Dispatches | August 30, 2011

Yesterday I posted to our tumblr page a film – part one of several parts – of Christopher Plummer playing Vladimir Nabokov lecturing on Kafka.  I remember spotting this film in physical form, at a university audiovisual library far away from here, but I never got my hands on it, and did not have a chance until now to see how wonderfully Christopher Plummer combines impressions of John Cleese and Dr. Strangelove to make this strangely idealized rendition of the lecturing Nabokov.

This is the wrong Nabokov. This is Evgeni Nabokov.

In the film, Plummer’s Nabokov saunters about the hall with great charisma, making a grand entrance and then making his way to the front of the room in as circuitous a fashion as possible.  It’s quirky and fun, but I remember reading somewhere that Nabokov was nothing like this.  I remember learning, to my shallow disappointment and deep satisfaction, that Nabokov found teaching difficult and unappealing; that he merely stood at the lectern reading from his notes, practically disregarding the students.  I can’t find where I read this.  I have a vague memory of either Anne Fadiman or Nicholson Baker mentioning it somewhere, and I think it had something to do with Thomas Pynchon’s having been in one of those classes, but the precise memory of reading it is not speaking to me at the moment.

In the film, Plummer/Nabokov’s students laugh at all his jokes.  They hinge on his every word, even when he’s speaking so quietly that most of them couldn’t possibly hear him.  I take teaching very seriously, and I work very hard at it, but I worry that the only way I’ll ever captivate a lecture hall filled with students like this is if Peter O’Toole takes my place for a day.

Knowledge of Nabokov’s insufficiency as a teacher – even if I can’t confirm it – is of great importance to me, as I am relieved to know that someone like Nabokov – a great writer with a great mind – had trouble with it.  Teaching is hard, and I don’t like to think that there are too many Christopher Plummers out there making it look easy.

Great writers with great minds who teach are rarely renowned for their teaching; Randall Jarrell is one exception I know of, James Baldwin another.  Anne Sexton used to assign her students the task of writing a poem in the voice of Anne Sexton, but I don’t know what that says about her ability to teach.

I am wary of posing the question of whether teaching is an ideal day job for a writer, as I’m confident there is no ideal day job for a writer; writing is nearly always a grueling slog, and if you’re able to feed yourself while doing it and stay out of jail you’ve accomplished something.  But I recently read a letter that suggests that teaching, or something like it, is the perfect thing for a writer to do.  Early in his career, Ted Hughes wrote to Sylvia Plath’s mother about his work teaching children.  He admitted his role was that of a “policeman” primarily.  Still he wrote,

But what an experience!  Life purely as a writer would be suicidally narrow – purely as a musician, or as a painter, perhaps not – but a writer lives on relationships to people, & observation, as no other kind of artist does.  Even so, his life as an observer and as a person involved in relationships will crush him as a writer unless he keeps up a full-time writing life as well – two lifes at once in fact.  Difficult.

It’s a vastly different response to the teaching/writing life that we usually get, which too often consists of complaints that teaching takes too much time, writing too little.

Rarely do we hear someone suggest that teaching – or something like it – is essential to a writer’s existence; that the burden of being a truly good, alert writer entails having two lives – the writing life and at least one other – simultaneously.  Not only does it acknowledge the lifestyle that many writers lead because they have to, as writing doesn’t pay very much; it dignifies that lifestyle by considering it a necessity.  Perhaps what we writers with jobs need is not a nice barn someplace where no one can find us, but a life crowded with obligations to other people, one that compels us to wish for a nice barn someplace where no one can find us.

For a complete transcript of Nabokov’s actual Kafka lecture, look no further than here.