Only after her death on Friday did I learn that Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a student of Vladimir Nabokov as an undergraduate government major at Cornell from 1950 to 1954. Ginsburg credited Nabokov and a professor at Columbia Law School with her career-long “caring about writing.” She told an interviewer:
“[Nabokov] was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence.”
In 1948, Nabokov was hired as an associate professor of Slavic literature at Cornell. He taught Literature 311-312, “Masters of European Fiction,” and Literature 325-326, “Russian Literature in Translation.” Ginsburg would have been enrolled in the former. Nabokov’s Cornell Lectures on Literature (ed. Fredson Bowers) was published in 1980, three years after his death. The novels Nabokov required his students to read, including Mansfield Park, Dead Souls and Ulysses, have attained the status of a sub-canon within the canon.
What’s surprising is that Ginsburg credits Nabokov with teaching her to be a more exacting writer, which is not the subject he was formally teaching. In his introductory chapter to Lectures on Literature, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” he writes:
“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
Perhaps Ginsburg thought of Nabokov as a writer-teacher. His grading of student papers was notably tough. Perhaps the future justice learned something about writing from reading his books, which for some of us are a master class in prose. In 1953 alone, along with teaching fulltime, Nabokov had five writing projects under way. Lolita was nearly finished. He was outlining Pnin, translating from Russian into English The Song of Igor’s Campaign and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and from English into Russian Conclusive Evidence, the memoir he revised and retitled Speak, Memory.
The interviewer asks Ginsburg, “Did you stay in touch with him after you left Cornell?,” and she replies: “Not after he wrote Lolita, a huge success, and went off to Switzerland to catch butterflies.”