“From my point of view,” writes Vladimir Nabokov in Lectures on Literature, “any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual.” He also says it in the video above, a lecture on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis originally aired by WQED in Pittsburgh. (Find Kafka’s classic work in our collection of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.) But he doesn’t say it himself; he says it through Christopher Plummer, who portrays Nabokov teaching in a 1989 re-creation of late-1940s Cornell University. Literarily inclined students of the era (including United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) must have experienced a similar introduction to Kafka in Nabokov’s classes, perhaps down to his sketch of poor Gregor Samsa’s beetle form. But this production adds the theatrical touch, surely not a feature of Cornell’s lecture halls in those days, of spotlighting Plummer-as-Nabokov and darkening everything else whenever he reads from the story.
Plummer himself says a few words about Nabokov at the beginning of the video, and he assumes the Russian novelist’s persona at about 1:38. Does Plummer nail Nabokov’s distinctively multinational accent? Does Nabokov’s observation that Gregor Samsa never uses his wings mean anything of importance?
Will we ever enter another era when public television resurrects cultural luminaries to give lectures by way of our time’s most respected thespians? This half-hour program gives us many such questions to ponder, and even if we can’t answer them, those of us who failed to draw inspiration from the Robin Williams of Dead Poets Society will surely find, in Plummer’s majestic eccentricity, a briefer but more memorable teacherly performance.
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