On a sunny Saturday, April 28, students, faculty, and visitors gathered in Wesleyan’s Russell House for a day of literature and celebration. The event was organized by Susanne Fusso in honor of East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies Chair Priscilla Meyer and her decades-long career comprised of scholarship, research, and education. Featuring a series of lectures examining author Vladimir Nabokov’s life and work, the event was also followed by an outpouring of appreciation for Meyer’s career.
Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his infamous novel Lolita, was a Russian-American writer in the mid-20th century. After fleeing from the 1918 October revolution in Russia, the Nabokov family lived briefly in Berlin, where Nabokov’s father was shot while trying to shield the intended target of an assassin’s bullet. His works feature layers upon layers of allusions and unreliable narrators, which can be simultaneously confusing yet engaging for his readers. During this symposium, well-read experts of Nabokov’s work shared their wisdom and exposed new insights into Vladimir’s writing.
The day began with lectures by Julia Chadaga and Maxim D. Shrayer. After lunch, Meyer’s own daughter and Assistant Professor of English at Framingham State University, Rachel Trousdale, presented on a paper titled “Durable Pigments: Primitive Art in Lolita.” Trousdale discussed the concept of artistic immortality in relation to “Lolita,” examining the notion that Humbert’s attempt at creating “durable pigments,” as well as his comparison of himself to famous artists and poets suggests that he thinks he is a genius. However, she went on to propose that his Lolita is a construct, and that Humbert has failed to literally step outside of time. She also examined his references to cave painting and folk art, suggesting his perception of his own timelessness and durability. Trousdale’s analysis of Humbert’s narrative and his references to Native American and Mexican culture and art provided a fresh take on the much-discussed, classic novel.
Professor Trousdale’s presentation was followed by Zoran Kuzmanovich’s. Kuzmanovich, a professor at Davidson College, worked closely with Meyer earlier in her career. He began by discussing “Gods,” the oft-forgotten story that Nabokov himself referred to as “bottom of the barrel.” The piece tells the story of a husband and wife visiting their son’s grave on a day similar to the one when they buried him. He drew attention to the imagery of rainbows, which allows us to see things not as they are, but as they are refracted. Kuzmanovich used this story to examine grief and its relationship to repetition. Repeating the hidden feelings and thoughts is a mode for processing grief—for mourning. Kuzmanovich’s work stems from his own grief surrounding his mother, who suffered several relapses of cancer. His personal investment in the work, both on an emotional and a literary level, is clear in the depth of his analysis.
Tatiana Ponomareva, who works for the Nabokov Museum in Petersburg, presented next on Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Ponomareva outlined the Russian roots of Kinbote’s Zembla, a fictional land from the novel. She also discussed the ethnic and linguistic makeup of the factory (Russian, Finnish, and German), which shaped the fictional Zemblan language. Additionally, the name of Botkin/Kinbote, repeated throughout the text, likely comes from the Botkin family, a member of which, Gleb Botkin, wrote about the impostor Anastasia. Ponomareva’s exhaustive research added detail, context, and explanation to one of Nabokov’s most legendary works, filling in the gaps that readers might overlook.
The lecture portion of the day ended with a former student of Professor Meyer’s, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, who delivered a fascinating talk titled, “Finding Justice in ‘Pale Fire.’” She outlined the common threads of crime, punishment, and mystery throughout Nabokov’s works, and pointed out that while occasionally death sentences are given in his texts, they are never explicitly carried out, allowing the audience to judge the outcome themselves. Sweeney analyzed an absent character in “Pale Fire” (Judge Goldsworth) and used this absence to discuss the lack of real justice in the novel. Sweeney shows an example of the effect of Meyer’s teaching: a devotion to deep research, scholarship, and curiosity.
After the series of lectures, the evening closed with expressions of thanks to Professor Meyer by friends, family, former students, and colleagues. They extolled her devotion to her students’ skill and excellence, as well as her tireless and creative research into the life and work of Vladimir Nabokov. Having taken class with Professor Meyer myself, these extensions of appreciation certainly resonated with me. Professor Meyer not only exacts excellence from her students, she works with them to bring about that excellence. This event, tirelessly and meticulously organized, was an excellent testament not simply to the work of Nabokov, nor simply to the work of Professor Meyer, but to her character as well.
Mae Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.