The Books of My Numberless Dreams

When literature was born

Posted on: July 30, 2007

Since my Nabokov excerpt proved to be so popular — it’s getting a lot of hits from a mysterious “WordPress Dashboard” — I will give in to laziness and post another now. To clarify something in light of the responses to the previous posts, Nabokov’s assertive tone is just that, and not dictatorial. I did not take it to be otherwise. (Nor did it offend me;these days the conspicuous proliferation of so-called “experts” peddling unsupported hogwash has made me narrow my eyes instinctively regardless of the source.)

Before this bit Nabokov expanded on the qualities of a good reader and the necessity of re-reading (“one cannot read a book: one can only reread it”). His thoughts that include the authorial side of things are more interesting so those are in the excerpt.

One thing of note. He recalled a quiz he gave to students at a “remote provincial college” during a lecture tour. It was a list of ten definitions of a good reader and the instruction was to choose four that, when combined, conveyed what was a good reader.

1. The reader should belong to a book club. [ed. Hahahahahahaha]
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.

3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.

4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.

5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie. [ed. hehehehe]

6. The reader should be a budding author. [ed. Bwahahahahahaha]

7. The reader should have imagination.

8. The reader should have memory.

9. The reader should have a dictionary.

10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

I rolled my eyes at the question because the right answers seemed pathetically obvious. To my shock most of the students chose “emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle”. What the…?


Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big grey wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, the prism, is the art of literature.

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simply deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in a butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, a teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts. Alas, I have known people whose purpose in reading the French and Russian novelists was to learn something about life in gay Paree or in sad Russia. Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really, exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

From “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov


16 Responses to "When literature was born"

He could have mixed up the right and wrong answers a bit more, couldn’t he?

About the wordpress dashboard — I can’t believe how popular the book Eat, Pray, Love is; I get so many hits from people looking for that book. I didn’t know it was quite that popular.

Ha! I’m sure he did when he originally gave the test. In the lecture he admitted that he was going from memory rather than any physical records.

I get more hits from students, I think. Lots of people looking for Milton, Roger Mais and high school lit.

Cool. What’s the book again?

Oh that’s right, I didn’t source it. Lectures on Literature by Nabokov.

Catchy title from Mr. Magic.

Yup, I’m sold. I’ll be looking for this book today at the library.

Oh that was a wonderful excerpt.

Fantastic – I love it when someone can say something like “there are three points of view” and
1. actually mean it
2. when they’re done, sound like they’re absolutely right, there exactly three kinds and no more and
3. do it beautifully.

Perhaps I’m being dense…what are the correct answers to the quiz?

I have an idea, but I suffer from having done a masters in elementary education only two years ago. Unfortunately, I came out stupider than when I went in.

Hehe… some of those answers are pretty hysterical!

I love this – I giggled at the quiz, and was swept away by the thoughts on literature. I’ve just copied it and sent it to my writin group as inspiration.

Heh, love the quiz and your commentary on it. I like his three qualities of a good writer, especially the enchanter part. Some writers have the magic and some don’t and I think that’s the part of writing that can’t be taught.

Judging from the stats and the great responses, I could make a blog a collection fo excerpts from the book and everything would work out fine.

Marydell I mentioned most of the wrong answers already (they’re quoted) so you should be able to get the gist from there. :p

Gah! I’m such a bad reader! 🙂

Very good post Imani!

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