There are a few ways to get a glimpse of Vladimir Nabokov as a teacher, a role he occupied for almost twenty years at Wellesley and Cornell. We can take the “good reader” quiz he gave to his students. We can listen to his interviews on life and literature, though they won’t give us any sense of spontaneity. The Russian-émigré writer insisted on carefully scripted questions and answers “to ensure a dignified beat of the mandarin’s fan.”
We can see also see Nabokov, as played by Christopher Plummer, teach his second favorite novel, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, at a Cornell lecture above. Plummer, who introduces himself in the role, tells us, “this urbane, worldly Russian aristocrat spent a large part of his productive life in Ithaca, New York.” And the characterization, if not a likeness, is a convincing dramatic interpretation of a very urbane, and witty, Professor, not a man who “speak[s] like a child,” as the real Nabokov once wrote of himself in 1973.
What of his students? What can they tell us about Nabokov as a teacher? One of his most famous, Thomas Pynchon, won’t say much. But perhaps his best known pupil, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has paid him tribute many times, telling The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing in 2011, “I attribute my caring about writing” to Nabokov, who “was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order.”
Ginsburg, who studied under Nabokov as an undergraduate in the early fifties, still sings his praises over sixty years later. “He was magnetically engaging,” she told The Culture Trip this week. “He stood alone, not comparable to any other lecturer.” And last month, the Supreme Court Justice wrote a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living.” Second on the list, “teachers who influenced or encouraged me in my growing-up years.” Her first example, Nabokov, who “changed the way I read and the way I write.”
If Nabokov so profoundly influenced Ginsburg’s reading and writing, and made such a dramatic impression on her as a professor, would we find any traces of that influence in her jurisprudence? Perhaps. As Jennifer Wilson notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Nabokov pronounced himself “resolutely ‘anti-segregationist.’” This was among the “few issues he spoke out against strongly and unambiguously—Marxism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism.”
You may or may not see some influence of Nabokov—of his repugnance for legalized discrimination or of his meticulous wording—in Ginsburg’s passionate dissent to the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, for example. There, Ginsburg called voter suppression “the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination” and wrote “given a record replete with examples of denial or abridgement of a paramount federal right, the Court should have left the matter where it belongs: in Congress’ bailiwick.” Within their constraints of legal writing, I’d argue Ginsburg’s best sentences contain the cutting precision and wit of Nabokov’s scathing, deeply considered observations.