The grandmother of one of my students sent him her memories of studying with Nabokov. She has graciously permitted me to post it (anonymously, "out of shyness"). Note particularly the last paragraph.
To My Grandson:
I am so pleased to hear you are reading Nabokov. I took a class with him in 1950, in the Spring of my sophomore year at Cornell. It was not a course on his own work or other Russian literature. It was titled: The Thematic Lines in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
He was of some renown then, but was not yet the towering figure he would become. He had written only two novels in English to date, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight which we knew quite well, and a dystopian novel called Bend Sinister which none of us had read at the time. I should expect that Ms. Meyer has had the privilege of reading some of his earlier works in the original Russian. I have since gone back and enjoyed many of them in English and French, but I doubt they read perfectly as intended.
As a professor, he was quite aloof. I can see him now in my mind’s eye seeming rather eccentric, always moving about the room, pacing relentlessly. He was rarely at ease. Not a patient man, he took joy in improving the understanding his students possessed about literature, but was not always kind in his approach.
His wife, Vera, sat in the front row for every class. It was rather unusual, but her presence seemed to calm him. At the precise moment a smile from Professor Nabokov could have warmed up the room, it was often his wife who would adjust her shoulders a half turn and offer a warm beam to the room as if to say her husband was doing his best.
In class, Nabokov would rarely speak of his career. Once, however, in disciplining a student who had been unable to produce the required piece for the day and cited poor working conditions in his flat as an excuse, Nabakov explained to the young man that he wrote Sebastian Knight in the bathroom of his Paris apartment, using a bidet as a makeshift desk, so surely writing can take place under most any condition.
I can say there was one student of whom Nabokov was rather fond. It was my friend Ruth, whom I had gone to grade school with and was taking this class as a Freshman at Cornell. Ruth was amongst the brightest in the class, but beyond her intelligence, she seemed to understand how displaced he felt, so far from home, she being the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants herself. I remember being somewhat jealous of the attention my friend received, but genius has a way of finding genius, and this was no exception. Four years later, my friend Ruth Bader got married and became Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thirty-nine years after that, she was nominated to the United States Supreme Court.
Anyhow, I do hope you enjoy Pale Fire!
All my love,
Your Adoring Grandmother
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