Close Reading of Nabokov.

I won’t get around to reading the bulk of Yuri Leving’s Keys to the “Gift” (see this post) for a while yet, but I couldn’t resist gobbling up the introductory material, and I had to pass along this passage from the section “How to Use This Book” (freely available at JSTOR). After explaining that he had initially resisted The Gift before devouring it with increasing pleasure on his honeymoon (on a kibbutz), he writes:

As often happens, I hesitated for a long time to analyze my feelings rationally and examine the source of my delight under any sort of intellectual magnifying glass. Then, in 1996, Professor Roman Timenchik (my beloved teacher at the Hebrew University) offered for the very first time his graduate seminar entitled “The Russian Nabokov.”

That first semester we only read about twenty-five pages of the opening chapter (the entire novel is over three hundred pages). Usually we looked at several sentences per class, but in the case of some particularly complex constructions, we might spend up to two sessions on a single phrase. Practicing the method of close reading (and our readings were very close indeed!) we brainstormed about the text. We began by discussing a simple understanding of the pragmatic message of each sentence, then moved toward dissecting the syntax, before finally attempting to crack the metatextual codes and track down the implicit literary allusions. I audited the same course the following year and our progress turned out to be even more modest: we managed to get through only the first fifteen pages. By the time I left Israel, I had attended Timenchik’s seminar three times (twice from start to finish and then less regularly in the third year due to other commitments), and our intense discussions almost never duplicated the debates of the previous years, proving to be just as interesting, stimulating, and refreshing.

During the seminars, some of us questioned whether Nabokov could have possibly kept consciously in his mind such a multiplicity of allusions and reminiscences, fusing them in packed images that so deftly entrapped his readers and laying semantically explosive mines in the dense field of his prose. Could our overzealous interpretations lead us to unintentionally presumptuous fallacies? One of the puzzled students, unable to restrain himself, once exclaimed: “But even if half of what we discover here is true, then Nabokov’s mind had to be a kind of computer!”

Timenchik instantly retorted: “Then a computer he was.”

Of course, there’s no way of knowing how much Nabokov (or any other author) kept consciously in mind while writing, but I sure wish I’d been able to take that seminar.


  1. Worth noting that the kindle version of this book is currently $0, so it’s a good time to snatch it up.

  2. Not “currently” — the book is open access, so you can get it electronically for free (click the JSTOR link in the post and you’ll see). If you want it in hard copy, as I did, it costs money (but the price is reasonable for today’s market). It’s a good system; lots of books I’m happy to read on my computer, but this one I wanted to be able to flip through and mark up.

  3. kept consciously in mind while writing

    How much did Eliot keep in mind writing The Wasteland? The annotated versions are orders-of-magnitude more text than the poem.

    I’m currently (or rather used to be) listening to Frank Delaney ‘Exploring the world of Ulysses. (There are compendiums on Youtube.) It took at least an hour to get through the first page of the novel, including ‘What is a Martello tower?’. I thought we’d make quicker progress after that sort of scene-setting, but no.

  4. Yeah, modernism is complicated. No royal road…

  5. @AntC: Eliot wrote his own annotations for “The Waste Land,” and I recall them being quite good. So you could use that as an approximate guide to the allusions he consciously had in mind, to be compared with the allusions that other annotators saw.

  6. Actually, Eliot wrote those annotations at the publisher’s request, and they’re not generally considered especially helpful (he hated annotations in general). They are, however, responsible for “the poem’s instalment as the cornerstone of the academic modernist canon,” as David Wheatley put it.

  7. i’m incredibly skeptical that eliot “consciously had in mind” all of the allusions in his annotations. i’m sure some of them were intentional as he was writing, but i think they’re mainly an example of a writer being a very good close reader of his own work (assisted by knowing his own interests and what he’d been reading at the time). but/and i don’t think uncovering “intention” is the point of close reading at all – it’s about finding what’s in the text, not what’s in the author.

    a lot of the theater projects whose texts i’ve worked on are riddled with deliberate references and inside jokes (some of them listed in the programs, some of the time). but i have no doubt at all that a sufficiently diligent group of readers could find a lot more – including some pointing to things that nobody involved had read/heard/seen. and i think they’d be perfectly right.

  8. i don’t think uncovering “intention” is the point of close reading at all – it’s about finding what’s in the text, not what’s in the author.

    I agree.

  9. There was an occasion years ago when John Betjeman was on a BBC show to discuss one of his works — Summoned by Bells, perhaps — and a couple of young and earnest academics were invited along too. They pointed out all kinds of references and allusions and sly political commentary etc, while Betjeman sat innocently alongside. The host of the show then asked Betjeman what he thought about their analysis, and he beamed and said, “Gosh, I do think that’s terribly clever!”

  10. Reading up on Betjeman, I find that his ancestors were Dutch immigrants; during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War they changed their spelling to Betjemann, to appear less Dutch. During WW II, they changed it back, to appear less German.

  11. Keith Ivey says

    Did they really think the “man” ending looked more Dutch than the “tje”?

  12. Maybe they thought the -mann would prove them German?

  13. ßetjeman

  14. John Cowan says

    wi’m incredibly skeptical that eliot “consciously had in mind” all of the allusions in his annotations.

    As an author who puts a lot of allusions and references into his fiction, I agree: I often find allusions I didn’t mean to put there. But that is not quite on point. Asimov attended a lecture on one of his own works, and (according to him) things came out more or less as follows:

    Professor: “Now in this passage Asimov intended blah-blah-blah”

    Asimov: “Excuse me, but as the author I can tell you that I intended no such thing!”

    Professor: “Excuse me, but what makes you think you know anything about it?”

    I am happy to concede that the author is not necessarily a fit judge of the meaning of a text, any more than they are a fit judge of its merit. But to say that the author doesn’t know what they did or didn’t intend seems to me to be a long way over the top.

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