March 28, 2013

How to fake your way through a quiz by Prof. Vladimir Nabokov


Vladimir Nabokov

Decades before Edward Jay Epstein started investigating Hollywood account books, he was a student at Cornell, padding threadbare pockets with cash he earned reviewing the latest movies for a Cornell English professor—Vladimir Nabokov. As Epstein recounts in an essay in the latest issue of New York Review of Books, it all started in September 1954, when the sophomore enrolled in Lit 311 …

It was not that I had any interest in European literature, or any literature. I was just shopping for a class that met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings so that I wouldn’t have any Saturday classes, and “literature” also filled one of the requirements for graduation. It was officially called ‘European Literature of the Nineteenth Century,’ but unofficially called ‘Dirty Lit’ by the Cornell Daily Sun, since it dealt with adultery in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

Then came the first pop quiz. Epstein faced a single essay question testing his knowledge of Anna Karenina: “Describe the train station in which Anna first met Vronsky.” He couldn’t recall a thing about the station … because he hadn’t started reading the book yet. However, he says, “I did recall the station shown in the 1948 movie starring Vivien Leigh. Having something of an eidetic memory, I was able to visualize a vulnerable-looking Leigh in her black dress wandering through the station, and, to fill the exam book…”

Turns out the director took liberties, and the movie added details Tolstoy never mentioned. Epstein thought he was doomed, his fudged answer painfully obvious.

What I had not taken into account was Nabokov’s theory that great novelists create pictures in the minds of their readers that go far beyond what they describe in the words in their books. In any case, since I was presumably the only one taking the exam to confirm his theory by describing what was not in the book, and since he apparently had no idea of Duvivier’s film, he not only gave me the numerical equivalent of an A, but offered me a one-day-a-week job as an ‘auxiliary course assistant.’ I was to be paid $10 a week. Oddly enough, it also involved movies. Every Wednesday, the movies changed at the four theaters in downtown Ithaca, called by Nabokov ‘the near near,’ ‘the near far,’ ‘the far near,’ and ‘the far far.’ My task, which used up most of my weekly payment, was to see all four new movies on Wednesday and Thursday, and then brief him on them on Friday morning. He said that since he had time to see only one movie, this briefing would help him decide which one of them, if any, to see. It was a perfect job for me: I got paid for seeing movies.

Not much padding for student pockets, but even so …



Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.