Nabokov’s “L’Envoi” in Lectures on Literature

*This was originally posted 17 February, 2009.

A few months ago I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, a wonderful selection of adapted classroom notes and lessons from Nabokov’s literature course at Cornell. In this volume is a two-page address (at least it seems to be, rather a kind of commencement to be given after a successful semester perhaps), titled “L’Envoi.” In it, Nabokov details his intentions in teaching a course on literature, and comments on the real (as he sees it) reason to read literature at all.

I have strong feelings (pardon the reference) regarding both the intellectual and emotional nature of literary study, and this small entry really puzzled me. It is not as though I ever expect to agree fully with anyone regarding literary criticism or analysis, but I have always felt such joy reading Nabokov that I suppose I had expected to find my own thoughts on the page; instead, I found his. Nabokov states the following, with which I agree in large part: “I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations, I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art.” He goes on in the final paragraph: “… the thrill of pure science is just as pleasurable as the pleasure of pure art. The main thing is to experience that tingle in any department of thought or emotion.”

I concurred with much of the sentiment that I read; literature should be approached for joy, for edification, and for the tingle of appreciation which it grants the initiate. Nevertheless, I was alarmed at the suggestion that many other motives for reading are without value, blind alleys or useless efforts. I did not then and do not now wish to undervalue the subjective reading experience of anyone, no matter how trite or limited I may consider it to be. Every one of those readings has value, and so I walked home from campus somewhat dejected. Had my favorite author betrayed me?

Of course not; Nabokov’s love of literature is what set the bar for his criticism. Reading must, for him, have had value at all levels. As I walked home, the volume in one hand off-balance with my messenger bag, I was struck with the desire to write through the problem. So, I did. Here is my solution, penned sometime last year, in the fall I believe:

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p. 381 — this is Nabokov at his most intellectual, his most aristocratic; his casual dismissal of the motives for reading to which he does not (ostensibly) ascribe is designed to lure the student in, to draw the bright ones out, to give to them the impression that the first and second and third motives for reading are themselves of little consequence; it should not be forgotten that this is a teaching tool, and a piece of writing, and is written by a master of the pose: this essay then, is a pose, of the most subtle and even autodeceptive sort. Nabokov fools us, and perhaps fools himself.

Reading is an act of engagement, an act of love, for Nabokovas it is for anyone who has felt the feather-thrill of prose or poetry; “identifying with characters,” “learning how to live,” and “indulging in generalizations” are the pointedly inferior modes of enjoyment which Nabokov derides in favor of a more sensual love of literature as artistic endeavor, a kind of man-made beauty that exists solely by the hand of man and therefore should be treasured. Literature, great literature, is about more than cleverness or craftsmanship: it is the genius of human experience, and it is here that Nabokov’s pose revels itself.

Those three motives for reading are an eternal part of the experience, not as entries in a ledger or steps leading to enlightenment, not a telos or a catalogue of failures, but rather as beads on a rosary, circled over and over but forever a part of the lived experience. Nabokov’s own work gives a lie to his casual dismissal; who can read Van and Ada’s fatally flawed young courtship and escape without tasting their passion, their love? And this is certainly part of Nabokov’s design; he does not divorce his characters from that passion, nor does he subordinate them whole-cloth to his whims as author. They draw breath between the leaves, in the turning of the pages and in the silent, magical interplay of marks on paper. Nabokov wants his readers to be led to understand another bead on that rosary, but he does not himself deny its immanence, whether this essay claims it or not.

Aesthetics give the lie to that dismissal, as they do to the criticism of Nabokov as a snob; that line about generalization, nestled comfortably in a jibe against academics, tells the whole story.

Generalizations obscure. Particulars enlighten. And literature, great literature, is ever a joy to read.

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I managed to work through the difficulty to my satisfaction, and indeed I feel as though the experience enriched my reading of the criticism afterward. In discarding a hierarchal order of readings, I was liberated, and I believe I found a place of real agreement with the author.
Nabokov closes his brief “L’Envoi” with a wonderful bit of advice, worth quoting here: “We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.”   We should all aim so high.

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