Mark Danner

On the Two Ways of Late Century Fiction: Nabokov and Naipaul

On the Two Ways of Late Century Fiction 

Nabokov and Naipaul

English 165/ Tu Thurs 3:30 / Cory 241

Robert Hass & Mark Danner

In the labyrinth of late twentieth century fiction it is possible to discern two intersecting paths with two distinct heritages: the aestheticism and experimentalism of Woolf, Joyce and Proust and the political realism of Conrad. In this class we will delve into the work of two controversial giants of these “two ways”: Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian emigre, whose vast body of work is overshadowed in this country by his authorship of the notorious Lolita, about a writer’s obsessive rapacious affair with an adolescent girl. And V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian-born novelist of Indian descent who explored in fiction and nonfiction set mostly in the so-called Third World the politics of colonialism and post-colonialism. The course will be team-taught with Robert Hass and Mark Danner. Texts will include Nabokov’s LolitaThe DefenseThe GiftBend SinisterPale Fire and Speak, Memory, and Naipaul’s Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas, In a Free State, A Bend in the River, The Enigma of Arrival, and Guerrillas. There will be a number of short papers and a short-answer final exam.


Please Note: Several of these books touch on sensitive topics of sexuality and race. One of the aims of the class is to have an open discussion of these and other issues.



Class Requirements This seminar will be a mixture of lectures and discussion, backed up by a large amount of reading, and some writing. The most important requirements are that students


*Attend all class sessions

*Keep up with reading and writing assignments

*Participate in discussions

*Complete a number of short papers

*Complete a final exam


A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the quality of his or her writing, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.



Schedule Note that all classes will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:30 pm in Cory 241.


Reading Our primary reading will draw on a series of novels and memoirs by Nabokov and Naipaul. They are listed below under Required Texts. We strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies and in the edition specified, either from local bookstores or from online suppliers, so that we will all be “on the same page” and so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.



Writing and Final Exam There will be a number of short papers assigned. There will also be a final exam consisting of short-answer questions.

To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, we strongly suggest studying two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which can be readily found on the web, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.




Office Hours Robert Hass has office hours in Wheeler TK at TK to TK on TKday. Mark Danner makes appointments on an ad hoc basis and can be reached at



Grading Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, as follows:


Attendance            25 percent

Participation          25 percent

Papers                    25 percent

Final Exam            25 percent

Required Texts


Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Vintage, 1989 [1951])


Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift (Vintage, 1991 [1938])


Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (Vintage, 1990 [1947])


Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Appel, Jr., The Annotated Lolita (Vintage, 1991 [1955])


Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (Vintage, 1989 [1962])


Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things (Vintage, 1989 [1972])



V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (Vintage, 2002 [1961])


V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (Vintage, 2001 [1961])


V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State (Vintage, 2002 [1971])


V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (Vintage, 1989 [1979])


V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (Vintage, 1990 [1975])


V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (Vintage, 1988 [1987])


V.S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World: Essays (Vintage, 2003)


Tentative Syllabus

January 22 – Introduction to Course. On The Evolution of Transgression. Reading Novels. On the plan of the course. An experiment in writing about self. Writing assignments.


January 24 – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited



January 29 – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited


January 31 – V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street



February 5 – V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street


February 7 – Nabokov, The Gift



February 12 – Nabokov, The Gift


February 14 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas



February 19 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


February 21 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas



February 26 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


February 28 – Nabokov, Bend Sinister



March 5 – Nabokov, Bend Sinister


March 7 – Naipaul, In a Free State



March 12 – Naipaul, In a Free State


March 14 – Nabokov, Lolita



March 19 – Nabokov, Lolita


March 21 – Nabokov, Lolita



March 26 – 28: Spring Break (No Class)



April 2 –Naipaul, Guerrillas and “The Killings in Trinidad”


April 4 –Nabokov, Pale Fire



April 9 –Nabokov, Pale Fire


April 11 – Nabokov, Pale Fire



April 16 – Naipaul, A Bend in the River and “A New King for the Congo”


April 18 – Naipaul, A Bend in the River



April 23 — Naipaul, A Bend in the River


April 25 – Nabokov, Transparent Things and “Spring in Fialta”



April 30 — Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival and “Prologue to an Autobiography”


May 2 – Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival and “Prologue to an Autobiography”


Writing Assignments


Assignment #1

Here are some options for writing a 2-3 page response to Speak Memory:

  1. Creative option: Write an essay about a specific memory of something to do with food that either says something about your own consciousness or about the conditions in which you grew up. Try to match Nabokov’s specificity.
  2. Analytic option: Write an 2-3 page essay briefly tracing one theme that seems to you to run through Speak Memory and provide a shaping pattern
  3. Close reading: Analyze in a 2-3 page essay what work is being done in the last two paragraphs of Speak Memory to bring the book to a close.
  4. Training in literary journalism: Write a 2-3 page review of Speak Memory, assuming that your audience is readers of The Daily Californian.


Assignment #2

Here are some options for writing a 2-3 page response to Miguel Street:

  1. Creative option: Write a 2-3 page sketch introducing some vivid person from your childhood (that includes, if you can, some dialogue catching their voice).
  2. Analytic option: Write an 2-3 page essay briefly tracing one theme that seems to you to run through Miguel Streetand provide a shaping pattern.
  3. Close reading: Critics talk about ‘lightness of touch’ in Miguel Street and the mix in it of comic and tragic elements. Write an analytic essay that reads a passage in the novel closely and describes the tone of the novel and how it is achieved.
  4. Training in literary journalism: Write a 2-3 page review of Miguel Street, assuming an audience that knows nothing about Trinidad, Caribbean literature or V. S. Naipaul. Your audience is readers of The Daily Californian.


Assignment #3

  1. Write an ironic description of yourself or someone else in an awkward situation. 2-3 pp. Note: a couple of students proposed that a good addition to the creative assignment for Assignment #3 would be to write a 2-3 Nabokovian or Naipaulian (lushly or mercilessly) description of a house or neighborhood in which you grew up.
  2. Analyze in 2-3 pp. how Nabokov draws the threads of his narrative together in the last chapter of the gift.
  3. Tragedy and comedy are mingled in A House for Mr. Biswas. Write a 2-3 page analysis of the epilogue to convey your sense of how Naipaul shapes our attitude toward Mr. Biswas’ struggled in the book’s final pages.
  4. Close reading: In 2-3 pages, analyze in some detail Nabokov’s physical (and if it makes sense, psychological or moral) description of a character and its intent.
  5. Compare the descriptions in Pnin of Mira Belochkin—Chapter 5, Section 4, pp. 134-135—and of Liza Wing—Chapter 7, Section 3, pp. 181—for what they tell readers about the narrator, or about Nabokov or about narrative technique.
  6. Close reading: Select any passage in the later scenes in the chapter “Green Vale” (pp. 269-280 in The Vintage Edition) and characterize how Naipaul conveys Biswas’ psychological state.
  7. Write a book review of either The Gift or A House for Mr. Biswas..

Annotated Syllabus

January 22 – Introduction to Course. On The Evolution of Transgression. Reading Novels. On the plan of the course. An experiment in writing about self. Writing assignments.


Class Notes:

?       Terms to review:  “Modernism” in Literature

?       Nabokov history

?       His writing comes from a perspective of a wealthy Russian family exiled because of the Russian Revolution

?       Recurring themes explored in his writing are exile and identity

?       Naipaul

?       His writing comes from a perspective of a reporter + author

?       Professor Danner views Naipaul from a journalistic world

Supplemental Readings:

?       Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

?       The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.



January 24 – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited


Class Notes:

?       Speak, Memory

?       tries to recreate his childhood, a lost but magical world

?       Similar to the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz

?       Themes Discussed

?       Fixing time with art (writing)

?       Does writing create an immortal realm?

?       Everything in the real world is a verb because life is motion, nouns are only in the mind (to paraphrase Prof. Hass)

?       Exile

?       We’ve all been exiles of our childhoods

?       Late 18th century was the first time artists took children seriously i.e. Rousseau’s treatise “On Education”, Dickens with Oliver Twist, painters painted children’s limbs accurately

?       Early Memories

?       What is the earliest memory you possess?


Professor Hass’ Study Notes:

Vladimir Nabokov left France with his wife and young son in May 1940 just as the German army advanced on Paris. He found part-time work teaching an elementary Russian language course at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and reorganizing the Lepidoptera collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and he began to work on translations from Russian and to write prose and poetry in English. His first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, was published in 1941, his second English language novel, Bend Sinister, in 1947. In 1948 he began teaching literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and had established a relationship with The New Yorker, then the most prominent American magazine publishing literary fiction and non-fiction. In 1946 he proposed to an American publisher “a new kind of autobiography. Or rather a new hybrid between that and a novel…a sequence of short essay-like bits, which suddenly gathering momentum will form something very weird and dynamic: innocent looking ingredients of a quite unexpected brew.” [note: this description before he had written a word.]  In early 1947, he reported on his work to his friend Edmund Wilson: “I am writing two things now 1. A short novel about a man who liked little girls—and it’s going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea—and 2. A new type of autobiography—a scientific attempt to unravel and trace back all the tangled threads of one’s personality—and the provisional title is The Person in Question.” [note: this description before he had finished a chapter.]  In the summer of 1947 he sent the first completed chapter, in the form of an essay, to The New Yorker where it is called “Portrait of My Uncle.” He wrote the rest of the book between 1948 and 1951. The book was published in 1951 in the United States with the title Conclusive Evidence and in the United Kingdom as Speak Memory. (His English publisher worried that Conclusive Evidence sounded too much like the title of  British mystery.) He published a Russian translation, adding more personal detail, in 1954 and revisited the book and made further small revisions for the version you are reading which was published in 1967.

One interest of the publishing history is that—writing for the American market—must to some extent have dictated the length of the individual chapters and the need to make each of them work for readers as a free-standing piece. The book as fifteen chapters, not including the foreword and a Chapter 16 added later in which he purports to be a reviewer of the book.  The fifteen chapters make a book of 242 pages, so the average chapter lengths is about 16 pages.  Nabokov has said that when he s able to work without interruption he is usually able to produce a couple of pages of a first draft a day, and that he usually doesn’t begin writing until he has the shape of the story, or in this case the chapter, firmly in mind.


The titles of the chapters as they appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines:


Chapter 1:  “Perfect Past”

Chapter 2:  “Portrait of My Mother”

Chapter 3:  “A Portrait of My Uncle”

Chapter 4: “My English Education”

Chapter 5:  “Mademoiselle O”  (originally written in French and published as a short story in 1937)

Chapter 6:   “Butterflies”

Chapter 7:   “First Love” (was the original title, published as “Colette”)

Chapter 8:  “Lantern Slides”

Chapter 9:  “My Russian Education”

Chapter 10: “Curtain Raiser”

Chapter 11: “First Poem”

Chapter 12: “Tamara”

Chapter 13: “Student Days” (in England “Lodgings in Trinity Lane”)

Chapter 14: “Exile”

Chapter 15: “Gardens and Parks”


Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, summarizes the ordering of the book this way: “Eschewing strict chronological order, Speak Memory strives to be less a slave of time than its master. True, each chapter introduces a new phase of his life: his first inklings of consciousness; his mother; his wider family; his early English governesses (from 1905); his passion for butterflies (from 1906); his first love (1909); his Russian tutors (from 1906 to 1915);  his school from 1911 to 1917); his adolescent pursuit of hos own masculinity and others’ femininity; his first poem (1914); his first love affair and first taste of exile (from 1915 to 1919); his Cambridge years (1919 to 1922); his years in the Russian emigration (from 1922); his watching over the growth of his son (from 1934). Yet within each essay-like chapter Nabokov moves fluidly in time.” Notice Nabokov’s own characterization of the work at the beginning of the foreword to the 1967 edition: “The present work is a systematically correlated assemblage ranging geographically from St. Petersburg to St. Nazaire and covering thirty-seven years, from August 1903 to May 1940, with only a few sallies into later space-time.” The phrase “a systematically correlated assemblage” was written by a man who did substantial scientific work on the evolution of the patterning on the wings of butterflies.

Nabokov on chronology in Speak Memory: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.” [Note: early in his years of exile in Berlin Nabokov made extra income by composing chess problems for a Russian émigré newspaper.]


Themes and patterns


Brian Boyd: “The key to Speak Memory lies in what Nabokov called its ‘themes,’ for it is their intricate relationship that allows him to conflate his own evolution in time and his effort to transcend time.” Boyd identifies a number of themes that he finds in the book. Among them are garden paths and forest trails, trains, exile in the sense of time removing us from loved persons and places. “Another, quite different, theme,” he writes, “is the theme of rainbows, spectra, colored glass, jewels. More prevalent than any other theme, it begins with the jewelry Nabokov’s mother would produce for his bedtime amusement.” [Note from R. Hass: I didn’t notice this theme when I read the book.] The other crucial theme, he writes, “is very different again: the theme of love.” And he makes an observation you can test for yourselves: “At the close of Speak Memory” all its themes come together like the final dance of characters around a circus ring…”




Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 154-60.



January 29 – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited


Class Notes:

?       Themes discussed

?       Darwinian utilitarianism ? frowned upon by Nabokov (pg. 124-125)

?       The superimposition of patterns of Nabokov’s magic carpet memory (pg. 139)

?       What is the meaning of this?

?       Examples of the superimposition of memory: the General & the matchstick (pg. 27), a child holding his/her parents’ hands in the beg/end of book

?       Love

?       Ch 7 ? Collette

?       Ch 10 ? Polenka

?       Ch 12 ? Tamura, who becomes a symbol of leaving Russia

?       Who was the first person you remember having romantic feelings for and why did you feel that way?


Supplemental Readings:

?       Chapter 16 of Speak, Memory was added to the original autobiography and published in 2000. It is a book review from Nabokov on his own book.



January 31 – V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street


Class Notes:

?       The idea of “Art for Art’s sake” was well established and widely popular by Naipaul’s time.

?       V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932

?       Trinidad was “discovered” in 1498 during Columbus’ 4th voyage

?       Trinidad’s main cash crop was sugar

?       East Indian indentured servants replaced slave labor when slavery was abolished

?       Indentured servants were de facto slaves who rarely worked their way out of their servitude

?       Darker skinned Indians were referred to as “black”

?       ‘Black’ in this context is a phenotypic description and had no connection to ethnicity

?       ‘Negro,’ however was used specifically to refer to individuals from Africa

?       Naipaul’s father was deeply interested in becoming a writer

?       Naipaul was enraged by the his first novel’s failure to sell

?       Felt the world was “unfair” because his work flopped

?       Naipaul faced criticism for what appeared to be a desire for white approval

?       Naipaul made fun of his own people, referring to India as An Area of Darkness

?       Themes to notice in Miguel Street: POV, Age, Gender, Violence


Supplemental Readings:

–          The World Is What It Is by Patrick French



February 5 – V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street


Class Notes:

?       Professors addressed the topic of writing and shared some tips

?       Passages and discussion upon finishing Miguel Street

?       Cycle of abuse: spoken of as imperative & normalized

?       Cyclical nature of life: patterns of life, trying to escape

?       The Roles of Genders

?       Does violence = power?

?       In M.S. the men are distinguished by possessing dreams, even if they don’t accomplish anything

?       Laura as an interesting character b/c she is a female with agency. But does she actually have more options than other women?

?       Current of idealism running through men (“the thing without a name”, “the greatest poem”, tinkering with the car by Bhacku), while pragmatism runs through the women

?       In the House vs. Out in the Open

?       Some things like violence or having dreams/ambitions is accepted behind closed doors at home, but when seen on the streets it is not accepted (violence i.e. George) or futile (ambitions i.e. Bolo and his lottery dreams)

?       All characters trying to escape

?       “Basket of crabs” analogy provided by Prof. Danner: When one tries to escape society but getting pulled back down because escape threatens the society. This is similar to characters in M.S. who continuously try to escape but can’t.

?       The Poet’s Eye

?       Pg. 64: “Oh, you can see it, too. I always knew you had the poet’s eye.”

?       What is the poet’s eye?

?       He can see the truth/reality

?       He saw through the illusions of those who tried to escape M.S. vs those who actually did (himself)

?       Some context about M.S.

?       Corporal punishment is a norm in English schools

?       WWII gave people work, see: Yankee Dollar calypso

?       There is a shift from British ? American identity in M.S.


Professor Hass’ Study Notes:


It’s a long novel—and an immersion in things Russian. The protagonist is a young émigré Russian poet living in Berlin. The novel begins when he was just published a book of poems and ends when he is about to start writing a novel called The Gift. In between is a portrait of émigré life, a love story, and an entire biographical study of a controversial and much admired nineteenth century Russian writer, N. G. Chernyshevsky who wrote an influential (and aesthetically incredibly awkward) novel entitled What Is To Be Done that was said to be the favorite piece of literature of V. I. Lenin, the architect of the Russian revolution. The order of the book looks like this:


Chapter 1: introducing our hero and his world 73 pages

Chapter 2: our hero writes about his explorer father  58 pages

Chapter 3: he moves; the love story  65 pages (the heroine is first named at the novel’s

exact midpoint

Chapter 4: 88 pages the Chernyshevsky book

Chapter 5: 65 pages ‘combines all the preceding themes and adumbrates the book

Fyodor dreams of writing some day


Probably a plan would be to read the first chapter for Feb 7, and try to finish the novel over the weekend—which may involve skimming Chapter 4 (to which you can return at your leisure).


The first chapter is….loopy. The first two thirds is a kind of shaggy dog story.


1-8 Our hero moves into a new apartment. He is dreamy. He observes a moving man moving a mirror. (Stendahl described the novel as “a mirror in the roadway.’

9-29 Told that his poems have gotten a rave review he revisits his poems, his childhood and imagines the review.

29-52 Finds out the review never happened, endues the part, inside which is the story of a tragic love triangle in which the host’s son has killed himself  42-50

53-57 He’s locked himself out of his room

57-59  A spring and summer pass; he buys new shoes for another party.

59-70  The second party. A playwright reads a terrible play, the auditors struggle not to laugh; there is a rival poet presnt

70-73  Walking home the rival poets in a long colloquy sound eachj other out on Russian literature; the conversation turns out, in the last snetnce, to be wholly imagined by our hero who walks home alone.


Pay attention to the way point of view keeps shifting from first to third person.



February 7 – Nabokov, The Gift


Class Notes:

?       Joyce has a great influence over Nabokov’s The Gift

?       This is N’s longest and most strangely constructed novel

?       Notice the shifting P.O.V. in this novel

?       Professor Hass essentially went over the first chapter of the novel with the class



February 12 – Nabokov, The Gift


Class Notes

?       Since no one had gotten to Chapter 5, we focused on Chapter 3 & 4 instead

?       Nabakov has said that the true heroine of The Gift is not the characters like Zina or Fyodor, but Russian literature

?       The Gift is a Kunstler-Roman (“Artist-Story” in German: story of a young man becoming an artist)

?       Themes discussed:

?       Falling in Love

?       Fyodor holds a narcissistic view of what love is = it is a mirror of yourself, the more perfect the mirror, the more true the love

?       Recurring Key Imagery

?       Humorously always in want of keys out of forgetfulness or them being stolen

?       Also a reflection of the feeling of exile and how a little thing can make you feel so displaced and reliant on others

?       What makes Nabokov’s descriptions unique?

?       The way that phenomenological perceptions comes first before classification

?       Notice the way gender is portrayed in The Gift

?       Discussed Chernyshevsky and his influence at the time of N. writing The Gift

?       He was a supreme rationalist, arrested & banished

?       Decision of N. to write a biography of him shows how important he was during the Revolution

?       Helpful to remember the political context of Russia during this time

?       Moscow Trials happening during The Gift’s writing

?       Socialist Realism: art should be useful, art glorifyng peasants

?       Nabokov’s very existence is political even if he claims he is apolitical

?       He bears the brunt of exiles (of intellectuals, artists, writers) from the Russian Revolution


Supplemental Material:

?       “Nabokov’s Life in Part” – Andrew Field (Prof. Danner mentioned in class that it’s not one to read cover to cover but provides a good biography of Nabokov)

?       “Old Man River” by Paul Robeson (song mentioned in class by Prof Hass)



February 19 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


Class Notes:

?       Things to note about A House from Naipaul’s biography:

?       It’s a book about the imagined & real visions of Naipaul’s father’s life

?       The book destroyed some of what he defines as memory for him

?       It’s a book about a child’s memory

?       It took 3 years to write

?       What does the House represent? Why is it so important?

?       Mr. Biswas has agency to buy, own, care for a house, he yearns for agency in his society

?       He sees the house as an indication of true existence in the world, he has a fear of nonexistence and un-accomodation on earth

?       The house = finding love

?       Interiority of Naipaul’s characters

?       We don’t get insight into the internal feelings of Mr. Biswas

?       Narrative is set up to be on Mr. Biswas’ side & to identify with him

?       Yet, most of the class dislikes him ? he’s ungrateful, pitiful

?       Commenting on Mr. Biswas’ name

?       By calling him Mr. Biswas even when he was a baby, it grants his character one thing he demands but can never have: his dignity

?       Yet, it’s not actually that dignified because it’s a bit pitiful

?       Similar to how we are introduced to his character and he already has a house (when he dies in the intro)

?       Awards Mr. Biswas with dignity & a house from the beginning of the novel but even that doesn’t make someone dignified

?       Prologue ? journalistic, obituaristic, entry into this world is money

?       Material underpinnings of the book

?       Feeling of the world being closed, blocked

?       Tulsi household = basket of crabs

?       Smallness & mediocrity of colonialism owes to Mr. Biswas’ feeling/literally of being trapped

?       Larger Context of A House

?       Emergence of the novel = emergence of middle class

?       Wealth & the middle class = owning property

?       Someone once said all storylines of original European novels can be boiled down to a male trying to attain property

?       While the womens’ story was one of trying to get married, their version of making their way in the world



February 21 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


Class Notes

?       Discussion of inevitability

?       In the beginning of the book, a Pundit predicts bad fortune for Mr. Biswas

?       Throughout the book, we find this prediction manifesting itself in many ways.

?       Discussion of Gender & Wives

?       Dehumanizes women as people that exist only to serve

?       Tulsi household

?       An economic unit, a microcosm

?       Husbands are like indentured servants

?       Hanuman House

?       ~The Monkey House

?       From a Hindu tale



February 26 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


Class Notes

?       Inevitability and perseverance of suffering

?       “And for years Mr. Biswas was to know, particularly on a Saturday morning, the smell of kerosene and bedbugs. The boards changed; the mattress changed; but the bugs remained, following the fourposter wherever it went, from The Chase to Green Vale to Port of Spain to the house at Shorthills and, finally, to the house in Sikkim Street, where it nearly filled one of the two bedrooms on the upper floor.”

?       Page 67 of PDF

?       The House

?       Represents dignity and a place in the world to Mr. Biswas

?       Nothing is real until Mr. Biswas is in the house



February 28 – Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas


Class Notes:

?       Ways to discuss books: Social, Perspective of reader, Culture, Juxtaposition

?       Discussion on the prologue

?       Contradictory feelings of triumph at the end of the book (a stupendous feat to acquire a house) vs. the end of the book where it is lonely and empty (“empty house”, feeling cheated)

?       Is Mr. Biswas a tragedy or a comedy? Or both?

?       If it is a tragedy, what is his flaw?



March 5 – Nabokov, Pnin


Class Notes

?       Background

?       How the hell do you pronounce the title?

?       (Pneen, spelled Pnine in French)

?       Afraid of not being able to publish Lolita, Nabokov wrote certain works just to make money

?       Before writing this, Nabokov reread and gave lectures on Don Quixote

?       Sadism of Don Quixote

?       Reader is expected to enjoy the beatings Don Quixote takes

?       This shadow of sadism hangs over Pnin

?       Ridicule of outsiders

?        Keep in mind the attitude of the narrator

?       What type of person is he?

?       First Paragraph

?       Quintessential Nabokovian Irreverence in description of Mr Pnin

?        “ideally bald” encapsulates the way Nabokov subverts, through negative description, the original  impression made by the positive description at the beginning of the paragraph

?       The intensity of description inside the train

?       “fetal, infantile” description

?       “he carried in the inside pocket of his present coat a precious wallet with two ten-dollar bills, the newspaper clipping of a letter he had written, with my help,”

?       Involvement of the narrator

?       Shaggy dog story

?       Intense, captivating narrative building up to underwhelming conclusion

?       “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life

is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or

you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego. The sensation poor Pnin

experienced was something very like that divestment, that communion. He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified.”

?       Universality of Pnin as a character

?       Using his name as a verb

?       Distinct from everyone else in this universe

?        “And now, in the park of Whitchurch, Pnin felt what he had felt already on August 10, 1942, and February 15 (his birthday), 1937, and May 18, 1929, and July 4, 1920—that the repulsive automaton he lodged had developed a consciousness of its own and not only was grossly alive but was causing him pain and panic…”

?        Pg 21 (20 in PDF)

?        Melding of present and past

?       Squirrels

?       Recurring symbol in book

?       Bolechkin means little squirrel

?       His understanding of the squirrel’s thirst highlights Pnin’s empathy

?        “But Pnin was not listening. A faint ripple stemming from his recent seizure was holding his fascinated attention” (Pg 26)

?        Combining and connecting his literal heart pains with pangs of longing and lost love

?       “soundlessly clapping hands.”

?       emphasis on perception

?       not literal reality, but rather how the moment exists in his mind

Professor Hass’ Study Notes:
“He had begun Pnin in 1953 in the hope that a series of detachable story-length chapters might earn him an immediate income as he sold each one to the New Yorker.” (Brian Boyd)


Pnin was written in 1953 and 1954, after VN had finished Lolita.  Six of the seven chapters appeared in The New Yorker. (The magazine rejected chapter 2 on the grounds that the treatment Professor Pnin receives from the Winds was too “unpleasant.”)


Ch. 1  “Pnin”

Ch. 2  “Pnin Hadn’t Always Been Single”

Ch. 3 “Pnin’s Day”

Ch. 4 “Victor Meets Pnin”

Ch. 5 “Pnin Under the Pines”

Ch. 6 “Pnin Gives a Party”

Ch. 7 “I Knew Pnin”


Nabokov: “In Pnin I have created an entirely new character, the like of which has never appeared in any other book. A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterised by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual…”


His method—aimed probably at the typical requirements of the New Yorker was to write each chapter as a free-standing story of about 20-30 pages with a recurring character. Each chapter had shorter numbered parts, which was the technique also of his literary master Leo Tolstoy.



Ch. 1   21 pp   3 sections

Ch. 2   32 pp   7 sections

Ch. 3   21 pp   7 sections

Ch. 4   26 pp   9 sections

Ch. 5   26 pp   5  sections

Ch. 6   36  pp  13 sections

Ch. 7   17 pp   7 sections


Point of view: The principle narrative trick (not Nabokov without one) is the way the book uses point of view.  The narrator who appears occasionally as a kind of showman (p. 2 “Now a secret must be imparted,” he tells readers) and turns out in the final chapter to be a certain V. V. Nabokov, prominent writer.) The technique can be tracked on pp. 2. 8, 16, 20, 28, 31, 43, 45, 47, 63, 65, 110, 125. The matter that the narrator puts off  narrating on p. 45 is the fact that this Nabokov was an early lover of Pnin’s wife who married Pnin on the rebound.


Comic devices that set the tone: giving many of the characters comical names. Moments that suddenly change the tone: the story of Mira in Chapter 5. Pp 131-36


The English novelist David Lodge on Pnin:

Over the next few years, Nabokov, in the intervals allowed by his teaching duties and other literary and scholarly projects, began to work on a novel set for the first time in America, based on an unpublished pre-war short story with a European setting about a man sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. Lolita grew in scale and complexity and caused him much labour and anxiety.

In the summer of 1953, when (on sabbatical leave from Cornell) he was drawing at last towards the end of this novel, Nabokov wrote a short story called “Pnin”, about the comical misadventures of an expatriate Russian professor on his way to deliver a lecture to a women’s club in a small American town. He created the new character partly as a relief from the dark obsessive world of Humbert Humbert – in his own words (in a letter to a friend) as a “brief sunny escape from [Lolita’s] intolerable spell”. But it is clear that the new project was also a kind of insurance against the difficulties that he expected to encounter in trying to publish a novel where a middle-aged man describes in lavish and eloquent detail his infatuation with and seduction of a 12-year-old girl.

From an early stage in the development of the character of Pnin, Nabokov planned to write a series of stories about him which could be published independently in the New Yorker, and later strung together to make a book, thus ensuring some continuity of publication and income while he tried to find a publisher for Lolita. This proved to be a shrewd professional strategy. It also partly explains the unusual form of Pnin. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Between them, the stories describe a continuous narrative arc, poignantly tracing Pnin’s quest, which is ultimately frustrated, to find a home, or to make himself “at home” in alien Waindell. When Nabokov was looking for a publisher for the completed book he stressed the element of character:

“In Pnin I have created an entirely new character, the like of which has never appeared in any other book. A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterised by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual…”

Nabokov was not always so admiring of his creation. Sending the first story, “Pnin”, to his editor at the New Yorker, Katharine White, he wrote in a covering letter, “he is not a very nice person but he is fun”. The stance of author to character implied in the work itself comes somewhere between these two extremes, and is complicated by the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and Vladimir Nabokov.

The Pnin that emerges from the whole sequence of stories is certainly an engaging character, in whose fortunes (mainly misfortunes) we take a sympathetic interest. We approve of the characters who befriend him and disapprove of those who exploit him. But he is essentially comic – pathetic at times, to be sure, but not a tragic hero. His appearance – the impressive combination of head, shoulders and torso that tapers off disappointingly in “a pair of spindly legs… and frail-looking, almost feminine feet” – is an anatomical anticlimax, an emblem of the kind of situation he is constantly getting himself into by some error of understanding or judgment.

Where did this character come from? There have been several suggestions for real-life models, the most plausible being Marc Szeftel, an émigré Russian historian, who was a colleague of Nabokov’s at Cornell (which is recognisable as “Waindell College” in Pnin, according to those who know both the actual and the fictional campus). It is certainly significant that Szeftel was Jewish, because it is Pnin’s association with his Jewish sweetheart Mira, and his anguish at her tragic fate that dignifies his character more than any other single trait. But there were other things Pnin apparently had in common with Szeftel, such as his imperfect English, which would have seemed less flattering to the putative model.

It is fairly obvious that Pnin was not an instantly recognisable portrait or caricature of Szeftel, for this would have been impossibly embarrassing for both men, who were not only colleagues, but also collaborators on a scholarly project (a study of a medieval Russian epic, The Song of Igor’s Campaign) and met socially in private life. There is evidence, however, that Szeftel suspected the character of Pnin was partially based on himself, and somewhat resented the resemblance, without ever explicitly complaining about it.

Szeftel was both fascinated by and jealous of Nabokov’s meteoric success with Lolita shortly after the publication of Pnin. He wrote an article entitled “Lolita at Cornell” for the Cornell Alumni News, long after both men had left the institution, and meditated on a book-length study of the novel which never materialised. Relations between the two men became cool, but while they were colleagues they seem to have made a tacit mutual agreement not to bring out into the open the extent to which Nabokov had borrowed traits from Szeftel to create the character of Pnin (a not unusual accommodation, in fact, between novelists and their friends and relations).

But the author himself had some things in common with his fictional character. Nabokov’s lecturing style, for instance – reading from a carefully written text and making little or no eye contact with his audience – was similar to Pnin’s. Nabokov too was capable of absent-mindedness, and on one famous occasion began lecturing obliviously to the wrong class until he was rescued by a student who had seen him entering the wrong lecture-room. (He dealt with the mistake more suavely than Pnin would have managed, however, saying before he left the room “You have just seen the ‘Coming Attraction’ for Literature 325. If you are interested, you may register next fall.”)

Pnin shares, in a milder form, several of his creator’s intellectual prejudices – against Freud and psychotherapy, for instance. But what links Nabokov to Pnin most strongly is that they are both exiles with painfully nostalgic memories of pre-revolutionary Russia and an inveterate hatred of and contempt for the communist regime that deprived them of their birthright. The ache of loss throbs not far below the comic surface of these tales and occasionally grips Pnin with the intensity of a heart attack.

It may have been to keep this powerful current of emotion under control that Nabokov made Pnin a more comical and absurd character than himself, borrowing traits from other émigré professors such as Szeftel. Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity – a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to understand fully the society in which he finds himself. Pnin, in short, is a composite of observation, introspection and invention, like most fictional characters.


March 7 – Naipaul, Pnin


Class Notes

?       Is Nabokov’s writing anti-democratic?

?       Some people in his novels are “destined” not to be loved, or not to be beautiful

?       In the countryside, Pnin transforms into a man that is admired and in only half-exile, amongst other Russians



March 12 – Naipaul, In a Free State


Class Notes

?       Naipaul is a critic of post-colonial writing

?       Historical background for In a Free State

?       Takes place in a world of post-colonization post WWII

?       Questions pertinent in this time period include: What is a nation? What makes a citizen?

?       1948-49: Through a law, people could attain citizenship by going back to the colonized country

?       People encountering racism

?       Format of book unique

?       1 journal entry + 2 short stories + 1 novella

?       Discussed the Tramp from the 1st journal entry

?       Tramp = hobo

?       Not referred to by a nationality, which is a person’s identity in this post-colonial time period

?       We never find out what he did to make people irate ? very ambiguous

?       After the Nasser regime ¼ million Greeks were expelled from Egypt

?       “One Out of Many”

?       Pay attention to the narrator’s attitude towards women

?       Naipaul’s attitude towards sex: it is a demeaning, dirty act

?       Contrast this with Nabokov


Professor Hass’ Study Notes:



Piraeus had been the port for the city of Athens since the 5th century BC.


There had been a significant Greek colony in Egypt since Alexander the Great founded the port of Alexandria in about 331 BC. The city was second only to Rome in wealth during the years of the Roman empire. Arabs from Byzantium seized the city in 641 AD and over the years became a quiet fishing village. Egypt was invade by Napoleon in 1798 and not long after sized from Napoleon by the British navy.  Under the monarch Mohammad Ali, nominally a vassal of the Ottoman empire, and practically a Viceroy of the British Empire, flourished again as the completion of the Suez canal vastly increased the strategic importance of Egypt to the British. The canal was completed in 1889. In 1907 There were 63,000 Greeks in Egypt; in 1940 there were 250,000 Greeks. Greeks—like the poet C. P. Cavafy—worked in ministries of government and in the upper reaches of finance and business. In 1952—in the years of decolonization that followed WW II—an Egyptian general Gamal Nassar led a coup that over threw the British-backed monarchy and established a socialist, pan-Arab government (which was opposed by a  fundamentalist party, the Muslim Brotherhood who attempted to assassinate the secular Nassar.) Nassar became president of the Republic of Egypt in 1954 and confiscated the property of Egyptian Greeks and expelled them from Egypt. Hence the Greek ‘refugees” on the tramp steamer. They are working class Greeks who, having been expelled from Egypt, are returning in search of work. Nassar also nationalized the Suez Canal and forbad Israeli use of the canal (on the belief that Israel was an outpost of European imperialism that had displaced the Palestinian Arabic population.) in 1956 England, France and Israel retook the canal and Israel captured the region of Egypt known as the Sinai Peninsula. This lead to a series of Egypt-Israeli wars between 1967 and 1973.


This the setting for Naipaul’s notes on the two day sail from Piraeus to Alexandria with the English tramp, a Lebanese banker, a Lebanese-Egyptian manufacturer of furniture, several Germans, a Yugoslav student, a troup of Spanish dancers, a group of American teenagers, the Greek crew, and himself the Trinidadian-Indian novelist.


The idea of the tramp


tramp is a long-term homeless person who travels from place to place as a vagrant, traditionally walking all year round. The word tramp became a common way to refer to such people in 19th-century Britain and America. A cargo ship that wandered from port to port hunting for materials to ship was a “tramp steamer.” By 1937 in America when Rodgers and Hart wrote “The Lady is a Tramp” it had also apparently come to mean a woman of easy morals or a woman with that reputation.

Mark Twain used the term in A Tramp Abroad in 1880, but he meant “tramp” to be a raffish synonym for “trip” or “travel.” The Welsh poet W. H. Davies published a bestselling book of the itinerant life, The Autobiography of a Super Tramp in 1908.

In 1928 the young George Orwell wrote a short essay on the term for a French magazine. The English original doesn’t survive, This is a translation back into English of the French translation:

A Day in the Life of a Tramp

First, what is a tramp?[1]

A tramp is a native English species.  These are his distinguishing characteristics:  he has no money, he is dressed in rags, he walks about twenty kilometres a day and never sleeps two nights together in the same place.

In short, he is a wanderer, living on charity, roaming around on foot day after day for years, crossing England from end to end many times in his wanderings.

He has no job, home or family, no possessions in the world apart from the rags covering his poor body; he lives at the expense of the community.

No one knows how many individuals make up the tramp population.

Thirty thousand?  Fifty thousand?  Perhaps a hundred thousand in England and Wales when unemployment is particularly bad.

The tramp does not wander for his own amusement, or because he has inherited the nomadic instincts of his ancestors; he is trying first and foremost to avoid starving to death.

It is not difficult to see why; the tramp is unemployed as a result of the state of the English economy.  So, to exist, he must have recourse to public or private charity.  To assist him, the authorities have created asiles (workhouses) where the destitute can find food and shelter.

These places are about twenty kilometres apart, and no-one can stay in any one spike more that once a month.  Hence the endless pilgrimages of tramps who, if they want to eat and sleep with a roof over their heads, must seek a new resting-place every night.

That is the explanation for the existence of tramps.  Now let us see what sort of life they lead.  It will be sufficient to look at just one day, for the days are all the same for these unfortunate inhabitants of one of the richest countries in the world.


Let us take one of them as he comes out of the spike at about ten in the morning.

He is about twenty kilometres from the next workhouse.  He will probably take five hours to walk that distance, and will arrive at his destination at about three in the afternoon.

He will not rest much on the way, because the police, who look on tramps with a suspicious eye, will make quick work of sending him packing from any town or village where he might try to stop.  That is why our man will not tarry on the way.

It is, as we have said, around three o’clock in the afternoon when he turns up at the spike.  But the spike does not open until six in the evening.  Three weary hours to kill in the company of other the other tramps who are already waiting.  The herd of human beings, haggard, unshaven, filthy and tattered, grows from minute to minute.  Soon there are a hundred unemployed men representing nearly every trade.

Miners and cotton-spinners, victims of the unemployment which is raging in the North of England, form the majority but all trades are represented, skilled or not.

Their age?  From sixteen to seventy.

Their sex?  There are around two women for every fifty tramps.

Here and there, an imbecile jabbers meaningless words.  Some men are so weak and decrepit that one wonders how they could possibly walk twenty kilometres.

Their clothes strike you as grotesque, tattered and revoltingly filthy.

Their faces make you think of the face of some wild animal, not perhaps a dangerous one, but one which has become at once savage and timorous through lack of rest and care.


There they wait, lying on the grass or squatting in the dust.  The bravest prowl around the butcher’s or the baker’s, hoping to glean some scrap of food.  But this is dangerous, because begging is against the law in England, so for the most part they are content to remain idle, exchanging vague words in a strange slang, the tramps’ special language, full of bizarre and picturesque words and phrases which cannot be found in any dictionary.

They have come from all four corners of England and Wales, and tell each other their adventures, discussing without much hope the likelihood of finding work on the way.

Many have met before in some spike at the other end of the country for their tracks cross again and again in their ceaseless wanderings.

These workhouses are miserable and sordid caravanserais where the miserable English pilgrims assemble for a few hours before scattering again in all directions.

All the tramps smoke.  As smoking is forbidden inside the spike, they make the most of their waiting hours.  Their tobacco consists mainly of cigarette-ends which they pick up in the street.  They roll it in paper or stuff it into old pipes.

When a tramp does come by some money, which he has worked for or begged on the way, his first thought is to buy tobacco, but mostly he has to make do with cigarette-ends picked up from the pavement or road.  The spike only gives him his board:  for the rest, clothes, tobacco etc. he has to shift for himself.


But it is nearly time for the gates of the spike to open.  The tramps have got up, and are queuing by the wall of the huge building, a vile yellow cube of brick, built in some distant suburb, and which might be mistaken for a prison.[2]

A few more minutes and the heavy gates swing open and the herd of human beings enters.

The resemblance between one of these spikes and a prison is even more striking once you are through the gates.  In the middle of an empty yard, surrounded by high brick walls, stands the main building containing bare-walled cells, a bathroom, the administrative offices, and a tiny room furnished with plain deal benches which serves as a dining-room.  Everything is as ugly and as sinister as you care to imagine.

The prison atmosphere can be found everywhere.  Uniformed officials bully the tramps and push them about, never neglecting to remind them that in coming into the workhouse they have given up all their rights and all their freedom.

The tramp’s name and trade are written in a register.  Then he is made to have a bath, and his clothes and personal possessions are taken away.  Then he is given a coarse cotton workhouse shirt for the night.

If he should happen to have any money, it is confiscated, but if he admits to more than two francs [fourpence] he will not be allowed into the spike and will have to find a bed somewhere else.

As a result those tramps – there are not many of them – who have more than two francs have taken pains to hide their money in the toes of their boots, making sure they are not observed, for this fraud could be punished with imprisonment.

After his bath, the tramp, whose clothes have now been taken away, receives his supper:  half a pound of bread with a little margarine and a half-litre of tea.

The bread made specially for tramps is terrible.  It is grey, always stale, and has as disagreeable taste which makes one think that the flour it is made from comes from tainted grain.

Even the tea is as bad as it can be, but the tramps drink it gladly, as it warms and comforts them after the exhaustion of the day.

This unappetising meal is gulped down in five minutes.  After that, the tramps are ordered into the cells where they will spend the night.

These cells, real prison cells of brick or stone, are about twelve feet by six.  There is no artificial light – the only source of light is a narrow barred window very high up in the wall and a spyhole in the door which allows the guards to keep an eye on the inmates.

Sometimes the cell contains a bed, but normally the tramps have to sleep on the floor with only three blankets for bedding.

There are often no pillows, and for this reason the unfortunate inmates are allowed to keep their coats to roll into a sort of cushion for their heads.

Usually the room is terribly cold, and as a result of long use the blankets have become so thin that they offer no protection at all against the severity of the cold.

As soon as the tramps have entered their cells, the doors are firmly bolted on the outside: they will not open until seven o’clock next morning.

Usually there are two inmates in each cell.  Walled up in their little prison for twelve weary hours with nothing to keep out the cold but a cotton shirt and three thin blankets, the poor wretches suffer cruelly from the cold and the lack of the most elementary comfort.

The places are nearly always bug-infested, and the tramp, a prey to vermin, his limbs worn out, spends hours and hours tossing and turning in a vain wait for sleep.

If he does manage to fall asleep for a few minutes, the discomfort of sleeping on a hard floor soon wakes him up again.

The wily old tramps who have been living like this for fifteen or twenty years, and have become philosophical as a result, spend their nights talking.  They will rest for an hour or two next day in a field, under some hedge which they find more welcoming than the spike.  But the younger ones, not yet hardened by familiarity with the routine, struggle and groan in the darkness, waiting impatiently for the morning to bring their release.

And yet, when the sunlight finally shines into their prison, they consider with gloom and desperation the prospect of another day exactly like the one before.

Finally, the cells are unlocked.  It is time for the doctor’s visit – indeed, the tramps will not be released until this formality is completed.

The doctor is usually late, and the tramps have to wait for this inspection, lined up half-naked in a passage.  Then one can get an idea of their physical condition.

What bodies and what faces!

Many of them have congenital malformations.  Several suffer from hernias, and wear trusses.  Almost everyone has deformed feet covered in sores as a result of lengthy tramping in ill-fitting boots.  The old men are nothing but skin and bone.  All have sagging muscles, and the wretched look of men who do not get a square meal from one end of the year to the other.

Their emaciated features, premature wrinkles, unshaven beards, everything about them tells of insufficient food and lack of sleep.

But here comes the doctor.  His inspection is as rapid as it is cursory.  It is designed, after all, merely to detect whether any of the tramps are showing the symptoms of smallpox.

The doctor glances at each of the tramps in turn rapidly up and down, front and back.

Now most of them are suffering from some disease or other.  Some of them, almost complete imbeciles, are hardly capable of taking care of themselves.  Nevertheless they will be released as long as they are free from the dreaded marks of smallpox.

The authorities do not care whether they are in good or bad health, as long as they are not suffering from an infectious disease.

After the doctor’s inspection, the tramps get dressed again.  Then, in the cold light of day, you can really get a good look at the clothes the poor devils wear to protect themselves against the ravages of the English climate.

These disparate articles of clothing – mostly begged from door to door – are hardly fit for the dustbin.  Grotesque, ill-fitting, too long, too short, too big or too small, their quaintness would make you laugh in any other circumstances.  Here, you feel enormous pity at the sight of them.

They have been repaired as far as possible, with all kinds of patches.  String does duty for missing buttons.  Underclothes are nothing but filthy tatters, holes held together by dirt.

Some of them have no underclothes.  Many do not even have socks; after binding their toes in rags, they slide their bare feet into boots whose leather, hardened by sun and rain, has lost all suppleness.

It is a fearful sight watching tramps get ready.

Once they are dressed, the tramps receive their breakfast, identical to the previous night’s supper.

Then they are lined up like soldiers in the yard of the spike, where the guards set them to work.

Some will wash the floor, others will chop wood, break coal, do a variety of jobs until ten o’clock, when the signal to leave is given.

They are given back any personal property confiscated the previous evening.  To this is added half a pound of bread and a piece of cheese for their midday meal, or sometimes, but less often, a ticket which can be exchanged at specified cafés along the way for bread and tea to the value of three francs [sixpence].

A little after ten o’clock, the gates of the spike swing open to let loose a crowd of wretched and filthy destitute men who scatter over the countryside.

Each one is making for a fresh spike where he will be treated in exactly the same way.

And for months, years, decades perhaps, the tramps will know no other existence.


In conclusion, we should note that the food for each tramp consists, all in all, around 750 grammes [2 pounds] of bread with a little margarine and cheese, and a pint of tea a day; this is clearly an insufficient diet for a man who must cover twenty kilometres a day on foot.

To supplement his diet, to obtain clothing, tobacco and the thousand other things he might need, the tramp must beg when he cannot find work (and he hardly every finds work) – beg or steal.

Now begging is against the law in England, and many a tramp has become acquainted with His Majesty’s prisons because of it.

It is a vicious circle; if he does not beg, he dies of starvation; if he begs, he is breaking the law.

The life of these tramps is degrading and demoralising.  In a very short time it can make an active man unemployable and a sponger.

Moreover it is desperately monotonous.  The only pleasure for tramps is coming by a few shillings unexpectedly; this gives them the chance to eat their fill for once or to go on a drinking spree.

The tramp is cut off from women.  Few women become tramps.  For their more fortunate sisters the tramp is an object of contempt.  So homosexuality is a vice which is not unknown to these eternal wanderers.

Finally the tramp, who has not committed any crime, and who is, when all is said and done, simply a victim of unemployment, is condemned to live more wretchedly than the worst criminal.  He is a slave with a semblance of liberty which is worse than the most cruel slavery.

When we reflect upon his miserable destiny, which is shared by thousands of men in England, the obvious conclusion is that society would be treating him more kindly by shutting him up for the remainder of his days in prison, where he would at least enjoy relative comfort.

A note on tramps—also called hobos—in the United States.





The American tramp is a figure that established itself in the 1870s with unexpected suddenness in America’s public consciousness. While itinerant laborers and the wandering poor had been part of American life since colonial days, tramping as a mass population movement was an unprecedented phenomenon that sent tens of thousands of men on the road. There were attempts to differentiate between tramps (migratory nonworkers) and hobos (men who traveled in search of work), but there is no consensus on the precise characteristics of these terms. Sociohistorical studies have shown that tramps were predominantly white, American-born, unskilled laborers between the ages of twenty and forty, who traveled on foot but more often used the railroads to cover the distances they traveled. As to the number of tramps in the United States, there are no reliable statistics. In 1877 the Hartford Courant estimated that there were 100,000 tramps in the country. In 1906 and 1911 individual observers spoke of 350,000 and 500,000 vagrants nationwide.

Contemporary commentators attempted to explain the explosive growth of the number of mobile homeless people with reference to the effects of the Civil War, which, in their view, had removed men from their normal lives, accustomed them to the rigors of out-door life, and implanted in them notions of extended mobility. From the vantage point of history, however, it has become clear that the spectacular rise in the number of tramps during the period between the 1870s to the 1920s coincided with the industrial transformation of the urban United States. With the growth of industrial capitalism, America became more vulnerable to the effects of economic crises. The financial panic of 1873, which resulted from the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, was felt throughout the 1870s and sent thousands of workers on the road searching for jobs. Similarly devastating effects followed the deep and tragic depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897.

Paradoxically, however, the existence of a large number of geographically mobile men in search of work also had a positive impact on America’s economy. At a time when the United States was involved in building a national infrastructure of monumental dimensions, the fluid labor supply was an essential prerequisite for the construction of the major transportation networks. It also guaranteed that the seasonal demands in the various industrial, extractive, and agricultural locations of the economy were efficiently met.


Although urban enterprises and railroad companies profited from the work done by the migratory seasonal laborers, the American public referred to them as the “tramp evil” or the “tramp nuisance.” Rural and urban communities reacted with antipathy and fear against the arrival of large numbers of strangers who were seen as a serious threat to life, property, morality, and social order. The tramp’s characteristic lifestyle presented an open challenge to a Victorian ideology in which stability, hard work, and the nuclear family were highly valued. As single men removed from the social control of the mainstream communities, the tramps led lives that differed significantly from the approved middle-class standard. The look they cultivated, the particular rules and customs they followed, and the jargon they used helped to divide them from the public at large. Their subculture was characterized by what the average citizen interpreted as indicators of social deviance, such as laziness, a lack of cleanliness, alcoholism, and homosexuality. In their endeavor to protect the citizens, communities ultimately resorted to legal action and passed vagrancy and tramp ordinances that were designed to keep the undesirable element at bay. It was not until the final years of the nineteenth century that reformers began to understand that the existence of a large migrant population was the result of economic processes and could not be blamed upon a pathologic unwillingness to work or an irrational and irresponsible psychic state called “wanderlust.”



There are a couple of ambiguities in this story that commentators have not agreed about. They have to do (1) with the role of the character Frank and his relation to the narrator and (2) with what exactly is happening on pp. 92-93 when an act of violence either occurs or is imagined by the narrator to occur. An invitation to attentive reading.


The relevant passages:


  1. 54-55  introduce the narrator and Frank
  2. 57-58  seem to describe the memory of a violent act involving a knife.
  3. 59-60   describes Frank and the narrator and then Frank disappears from the story as the narrator describes his history with his brother Dayo and their life in London.


  1. 81-82 move back to the present and the narrator and Frank


briefly and then returns on pp. 92-93 to the story of the narrator’s relation to his brother which culminates in the act first described on pp. 57-58, after which


  1. 93-98 the narrative returns to the present and to the narrator and Frank at Dayo’s wedding.




  1. 34 “Not far from the supermarket, I saw black smoke, uncurling, rising, swiftly turning colourless. This was not the smoke which some of the apartment blocks gave off all day. This was the smoke of a real fire. ‘The hubshi have gone wild, Santosh. They are burning down Washington.’ “
  2. 35 “For four days my employer and I stayed in the apartment and watched the city burn.”
  3. 42 “…the exhilaration I had felt during the days of the fire”



WASHINGTON — On March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King stepped up to the pulpit of the Washington National Cathedral to deliver what would be his last sermon.

At the time, King had his sights set on the future. In a few weeks’ time, he told his listeners, he would be back in D.C. for one of the biggest demonstrations in the city since the March on Washington five years before.

It would be called the Poor People’s Campaign.

“Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses,” he said, adding a few moments later: “We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.

Planning for the Poor People’s Campaign came several months after the long, hot summer of 1967, when riots erupted in several Northern cities. Many erstwhile supporters balked. An “invasion” of activists, students and plain old poor folks would invite riots in the nation’s capital, horrified columnists wrote.

After his address, reporters asked King his prognosis for America’s inner cities. Would they burn that summer as they had in Newark and Chicago the year before?

“I don’t like to predict violence, but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope, I feel this summer will not only be as bad, but worse than last year,” King intoned.

Four days later, King, who had traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, was gunned down by James Earl Ray as he stepped out on his motel balcony.

And in D.C. and in cities across the country, that long, hot summer ended up arriving in early spring.

In Washington, by the time authorities had quelled the most intense disorder, more than a thousand fires had been set, more than 8,000 people had been arrested, parts of neighborhoods were ravaged, some blocks lay in ruins, and 13 people were dead, including two at the hands of police.

WTOP interviewed more than two dozen people with different experiences of the riots for our week-long series, “DC Uprising: Voices from the 1968 Riots.” They include retired firefighters and police officers, activists, reporters, historians and city residents who lived through the riots 50 years ago this week.

The account that follows is based on those interviews as well as archival coverage from The Washington Evening Star newspaper, the entire archives of which have been digitized by the D.C. Public Library.

Fifty years after the events of 1968, WTOP examines how the uprising shaped the Washington we know today and how the city still grapples with its legacy.


The Civil Rights Act of 1968, (Pub.L. 90–284, 82 Stat. 73, enacted April 11, 1968), also known as the Fair Housing Act, is a landmark part of legislation in the United States that provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin and made it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone … by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin, handicap or familial status.”[1] The Act was signed into law during the King assassination riots by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had previously signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law.



March 14 – Nabokov, In a Free State


Class Notes

?       Naipaul went to Africa in order to be a “writer in residence” in Uganda

?       “Novel of the South”

?       It is a post-colonial novel about issues of power AFTER colonialism, questions about race, power, sexuality arise

?       Small spaces/places is a recurring theme

?       “Tell Me Who to Kill”

?       Who is Frank?

?       One idea is that he is a probation officer because the narrator killed somebody

?       “In a Free State”

?       Constant and building feeling of dread occuring in the story

?       Colonial officials have become development officials

?       This is Bobby’s job

?       Interesting thing about Bobby: he wants to be subordinate & fit in but cannot because he is white

?       Sexual Transactions

?       During colonization: sexual exploitation of one race to another

?       Post-colonization: both races exploit each other

?       Colonialism ? easy access to sexuality

?       This short story is an entanglement of sexuality & politics & violence



March 19 – Nabokov, Lolita


Class Notes


?       Theme of complicity

?       By the end of the book, the reader feels compromised

?       Moral challenge of sympathizing with narrator

?       vocabulary word: bifurcated

?       Bifurcated characterization of Lolita

?       We see Lolita through A) the obsessed, rosy-tinted glasses of the narrator and B) a representation of a typical, contemporary teenage girl in the 1950s

?       plural moral implications where his pedophilia is his lowest crime.

?       Dante’s inferno

?       Sex is the outermost circle while lying and fraud are the innermost.

?       Comparing Lolita with In a Free State and Beloved by Toni Morrison

?       Moral relativism— Humbert is disappointed that social norms are against him

?        “I, on my part,…” pg 25

?       Muddying the dynamic of pervert as predator and victim as prey

?       Naivité of predator

?        “I owe my complete restoration…” pg 34

?        “I exchanged letters…Humbertish.”pg 35

?       All the possibilities of language and using language to create a specific reality.

?       “She was one of those women…readily distinguished.” Pg 37

?       Is Humbert shallow?

?       Calling his mother photogenic is a superficial way of describing one’s mother

?       “What drives me insane…” pg 44

?       Condemnation of popular culture as a corruption of youth

?       But novel is partly a love-letter to American popular culture of the 40s & 50s


Professor Hass’ Study Notes:




You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth, Lo. Lee. Ta…Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.


Presently, she would hand the rope back to her little Spanish friend and watch in her turn the repeated lesson, and brush away the hair from her brow, and fold her arms and step on one toe with the other, or drop her hands loosely upon her still unflared hips, and I would satisfy myself that the damned staff had at last finished cleaning up our cottage; whereupon, flashing a smile to the shy, dark-haired page girl of my princess and thrusting my fatherly fingers into Lo’s hair from behind and then gently but firmly clasping them around the nape of the neck, I would lead my reluctant pet to our small home for a quick connection before dinner.


Shakespeare: Sonnet 129


Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

        All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

        To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


Shakespeare: Sonnet 130


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

   As any she belied with false compare.


Fulke Greville: Caelica 56

All my senses, like beacon’s flame,

Gave alarum to desire

To take arms in Cynthia’s name

And set all my thoughts on fire:

Fury’s wit persuaded me,

Happy love was hazard’s heir,

Cupid did best shoot and see

In the night where smooth is fair;

Up I start believing well

To see if Cynthia were awake;

Wonders I saw, who can tell?

And thus unto myself I spake:

“Sweet God Cupid, where am I,

That by pale Diana’s light,

Such rich beauties do espy,

As harm our senses with delight?

Am I borne up to the skies?

See where Jove and Venus shine,

Showing in her heavenly eyes

That desire is divine.

Look where lies the milken way,

Way unto that dainty throne,

Where while all the Gods would play,

Vulcan thinks to dwell alone.”

I gave reins to this conceit,

Hope went on the wheel of lust;

Fancy’s scales are false of weight,

Thoughts take thought that go of trust.

I stepped forth to touch the sky,

I a God by Cupid dreams;

Cynthia, who did naked lie,

Runs away like silver streams,

Leaving hollow banks behind

Who can neither forward move,

Nor, if rivers be unkind,

Turn away or leave to love.

There stand I, like Arctic pole,

Where Sol passeth o’er the line,

Mourning my benighted soul,

Which so loseth light divine.

There stand I like men that preach

From the execution place,

At their death content to teach

All the world with their disgrace.

He that lets his Cynthia lie

Naked on a bed of play,

To say prayers ere she die,

Teacheth time to run away.

Let no love?desiring heart

In the stars go seek his fate,

Love is only Nature’s art.

Wonder hinders Love and Hate.

**None can well behold with eyes

**But what underneath him lies.


March 21 – Nabokov, Lolita


Class Notes:

?       Aesthetic/Poetic Possession

?       Page 11: “There are two kinds of visual memory…”

?       Eyes open vs. inner eye

?       Questions to ask: Was there a shift in Nabokov’s tone or way of describing Lolita before & after she loses her nymphet-like qualities? How much does HH come to know Dolly throughout the novel?

?       Original title of the book was “Kingdom by the Sea”

?       Question: Why is Catullus mentioned on pg. 66?

?       Theme: falling in love

?       Is it your reflection of someone you fall in love with? Or the actual person?

?       Question: is HH an endearing character?

?       Is there pleasure in reading the confession?

?       We looked at the difference between Nabokov’s rich language vs. starker styles of writing

?       Question: Does HH neglect the human Lolita?

?       Lily mentioned Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” where nudity was allowed because it was pure aestheticism and compared that to Lolita as a novel



March 26 – 28: Spring Break (No Class)



April 2 –Nabokov, Lolita


Class Notes:

?       Discussion on when HH begs Lolita to come away with him when she is a pregnant 17-year-old as a pivotal plot point

?       Is the nymphettery left behind? Does the nymphettery turn into real love?

?       HH’s presentation of the story from a psychological analysis perspective provides us a framework for why HH acts the way he does and explains his action

?       Part of his ploy to convince us to take his side

?       Nabokov used flashcards to write

?       Wrote his novels in a non-linear fashion

?       Argument that HH is truly being sincere but it does not make him forgivable and morally reborn

?       Was the reading experience pleasurable?

?       Many thought the ending of Part One where HH says Lolita has nowhere left to go was disturbing and where the morality of HH truly crossed a line, from fantasy to something real and wrong

?       Some enjoyed the games and writing



April 4 –Naipaul, Guerrillas


Class Notes

?       Difficulty working through all the games being played

?       Difficulty of doing the work to read through the “poison” being conveyed

?       Struggle on the Periphery Michael Manley

?       An ideology of liberation

?       From colonialism, racism, slavery

?       Borne partially out of American black power, traditional marxism

?       To understand the view on “white hysteria,” one should understand the history of colonial exploitation of the caribbean for sugar

?       Extremely violent subjugation of hundreds of thousands of black slaves by thirty thousand whites

?       Fifty thousand Mulatto slaves (i.e. products of sexual violence against black slaves)

?       Constant fear and tension on the part of whites that the black majority would rise up against them

?       This form of slavery (chattel slavery) was historically unprecedented and was predicated upon the dehumanization of the slaves through an ideology of racial superiority.

?       Setting as character

?       Intense description creates a precedent for the intensity of the horrors in the book

?       “Glitter rather than color”



April 9 –Naipaul, Guerillas


Class Notes:

?       Ch. 4 (pg. 59): the way he adopts Jane’s voice shows he is unable to see Jane as a person

?       the discomfort in reading the novel comes from the “unbelievably shallow” M.C. despite the deep violent socio-political problems

?       “Ego-maniacal fan fiction” (Hass)

?       Roche’s molars ? striking imagery

?       Idea of people’s perceptions is explored deeply in Guerillas

?       Guerillas is a novel with a thesis

?       Recurring imagery of rotten meat & drinks

?       Discussed the role of the Sexual Revolution coming into play in the novel



April 11 – Nabokov, Pale Fire


Class Notes:

?       Guerrillas is an apologue = a moral fable



April 16 – Nabokov, Pale Fire


Class Notes:

?       Kin = Family, Bote = Money

?       Hass suggests: Kin + Bote = Blood money

?       The Poem

?       Versification is simple, heroic couplets

?       Heroic couplets mostly unused by 20th century writers

?       Nabokov’s breadth of genres and stylistic modes is exemplified with his poem

?       Multiple stories at play at the same time

?       1. Kinbote as a crazy stalker fan
2. The Shades loss of their daughter
3. John Shade groping with the afterlife
4. Zemblan King’s escape
5. Assassination of John Shade

?       Entire novel is a farcical misreading; wildly inaccurate, unreliable narrator

?       Satirizes those that read into poems and literature too deeply

?       Notice Kinbote’s failed attempts at love e.g. students complaining to the head of his department about his behavior, ping pong, the “swimming pool incident”

?       Similar to Don Quixote, Kinbote entirely creates his own world

?       Similarity between the daughter’s suicide (on the mirrored, glass lake) & the waxwing bird dying on the windowpane (the opening lines of the poem)

?       Nabokov slightly rebels against the idea of a World of Cause and Effect through his characters/narrator’s slips, accidents, mirroring, and glimpses into “another world”



April 18 – Nabokov, Pale Fire


Class Notes:

?       “Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects— that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me— I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron.” – Nabokov

?       Is the novel a reflection of reality or is it deceptive in reflecting reality?

?       Do we assign meaning to reality or does the world inherently have meaning?

?       In an interview, Nabakov states that the nasty commentator is Botkin, the madman

?       Yet, in the novel there is no evidence of this

?       Botkin is an anagram of Kinbote

?       Idea that “Pale Fire” describes the moon, which is a reflection of “Real Fire”, describing the sun, which is reality

?       Freddy suggests that he enjoyed the book by not looking beyond the games and wordplay

?       What is the purpose of all the games in the novel? Is it necessary to find its purpose?

?       Zembla = similar sounding to the word “Land” in Russian

?       Zembla ? Semblance ? Resemblance

?       Idea that Zembla represents Russia, just like Kinbote wants Shade to write about his homeland in his poem, Nabokov wishes to recreate his home country of Russia through his literature (through the distant, foreign land of Zembla)

?       We discussed the playfulness of the novel

?       Perhaps Nabokov uses games and humor to effectively avoid emotion

?       Nabokov’s novels exist/his writing describes the places where reality and the afterlife/alternate reality intersects

?       Classmate brought up the idea that if we take 2 lines to represent reality and afterlife, Nabokov’s interests and writing describes the places where the 2 lines crossover

?       Idea that Nabokov uses his characters as a mask, in order to tell the truth

?       “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde


April 23 — Naipaul, A Bend in the River


Class Notes:

?       The Congo

?       A rich country for minerals

?       Pre-eminent kleptocratic state

?       US & Soviet Union backed different groups within the Congo, struggle for power eminent

?       “The Big Man” is a light veil of the leader of the Congos in the late 20th century

?       Colonialism

?       Factors of Colonization: industrialization, technology, religion, types of economies

?       Character spotlight: Zabeth

?       A “sorceress”, othered by the narrator and society

?       Perhaps an embodiment of many racist & sexist ideas of Naipaul’s?

?       Dichotomy between the outside & inside



April 25 – Naipaul, A Bend in the River


Class Notes

?       Colonialism forcing borders on Africa

?       Naipaul attempts to fill the narrator with a mistrust, cynicism, etc that comes from the culture along the Eastern African Coast

?       Questions the results of decolonization: What is the new Africa?

?       “My family beat up Mahesh terribly. But that just made me more determined.”

?       Portrays Shoba as very brave

?       However it’s the only place where the book does so

?       Up until this point, she is portrayed as extremely vapid and her relationship is represented as the “fruit of vanity”

?       Demonstrates how external beauty comes before internal complexity for female characters in Naipaul’s writing

?       Alternate view: This is from the POV of Salim who is simply amazed by the requital of their love and cannot comprehend it when comparing it to the fact that he’ll have to have an arranged marriage

?       Women in Nabokov vs Naipaul

?       Female characters in Naipaul are created as possessions of male characters

?       Nabokov’s aesthetic descriptions function as a representation of the internals of the characters



April 30  – Naipaul, A Bend in the River


Class Notes:

?       Spent all of class discussing the scene when Salim beats Yvette

?       Opinions regarding this scene:

?       Thought Naipaul was using this scene as a shock tactic

?       Yvette’s phone call at the end of the scene is most disturbing

?       Stockholm Syndrome

?       The relationship between Salim & Yvette is similar to Colonialism

?       Conquering, Possessing, Taking Advantage

?       Neurotic sex scenes across all Naipaul novels ? perhaps a look into Naipaul’s psyche? Questioning of authorial psyche spilling into his novel

?       Sex scene is unusual for Salim’s character

?       Perhaps a result of his increased self-awareness from his relationship with Yvette



May 2 – Naipaul, Transparent Things