokov discusses, I’ll offer you instead a selection of some of my favorite observations, or just phrases, found in the book.

  • On Gogol’s writing after Dead Souls: “… he was in the worst plight that a writer can be in: he had lost the gift of imagining facts and believed that facts may exist by themselves.” (3)
  • On Dostoevsky: “We must distinguish between ‘sentimental’ and ‘sensitive.’ A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time… Stalin loved babies.” (4)
  • On why the scene of Sonia and Raskolnikov reading the New Testament together in Crime and Punishment is ridiculously drippy: “The Christian God… has pardoned the harlot nineteen centuries ago… The inhuman and idiotic crime of Raskolnikov cannot be even remotely compared to the plight of a girl who impairs human dignity by selling her body. The murderer and the harlot reading the eternal book– what nonsense.” (5)

Unfortunately, I can’t quote the entirety of “Philistines and Philistinism,” so I’ll just say that I cheered most of the way through Nabokov’s definition and description of these types and their attitudes and tastes– and so will end this little (non-)review by urging you to go out and read those few, highly enjoyable pages.


(1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 166.
(2) ibid., xii.
(3) ibid., 42.
(4) ibid., 103.
(5) ibid., 110.




  1. Kinga

    love is – coming after a 14 hour day and saying oemgee! the Russian Lit post is here! woo-hoo! yeah Nabokov. ps: Stalin quote. thanks for posting!! made my late evening. i can now drift off into sweet oblivion. : )


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