Tolstoy and company explained by Nabakov; Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 324 pp. $19.95.
This remarkably lively compendium of literary instruction and opinion is a follow-up publication to last year's much-acclaimed ''Lectures on Literature,'' the ''written-out notes for delivery as classroom lectures'' used in the ''Masters of European Fiction'' course that Nabokov taught at Cornell from 1948 to 1958. The present batch (used in his other regular course, ''Russian Literature in Translation'') shows this assured writer-scholar on his own literary and linguistic turf, and it is an Olympian, sardonic, peremptory, persnickety delight.
The relevant lines are drawn (and gauntlets thrown down) in the opening lecture, ''Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers,'' in which Nabokov lauds the imaginative originality of 19th-century Russian literature and its staunch resistance to censorship, then lambastes both Russian writers of recent vintage and their oppressors, ''the Soviet police state.'' Predictably opposed to such anti-imaginative institutions as Socialist Realism, Nabokov reiterates his credo of art as invention, even ''play'' - and sneers at any art that gives houseroom to any propaganda (airily dismissing, for example, ''the special delivery stories of Gorki, or Thomas Mann'').
To eager literature students - for whom Russian fiction always seems to have a kind of romantic-tragic afflatus anyway - it must have been a revelation to watch Nabokov strutting and issuing pronouncements (''Great literature skirts the irrational''; ''No major writer is simple''; translators, as a breed, are invariably inept, or timid, or both).
There's no questioning this supreme artificer's skills as a straightforward communicator. Each of the lectures on individual writers (which are the core of this book) begins with detailed biographical information, offers general statements about the nature and worth of the oeuvre, then isolates one or more artistic problems engaged, and proceeds to show - through an interweaving of textual quotation, summary, and analysis - how such problems were solved.
Nabokov isn't very enlightening about writers he doesn't much admire. Gorki is waved away as a crude writer further limited by his ''revolutionary bias.'' Turgenev is damned with faint praise (''He is not a great writer, though a pleasant one'') - though a fair-minded examination of the plot and structure of ''Fathers and Sons'' argues convincingly that this truly subtle writer was most effective as a pure prose stylist.
Dostoyevsky, ever the object of Nabokov's wittiest abuse (for his ''lack of taste,'' ''neurotic Christianism,'' and other melodramatic excesses), was nevertheless, manifestly, a demon with whom Nabokov never stopped wrestling. Beneath the contemptuous blasts at ''The Brothers Karamazov'' (''a typical detective story, a riotous whodunit'') and ''The Possessed'' (''grand booming nonsense with flashes of genius illuminating the whole gloomy and mad farce''), we feel, I think, Nabokov's nagging realization that there may indeed be more here than has met his eye.
The writers who earn his most generous praise are Chekhov, Gogol, and Tolstoy. It's a bit surprising to note such pleasure taken in Chekhov's modest, delicately detailed picturing of his ''dove-gray world'' - by a critic who responds no less strongly to Gogol's combination of imaginative vivacity and deranged religiosity. The sensibility that can discern (and describe) great things in such wildly differing tales as ''The Lady With the Little Dog'' and ''The Overcoat'' is hardly a limited one, even if one feels, as I do, that he's simply blind to Dostoyevsky's force and grandeur.
Nabokov is at his best in a heartfelt paean to Tolstoy, ''the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction,'' that centers in a virtuosic explication of the fiendish structural problem, ''the synchronization of seven major lives,'' solved so triumphantly in ''Anna Karenina.'' Lavishing minute attention on Tolstoy's uses of foreshadowing, symbolism, characterizing detail (''Tolstoy never misses a gesture''), and much, much more, Nabokov clearly shows precisely how this great novel works - and, for about the hundredth time in my life, I mean to reread it immediately.
For all these reasons, and for incidental perceptions, witticisms, and addenda (such as Nabokov's own highly distinctive visual aids) too numerous and scattered to mention, I really cannot recommend this book too highly. Anyone who has ever read either Nabokov or his great predecessors with pleasure should treat himself to a copy right away. Bruce Allen is a free-lance writer.