The Nabokov Paper

David Briers, Art Monthly, Issue 372, December 2013

The Nabokov Paper

Masters of European Fiction was the literature class taught by Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell University during the 1950's that required him to give a series of annual student lectures which he devoted to seven canonical novels: Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Dr Jekyl, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Swann's Way and Ulysses. Nabokov's lectures have become legendary, in as much as they were essentially performative events and thus unrepeatable. After all, Nabokov once told his class that he would rather have devoted the time allotted for his lecture to 'silent contemplation of the glory of Dickens'. If documented at all, he would have liked them to have been filmed or broadcast on TV, but this was never achieved. He strictly forbade the printed publication of his preparatory notes, but they were published posthumously anyway in 1980. At the end of that book are some samples of the exam questions that Nabokov set his students about Bleak House and Madame Bovary. They are unorthodox and odd questions, both unusually particular and disconcertingly open-ended, such as: 'Follow Mr Guppy through Bleak House.' How would you do that exactly?

The translator Kate Briggs has collaborated with graphic designer Lucrezia Russo to supplement some of these surviving exam questions with additional Nabokovian ones of their own. The resulting fictional exam paper, which they called 'The Nabokov Paper', was responded to by 38 pan-European visual artists, designers, illustrators, writers, academics, translators, architects, a librarian, a curator and a computer engineer. Each was invited to choose one exam question from those available and to 'answer' it in their own way. An exhibition at Shandy Hall of the creative responses evidenced a great variety of outcomes, from the quite evasive to the immediately comprehensible, from the wholly textual to the essentially haptic. The contributions take the form of word-processed and handwritten texts, computer-generated diagrams, paintings, films, objects and a board game from Poland set out on a green baize table.

Some examinees address themselves to Nabokov himself Forbes Morlock writes a letter to 'Dear Prof Nabokov', explaining why he can't answer his exam question. Guillaume Constantin interleaves a copy of Bleak House with a reordered Pantone swatch book, taking almost literally Nabokov's poetic concept of the 'coloured shadows' that he feels accompany each character as they appear in Dickens's narrative.

The numerous plans and maps in the exhibition reflect the sketched layouts of fictional houses that appear in Nabokov's lecture notes. Otherwise, the lists, indexes and structural textual analyses that appear here are heirs to the 'aesthetics of information' that originated with Max Bense - participants setting themselves tasks like finding one text within another or rendering an elegantly rhythmic colour -coded abstraction from the narrative of a noveL There is much evidence, too, of the more recent influence of the graphs and maps that are the trademark of the quantitative methodology of Franco Moretti's fashionable literary analyses. And then as far as you can get from those sorts of processes are objects like Chloe Briggs's spectre of a beetle painted into a piece of found wallpaper, a series of small but lovely Proustian acrylics by the late architect Gianni lavacchini and Maurice Carlin's wearable glove-like objects, derived from Flauberts descriptions of how Madame Bovary held and read books.

The exhibition successfully avoided (albeit narrowly) accusations of being too wordy, too literary, too centred on academic preoccupations, too demanding upon the attention span. Partly this was down to the care with which it had been assembled and displayed, but also because of the appropriateness of the exhibition's locus. Tristram Shandy was not one of Nabokov's seven selected great European novels, but the siting of the exhibition at Shandy Hall at Coxwold in rural North Yorkshire was no accident. The modest 18th-century home of the novelist Laurence Sterne is open to the public, and its book collection is a lure for bibliophiles. For some years, the upper floor of a converted granary adjacent to the house has been used for art exhibitions. The Hall's current curator in residence, Patrick Wildgust, has successfully established a programme of exhibitions which relates closely to Sterne as the pioneer deconstructor of both the narrative and physical forms of the novel, making the gallery 'a place to recontemplate the book'.

The exhibition found itself topographically within the zone of influence of Sterne. The house and its contents (including Wildgust's own complementary collection of off-centre literature), its second-hand bookshop, its garden with its large nocturnal population of moths - the proximity of all these things subtly coloured the exhibition, like a version of Nabokov's 'colour shadow' conceit Wildgust's own 'exam paper' contribution is an evocative index of moths, linked by sentences found in Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, and echoing Nabokov's lifelong passion for identifying and classifying lepidoptera.

The exhibition at Shandy Hall ceased on 22 November, except as a memory, just like Nabokov's inimitable lecture-performances. Nevertheless, everything that was in the exhibition is in its related publication (the longer texts are best absorbed sitting down). Published by the 'information as material' imprint British proponents of 'conceptual writing', it is the same size and heft as a student's A4 lined refill pad, designed clearly and unostentatiously by Russo. And yet the publication and the exhibition are not simply duplicates of each other; they are different, parallel incarnations of the same idea, leading a double life.

Written fictions are prevalent these days within the visual arts. Artists publish their own novellas, and fiction sections appear in art magazines. This exhibition, however, established itself to one side of this tendency: equally on the margins of both the art exhibition and literary publishing mainstreams. There is a plenitude of texts about exhibitions, but an exhibition about reading is much scarcer. This project invites us to exarrrine for ourselves how to read a novel, where to read it whether to re-read it, how to relate it to other fictive disciplines, and what we think about literary canonisation.

Designated by its devisers as 'an experiment in novel reading', the project aims to induce a desire within us to answer some of its 'exam questions' ourselves. It worked for me - I am impatient to 'follow Mr Guppy through Bleak House', as Nabokov wanted me to do.

The Nabokov Paper, eds Kate Briggs, Lucrezia Russo, information as material, 2013, I04PP, £4·99, 978 I 90746820 9.

The exhibition took place Shandy Hall, Coxwold, 26 October to 22 November.

DAVID BRIERS is an independent writer and curator, based in West Yorkshire.