- A Tribute to Priscilla Meyer
In this tribute I will limit myself to Priscilla's 35 years of intelligent and devoted service to the cause of the Nabokov society and Nabokov scholarship. Priscilla has authored over 50 publications on Nabokov, made over fifty public appearances as a Nabokov expert, and taught some of this country's most innovative courses on Nabokov's work. She has twice presided over the Nabokov society, and since 2001 she has been the editor of The Nabokovian's feature "Notes and Brief Commentaries." Both her scholarship and her teaching have won national prizes. The rest of Priscilla's CV is on the Wesleyan website.
However enviable such a list of achievements, the CV is a matter of public record, and like most public records, it fails to make clear what Priscilla's day-to-day presence as a teacher and scholar means to her students and colleagues. The CV also fails abysmally to give the proper measure of the woman since all those titles, functions, awards and honors were used by Priscilla to promote Wesleyan University and Vladimir Nabokov, not Priscilla Meyer. But Priscilla Meyer is a person who stands out among us by her bravery, originality, and generosity. Let's take each in turn.
Priscilla was not intimidated by Nabokov's protestations that he was immune to influence nor his interdicts regarding the connection between his fictions and his private life. Priscilla's first book on Nabokov proceeded from her assumption that Pale Fire on one very important level is an encoded autobiography, and that it had been influenced by things Nordic: "The attempt to make sense of his father's assassination is the ultimate moving force behind Nabokov's exploration of the history, literature, natural evolution, and language of the North" (5). So what the sailor has hidden is really Nabokov's "immortalized love for his father in a series of reflections on martyred royalty in history and art." Priscilla's bravery is also evident in her reviews especially where she points out the difference between the well-wrought and the overwrought. Yet her own prose is remarkably free of two faults that plague much of scholarly writing on Nabokov. The first of these is the unconscious adoption of vocabulary and cadences that imitate Nabokov's own writing; and the second is calculated incoherence that often passes for profundity. In fact Priscilla's skill at sympathetic exposition is such that the ideas of others can sometimes seem more interesting in her reviews than they were in the original. Clarity for her is a moral obligation even in the world some of us glumly, some of us glibly, and some of us gullibly refer to as "constructed."
Her originality can be summed up by one of her own phrases: "cultural synthesis." It unites her scholarship and her teaching, and it provides her students with tools and attitudes they need to function as literate readers. Cultural synthesis is not reducible to encyclopedic annotation or a study of influences. Done right, it requires its practitioner to discover in Nabokov's narratives phonetic, rhetorical, syntactic or semantic patterns whose expression is marked by their differences from what seems to be Nabokov's normative prose. The discovery has to be followed by the identification of the underlying text and an explanation of its functioning within ontological layers of the Nabokov texts. The professor could of course furnish such linkages. And with her knowledge of French and Russian literature, Priscilla was in a position to do precisely that. She chose not to do so, knowing all along that students rarely read by the flashes of lightning that emanate from their professor's witty forehead. In turn, her students realized that great teaching makes the students seek out more learning, not more professor.
Finally, we come to Priscilla's generosity. When a scholar divided between himself and Mrs. Nabokov all the credit for discovering Nabokov's "two-world" cosmology, Priscilla offered the mildest of protests by merely pointing out she and Don Johnson had that been publishing on the two-world thesis for almost a decade. I know my protest would not have been so mild because...