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Lectures on Russian Literature

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  1,339 ratings  ·  77 reviews
The author’s observations on the great nineteenth-century Russian writers-Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Gorky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. “This volume... never once fails to instruct and stimulate. This is a great Russian talking of great Russians” (Anthony Burgess). Edited and with an Introduction by Fredson Bowers; illustrations.
Paperback, 352 pages
Published December 16th 2002 by Mariner Books (first published 1981)
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4.26  · 
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 ·  1,339 ratings  ·  77 reviews

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Jun 04, 2008 rated it liked it
I only read the Dostoevsky part of this so far. I thought it would be funny, which it is. And I thought it would be insightful, which it really isn't. And I didn't think it would make me want to punch Nabokov, but it does.

Here is a typical criticism: "If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist. What landscape there is is a landscape of ideas, a moral landscape.
Feb 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It's high time I read this. Knowing that Nabokov hated Doestoyevsky, I'm starting with Tolstoy, his favorite, to get a sense of VN's strengths as our guide to Russian Literature--rather than beginning with his crankiness, as some readers seem to have done.

So far, the Tolstoy lecture is less analytical/critical in a technical sense than it is an introduction to him, or rather, the way one certain cultured Russian with a bone to pick would read him--which is a totally interesting to me and I think
Nov 21, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a compilation of Vladimir Nabokov's lectures given when he was a professor at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940s and 1950s. I would highly recommend it if you have read any of the authors he covers (Chekhov, Dostoevski, Gogol, Gorki, Tolstoy, and Turgenev). The treatment of Anna Karenina is especially thorough and delightful.

These are not lectures in the academic sense that you will be exposed to critical trends and philosophical arguments raised by the texts in question. They are extrem
Aug 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE. (1981). Vladimir Nabokov. ****.
These lectures were given by Nabokov at several of the universities he taught at over the years. He also conducted a course on literature in general which was not restricted to Russian works. In this book, six different Russian authors were discussed. I only read two of the lectures, since I was only interested in his comments on Gogol and Turgenev. There were also lectures included on Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorki. As addi
Jan 02, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: ru, non-fiction, kindle
Disappointedly superficial and biased in many places. Sentences like "forget about ideas" or "literature is all about style" are scattered all over the place without any convincing argumentation -- the reason is, of course, that it is style but never ideas that you find in Nabokov's own work. The chapters on Dostoyevsky are embarrassing and unbelievably biased. Fantastic and "crazy" characters are charming in Gogol's stories but become annoying and stupid in Dostoyevsky's. Why? Because! Tolstoy ...more
James Klagge
A very personal and opinionated survey of Russian literature. But, of course, it is Nabokov's opinions, so worth reading. He loves Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov; hates Dostoevsky (nothing on Pushkin). Nabokov has a purely literary/artistic view of literature--which makes Gogol an ideal example for him. He thinks that Dostoevsky's characters are all mentally ill. He has no understanding or appreciation of what Dostoevsky might be doing with his writing in ways that are theological or psychological o ...more
Jun 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Of course he's opinionated, not to say dismissive. That can be entertaining, especially if you're not a big fan of Dostoevsky either. But he's also genuinely interested in describing why and showing how Tolstoy and Gogol and Chekhov are great. I don't need him to convince me about Tolstoy, but now I'm headed back to give Turgenev and Chekhov another try.

If his strong opinions are too much for you sometimes, just think how his head would have exploded if he'd known that these unedited lectures w
Oct 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
If I remember well, I immensely enjoyed this book. I prefer reading over reading about reading, that is I prefer literature to literary criticism. That being said, I really enjoyed reading Nabokov's opinions. Not that I agree with him in everything, but I think he is on to something most of the time.
Evan Chow
Apr 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Literary criticism is itself a work of art, and here Nabokov achieves both beautifully.
Marina Trajković
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Go home, Nabokov, you're drunk.
Oct 09, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, lit
Not as good as the other volume, but still worth reading. The other Lectures of Literature book is a survey of seven novels that N admires. This one is more of an overall survey of 19th century/early 20th century Russian lit and as such, it covers (what N considers to be) both the good and the bad, and the in-between. Generally the novels he dislikes get a more cursory examination. And since the sections weren't always as thorough, I was left wanting a bit more. For example, in The Death of Ivan ...more
What a delight, to read one of my favorite authors holding court over the rest of my favorite authors (notably, Tolstoy and Chekhov). These lectures -- sometimes delivered to Nabokov's university students, sometimes a collection of his thoughts, remarks, and quibbles -- are a pleasure to read. They are, however, more enjoyable if you have recently read or are currently reading the texts discussed. Nabokov has a habit of wandering off into lengthy discussions of particular passages, which is not ...more
Tania Lukinyuk
I was interested in a non-fiction book about Russian literature and its interpretations. Nabokov seemed to be a good choice, being both a brilliant writer and also thinker. He provides exciting insights into Russian literature luminaries - Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and others.

What I found difficult is that it is too much Nabokov as a writer in his lectures, with his very passionate and absolutely biased point of view, his proprietary writing style, using which he seems to overshadow and undermin
Aug 17, 2012 rated it liked it
This is exactly the treat you think it is going to be, but it exhibits all of the faults of having a celebrity professor teach you a subject. What Nabokov offers is, of course, his informed opinion as a scholar, artist and not least as a Russian among Russians, but it is still the opinion of an confirmed aesthete and elitist. How else can he blithely disregard the contextual, the messy social and historical and, yes, political conditions behind Russian literature, merely to pronounce in favor of ...more
Mar 12, 2017 rated it did not like it
An excellent example of a great writer and a horrible critic.
Daniel Warren
Aug 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
As lectures these writings on Russian authors are somewhat disorganized and incomplete (as they were never really adapted for book publication). They would make an excellent starting point for a personal more comprehensive study of the Russian authors, especially Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy and Checkov.

However, even outside the classroom they can still be read for their insights and comments on literature, writers, writing and all things Russian. If there is one lesson in this book it is that Nab
Definitely thought-provoking material, even though I seriously disagree with him on what Art is and what makes good writing, the last of which modern style also disagrees with him on. He seems to like nature descriptions and characters fiddling with their clothes, while I want those things only if they contribute to the mood and plot. I'd probably have interesting discussions with him as long as he cared to entertain the possibility that he's not the final authority; unfortunately, the coursewor ...more
Aug 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Nabokov's unique genius treats us to a plethora of acute and canny observations derived from the closest possible scrutiny of the works addressed. Nothing compares in the field of literary criticism - a marvel!

A few gems:

" Both Gogol and Ivanov were constantly pestered by impatient people rebuking them for their slowness; both were highstrung,ill-tempered, uneducated, and ridiculously clumsy in all worldly manners."

"One will observe a queer feature of Turgenev's structure. He takes tremendous t
Oct 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
November 2011: I won't rate it, as I've only read the parts about books I've read. But Nabokov is delightfully, puckishly Nabokovian. I am eternally grateful to him for speaking some truth about Dostoevsky, who is for me easily the most mysterious entry on the long list of GAGA (Generally Accepted Great Authors). The collection tilts rather strong towards "Anna Karenin," as Nabokov insists on calling it -- he feels that to call the novel "Anna Karenina is nonsense, for reasons that are nonsense. ...more
Jan 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Not quite surprised about how much Nabokov admired Chekhov's and Tolstoy's work and not to be outdone, his vitriol was definitely onslaught with Dostoeyvsky's writings which I found as a pet peeve but maybe because I am just a bit biased. Nabokov just simply dismisses Fyodor, and ignores the need to analyze his work, which is made clear when he talks about Brothers Karamazov as a whodunit, and does not examine the most noteworthy chapter in Brothers K., The Grand Inquisitor, which is a glaring o ...more
Dec 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
A total blowhard, but like some other blowhards, he has some insight. His criticisms of Dostoevsky are on-point- he definitely is a "slap-dash comedian" in some respects (at least in Brothers K.)- criticisms that have been lost in the tempests of idolatry and misunderstanding that came in the century after Dostoevsky's. Nabokov's perspective on Great Russian Literature as a great Russian writer is extremely valuable, while at the same time, his overbearing nature makes it impossible to believe e ...more
Feisty Harriet
Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I was so excited to follow up some serious reading of Russian literature with this collection of his lectures and writings about various authors and books. About a full third of this book is an analysis of Nabokov's favorite novel, Anna Karenina, and delightfully sarcastic comments in the margins about mistranslations. There is also a significant chunk about Tolstoy, his character, and writing process which was really fascinating. Nabokov hates Dostoyev ...more
Aug 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I have bought this as a guide for when I want to read more Russian literature and so far, I have only read some of the bits on novels I have already read (Crime and Punishment, Karamazov Brothers, Fathers and Sons and Anna Karenina).
This book is exactly what I expected: witty, insightful and pretty arrogant.
The most subjective guide I will ever own and read, but, because it's Nabokov, that isn't even a bad thing. I wish I would have had lectures like this back in uni.

Couldn't have asked for more
Feb 24, 2016 rated it liked it
I could not finish this book, not because it is bad, but because its purpose does not serve me at the moment. You need to read this book if you would like to have a good (if biased) understanding of the titans of the Russian literature as it is largely a survey for students. But this book does not provide much biographical or sociocultural information about works discussed and focuses on Nabokov's understanding of writers' crafts and particular tools they use. As such one would be better off rea ...more
Jul 07, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Considering this is a compilation of classroom lectures, this book is a masterpiece. Nabokov was just the best phrase-maker ever, and his literary judgment is cold and perfect. I think he's too hard on Dostoesvky while giving Tolstoy more leeway on his own preachiness, but some of the best fun here is when Nabokov really takes something apart, so the Dostoevsky chapter is fascinating for arguments about what makes literature and literary merit.
Feb 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lit Geeks
If you ever wanted to know what a scholar who can write with depth and immediacy about masterpieces has to say, this is the one. Sip or gulp, this book can be read in minute segments or holus bolus and much can be gained. Worth it.
Oct 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recentlyread
Not as polished as the Lectures on Literature, but still excellent - 100 pages from an aborted critical edition of Anna Karenin are invaluable, comments on Chekhov and Gogol too - and poignant in places, as when he recounts meeting Tolstoy or laments the Soviet-era state of Russian Lit.
Ilya Rusin
May 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Vladimir Nabokov' glittering lectures about platitude and vulgarians, pure novelists in Russian XIX century literature and semi-crazed mavericks. It is a must-read book for every intelligent person interested in the Russian thought of XIX and beginning of XX century.
Aug 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
His chapter on Dostoevsky is a great example of literary criticism. He gives interesting and convincing reasons why Dos is a sloppy writer and why Dos's philosophy/religion has facist tones to it. I came out loving Dos as much as I began, but understanding him a little more.
May 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is tough - as I have not read this from cover to cover. This is my go-to book for information on Russian lit. True, he's a bit of a snob - but his lectures are amazing. Going to his family home in St. Petersburg was one of the many highlights of my trip to Russia.
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Russian: Владимир Владимирович Набоков .

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-American novelist. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made significant contributions to lepidoptery, and had a big interest in chess problems.

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequen
“Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain — the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed — then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.” 75 likes
“Just as the universal family of gifted writers transcends national barriers, so is the gifted reader a universal figure, not subject to spatial or temporal laws. It is he—the good, the excellent reader—who has saved the artists again and again from being destroyed by emperors, dictators, priests, puritans, philistines, political moralists, policemen, postmasters, and prigs. Let me define this admirable reader. He does not belong to any specific nation or class. No director of conscience and no book club can manage his soul. His approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself with this or that character and “skip descriptions.” The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book. The admirable reader does not seek information about Russia in a Russian novel, for he knows that the Russia of Tolstoy or Chekhov is not the average Russia of history but a specific world imagined and created by individual genius. The admirable reader is not concerned with general ideas; he is interested in the particular vision. He likes the novel not because it helps him to get along with the group (to use a diabolical progressive-school cliche); he likes the novel because he imbibes and understands every detail of the text, enjoys what the author meant to be injoyed, beams inwardly and all over, is thrilled by the magic imageries of the master-forger, the fancy-forger, the conjuror, the artist. Indeed of all the characters that a great artist creates, his readers are the best. (“Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers”)” 46 likes
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