Nabokov at CornellNabokov as Teacher
By all accounts, Nabokov was an inspiring teacher. Provocative, tough, and highhanded, he sought to inspire his students with a love of literature and a keen appreciation of the art of writing. He wrote his lectures word for word, complete with anecdotes and humorous asides. He acted for his audience, rehearsing, for example, Gogol's death agonies by sinking slowly behind his lectern. He was a demanding examiner, forcing his students to read carefully and often stumping them with questions such as (on Madame Bovary): "Describe Emma's eyes, hands, sunshade, hairdo, dress, shoes." Or (on Anna Karenina), "Describe the wallpaper in Karenin's bedroom."
A yearly highlight was Nabokov's lecture on Poshlost, or philistinism, which drew crowds of spectators. This lecture was designed to warn students against philistine vulgarity, small mindedness, and the enemies of art: banality, conformity, and cliché. In an interview for Playboy in 1964, Nabokov summarized his feelings about teaching at Cornell:
"I loved Cornell. I loved composing and delivering my lectures on Russian writers and European great books. But around sixty, and especially in winter, one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching ..."
Nabokov at work at Cornell on his massive translation of Eugene Onegin, 1957. [view]