Course Schedule

A Skeletal Reading Schedule (This skeleton is also on your paper syllabus.)

Any updates to the syllabus will be posted on this blog in color.

Note: This is a schedule subject to change. As the semester progresses, I will post reading questions, and link to various resources on the course blog. Texts listed next to a date will be discussed on that date. Start reading ahead—finish each novel before we start discussing it. (Plan ahead! The novels get longer as the semester progresses.) An asterisk (*) indicates reading is on sakai. Bring all scanned readings to class, please!


Jan 16              Introductions; Administra-trivia; “Good” readers and “good” writers.

Jan 18              Class Discussion: “Good Readers and Good Writers”*; “The Passenger”*;

Handout: “On Close Reading” (Regaignon)*. Read paper syllabus!

[Begin reading The Luzhin Defense; read Nabokov’s biography on zembla website.]


GRGW: We’ve already taken Nabokov’s “good reader” quiz from this essay. What other aspects of this lecture/essay strike you as interesting, surprising, or problematic? What does this lecture tell us about Nabokov as a writer? Does Nabokov posit an ideal reader of his own fiction? Who is (s)he? Mark a specific passage that you would like to discuss. (Extra: do you think Nabokov would have approved of my claim that “reading and writing are continuous rather than distinct activities”? And what about the notion of reading “against the grain” developed in the Regaignon excerpt”)

THE PASSENGER: This story is an early example of fiction about fiction. Nabokov plays here with the nineteenth-century fascination with the train car as a source of narrative. Look up Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” to get a sense of the story Nabokov referenes most directly. Other very famous train scenes: opening and ending of Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Revisit the questions I asked in re GRGW. And be ready to discuss the following actors in this story: “the critic,” “the device,” “the foot.”

Jan 23              Class Discussion: “The Vane Sisters”. First Response Paper Due at NOON!

VS: This is a late work, written in English (unlike “The Passenger”). See Nabokov’s own note: “In this story the narrator is supposed to be unaware that his last paragraph has been used acrostically by two dead girls to assert their mysterious participation in the story. This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction. Whether it has come off is another question.” Do you see the acrostic? (Look for a while; if you don’t see it, go to trusty google…) Do you think the trick “came off”? And now, do you see how the story had bared its own device or method all along? Does knowledge of the acrostic significantly change the meaning or import of the story? Feel free to start discussion of these questions on blog!

Prompt for response paper (choose one):

  1. a) Reconstruct the order in which events “occur” in “The Vane Sisters” and reflect on the effect the narrator’s re-ordering of events has on our reading.
  2. b) Do a close reading of the story’s second paragraph in light of your reading of the whole story. Pick a few details and develop your analysis of them as carefully as you can.

Format of this and subsequent response papers: Write ca. 300 words. Fit them on a single page (the front of a single sheet). Save a clearly labeled .pdf (!) file in Sakai Assignments AND print out a copy and bring to class.

Jan 25              Class Discussion: “A Guide to Berlin” and “A Nursery Tale.”

We will focus primarily on “A Guide to Berlin” and make sure to spend at least 10-15 minutes on “A Nursery Tale” at the end of class.

Discussion prep “A Guide to Berlin”: This is another tricky Nabokov story, akin perhaps to “The Vane Sisters.” Look for a “clue.” Meanwhile, what do you make of this whole story being called a “Guide”? (Recall that the Russian emigration tended to live around the Berlin Zoo.) Is there a “detail” or “triviality” that you think might be meaningful? Think about the relationship of past, present, and future in this story. Can you reconstruct the final image in the pub? A drawing might be good … (The Good Reader Quiz today will be on “Guide to Berlin.”)

Discussion prep “A Nursery Tale.” Consider the title. What do you expect from the genre of a “nursery tale” or a “fairy tale” (in Russian, skazka)? This is one of those stories that changed in its (late, 1975, English translation). The Germans are more despicable, more stereotyped. The girl in question becomes less boyish. Lolita has been written (ahem…). You might want to think about this as a Faustian tale (look up if that doesn’t mean anything to you yet). What does Faust sell his soul for? And, since we’re on the topic of “hermeneutics of perversion,” think about that notions with its various implications.

Class handout: “The Hermeneutics of Perversion”*

[Meanwhile finish The Luzhin Defense]


Jan 30              Class Discussion: The Luzhin Defense
Today we will focus on the “Foreword” and on Chapter 1. There will be a Good Reader Quiz on these two sections only.

Feb 1               The Luzhin Defense

Discussion prep: Today we will think about scenes of reading in the book. Your task: Find a passage about reading or writing anywhere in the book; copy your chosen passage onto the blog; have something to say about it in class. There will be a Good Reader Quiz on reading scenes.

 [Start reading Invitation to a Beheading]

Feb 6               Class Discussion: The Luzhin Defense [Second response paper due]

Paper Prompt: Write about a single case of REPETITION in the novel. (You will by now have noticed that certain motifs and very specific images repeat with increasing intensity toward the end of the book. You might write about a character from the beginning of the book who suddenly reappears later, or about on a wall that show up again. A recurring pattern of color or design. Describe its appearance; try to make sense of it. Of course, give page numbers.)

Discussion Prep: Your paper is the main prep for today, but think also about the architecture of the novel. If you were to sketch out the 14 chapters or draw a picture of them, what would it look like? (I encourage you to make this sketch and bring it to class, but that’s not mandatory.)

Feb 8              Class Discussion:  The Luzhin Defense + “Rowe’s Symbols”* (from Strong Opinions)

Today, I’m going to present to you some scholarly readings of the novel, focusing especially on one that deals with 2-D and 3-D images in The Luzhin Defense. Have you noticed this pattern? Do you feel like trying to trace it in advance of my lecture? Read “Rowe’s Symbols” as an example of how Nabokov would reach into the critical discussion of his own work (in re hermeneutic anxiety and anxiety of perversion!).

[Continue and finish reading Invitation to a Beheading]

! Feb 11          First Version of Essay 1 due in Sakai Assignments.

Feb 13             Class Discussion:  “Cloud, Castle, Lake”

I’ve inserted this late (1937) Russian short story as a little breather and a transition to the apparently more political, more allegorical Invitation to a Beheading. I’d like you to pay attention to the first line; look for the moment when the prose text shifts into verse; think about the clichés of Germanness and Totalitarianism here; notice the repetition of threes. We’ve got another “this world” and “that world” opposition. How would you characterize it? And what else do you notice?

Feb 15             Class Discussion: Invitation to a Beheading

(Note the lilac!) Ok, for this first class let us tackle the global parameters of this book in relation to what we saw in The Luzhin Defense. Again, we have “this world” vs. “that world there.” Unlike in Luzhin’s defense, “this world” is not even vaguely familiar. The laws and rules of its composition (and system of punishment!) are strange indeed. What are the rules that govern this world? What is Cincinnatus’ crime? And what other things should we look for as we keep reading? I encourage you to write an initial blog post to help me structure the following classes.

! Feb 18          By today, you’ll have met with Jack and received suggestions for paper revisions

                        [Start (re-)reading Lolita]

Feb 20             Class: Invitation to a Beheading [Third response paper due]

Pick one of the following themes and write a page about it: Time. Space. Desire. Sleep. Writing. Reading. (Of course, I encourage you to  limit yourselves to how one of these larger themes is expressed in one or two recurring motifs or in a single passage from the text.)

Feb 22             Class: Invitation to a Beheading

Today we will discuss M’sieu Pierre, the spider, and matters of theatricality. PLEASE post some passages on blog in advance, so we have material to work with.

! Feb 25          Revised Version of Essay 1 due in Sakai Assignments.

                        [You should be deep into Lolita by now]


Feb 27             Class Discussion: Invitation to a Beheading

For today, I ask you to read a classic article by Robert Alter (a venerable literary scholar, focusing on English, Greek, and Hebrew literature–he also translated the Pentateuch–the first five books of the Bible). The article is up on Sakai and is called, “Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov and the Art of Politics.” I will post a few reading questions here shortly.

Mar 1              Class Discussion: Lolita: “Foreword” and opening paragraphs of “Part One.”

[You should be close to finishing Lolita by now.]

! Mar 10!!!          First Version of Essay 2 due in Sakai Assignments

[Note change in date; to get comments back before Spring Break, turn in draft by 3/5.]

Mar 6             A Day of Tying Together Loose Ends


The exam will be in-class and will consist of two parts.
1. Passage analysis. (I paste the prompt from the last midterm here.)

Your analysis should include the following elements:

Identify the novel or short story; the character speaking (if relevant); the context in which this passage appears in the text.

Discuss and make sense of some of the rhetorical strategies of the passage: describe and analyze elements such as narrative voice, metaphors, puns, and other literary devices.

Discuss how themes, puzzles, and strategies from this passage relate to other moments in that novel or short story and/or other Nabokov works we’ve read in the class.

2. Vocabulary definitions, questions about plot or specific motifs, key terms.

Any old “Good Reader Quiz” is fair game

Viktor Shklovsky’s definition of fabula and syuzhet (see our discussion of “Vane Sisters”)

Biographical details from the “Zembla” reading.

A few more vocab words: anything from the foreword to The Luzhin Defense; anything from the foreword to Invitation to a Beheading; anything from “The Vane Sisters”;A few random things—but don’t worry, you’ll get a pass on a few of the words/questions/definitions. You won’t have to answer all the questions.

! Mar 10!!!          First Version of Essay 2 due in Sakai Assignments

SPRING BREAK: March 12-16 J [Finish Lolita, Read all or most of  Pnin]

Mar 20            Class Discussion: Lolita [Fourth response paper due]

Prompt: this is not exactly a “paper.” Rather, I would ask you to come up with some sort of document or artifact that captures the arc of Lolita. This could be a short essay. But it could also be an image. Or a map. Or a list of terms. Or something I haven’t imagined yet!  (For example, the “Many Names of Humbert” that I will hand out today [Tuesday,  March 6] in class emerged from this prompt.) For all I care, this could be a work of interpretative dance! Collaboration among 2 or more students is fine, even encouraged. I understand that this work might not fit the .pdf format of “assignments” on Sakai. If it doesn’t fit, just bring your work to class. We’ll talk about it.

Mar 22

CHANGE OF PLAN: In-class writing and peer review. Bring 2 copies of your “Russian novel” paper to class, in its current state. We will exchange work in class; I will provide clear review guidelines in class. Start on Tuesday’s reading assignment.

Only new required reading: “Elements of the Academic Essay” by Gordon Harvey (Sakai).
Optional, but recommended: (I just found this essay last night and haven’t even quite read through it myself, but I think it might be liberating.)

! Mar 25         Revised Version of Essay 2 due in Sakai Assignments

Mar 27       The women inside and outside the text: feminist approaches to Lolita

  • Required: Elizabeth Patnoe, “The Double Dramas in and around Lolita.” I chose this essay not because I think it’s the best essay ever written on Lolita, but because Patnoe, who is both a literary scholar and a meical professional, raises the question (at its time novel, now–I think–quite common) of how Lolita may traumatize the reader. I’d like you to consider this issue and respond to it. Taking PAtnoe as a starting point, I hope also to spend time in class reading three very famous passages, so look at them closely in preparation: Part One, chapter 13 (the davenport scene); Part One, chapter 29 (HH’s apparent rape of Lolita in the Enchanted Hunters, discussed by Patnoe); Part Two (Humbert’s apparent regret at what he has done). 
  • Required: Francesca Capossela, “Scratch it on the Roadside: Dolly’s Story” [Paper written for this class in 2016; Francesca is a senior at Pomona now.]
  • Strongly Recommended: Sarah Herbold, “‘(I have camouflaged everything, my love)”: Lolita and the Woman Reader.” This is, in my opinion, a better work of literary scholarship than Patnoe’s essay, but it’s longer and not as polemical, so I put it second. If you have time and patience to work through it, you should get a good sense of the results careful reading can give you. Herbold does a nice job engaging with earlier criticism of Lolita (and gives useful [!] little summaries of important articles). She overs a fairly nuanced reading of how Lolita “covertly acknowledges its need for and indebtedness to female readers, characters, and writers, whom it portrays as powerful and sophisticated.”

March 29: Visual Culture in Lolita. (Nabokov’s Europe and America)

  • Required: BLOG POST: Identify one piece of VISUAL CULTURE (a painting, a magazine color, a tourist attraction, a particular car, gun, or postcard, furniture or fashion) referenced in Lolita; post the image on the blog; identify the passage your image relates to, write 3 sentences or so of INTERPRETATION! And read what your colleagues write, too!)
  • Recommended Reading: Rachel Bowlby, “Lolita and the Poetry of Advertising”

I’m cancelling the Naiman reading–unless we decide on THursday to keep it. We’ll discuss. I suspect we are not at the moment in a place to fully enjoy it. But I’ll tell you a bit about the article and we can decide together. I’m considering making the Bowlby article (see above) required reading instead.

April 3: The Shakespearean BAWDY. (only words to play with!)

  • Required: Eric Naiman, “A Filthy Look at Shakespeare’s Lolita
  • Required: Worksheet to accompany Naiman.

April 3: We will discuss your “visual culture” blog posts and think about the European/American encounter in Lolita.

April 5: Please (re-)read Bowlby, Capossela, and Harvey’s “Elements.” I’ve assigned to each one of you card with an “element” and have asked you to find an example of this “element” at work in each of the two essays. Meanwhile, we will ALL try to identify the argument. Hopefully, by structuring the session as “writing-intensive” we can still have a good discussion of Lolita!

AND NOW We’re LATE FOR PNIN and he’ll be a little rushed ;(                    

Apr 10             Pnin: Discussion: Patterns, Dates, and Narrative Voice

Apr 12            Pnin [Even Newer Date: Response paper #5 due]

For discussion:  Consider the question of Victor and of ART. If inspired, post some of the art referenced in THIS book on blog. (Recap of Lolita assignment; something different happening here, I think.)

Response paper: Please write up on page of close reading on one of the following two pages. Just print it and bring to class to aid in discussion.

The windshield (p. 97-98) OR

The bowl (p. 153 and/or 172-173)

! Apr   15        TBA Preparatory Writing Assignment Due [Moved to April 17]

Discussion: Tying up Pnin, beginning Pale Fire. (Note my “pale orange” color choice!)


The question arises: how to read this book. That is, in what order? In the Foreword, our dear Kinbote (the author of the notes) tells us the following:

Although these notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table—not like the shaky affair on which my typewriter is precariously enthroned now, with that carrousel inside and outside my head, miles away from New Wye.

So What do you think of Kinbote’s instructions? And WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING?YOU MAY DO AS YOU PLEASED—AND THEN REPORT BACK AS TO HOW IT’S GONE. (See suggestion for Response Paper #6.)

Our first foray into Pale Fire will approach this dilemma from two angles. (1) The poem alone. (2) What I will call “A Wild Goose Chase,” in which you START from the note to line 991, and then follow every single reference after that.

Response paper either today or April 19.
If you choose today’s option, write up something about the PATH you took into Pale Fire and what kinds of reading it opened up or precluded. Perhaps you would like to write up the experience of following the “wild goose chase” I suggest above.

April 17          In Class: Pale Fire and Discussion of Essay Three

Pre-writing Assignment: Make a preliminary decision about which of the three English novels you’d like to write about ; find ONE scholarly article or book chapter in the MLA international bibliography (go to Honnold library website; search under “databases”) that you think might be useful; read it and write up a few notes (see below).

Your write-up should include.  (1) A full citation of your piece (formatted according to a “Works Cited” section in either MLA or Chicago Style). (2) Tell me where/how you initially found the article (Sakai, google, JSTOR, MLA bibliography), etc. Then tell me if and how you were also able to locate it in the MLA bibliography. You may absolutely use documents I post on Sakai, but then I want you to locate them on your own as well. (3) How do you identify the piece as “scholarly”? (We’ll talk about that more in class.) (4) What is the general theme and argument of the scholarly piece? (5) Is there anything particular in the piece that might help you develop YOUR ideas about Nabokov’s novel?

Tip: Don’t forget about the actual physical library. Many scholars write whole books about Nabokov. These may often provide the most cogent, least arcane readings of the work. Brian Boyd’s 2-volume biography, for example, is great for a first intro into each novel.

April 19           Pale Fire

! April  22       First Version of Essay 3 Due Today

Apr 24             Pale Fire

Apr 26             Pale Fire


May 1             All sorts of loose ends. “Good Reader” PRIZES!

                        Graduating Seniors turn in Revision of Essay 3 and Final Reflection.


All other students:

Revised Version of Essay 2 and Final Reflection due Thursday, May 10. No in-class final.