The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, etcetera. It's a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times.--Zadie Smith, "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov," in Changing My Mind, 41.
A rereader [recall] can come to inhabit (p. 43) a limited number of novels. Time is scarce, so it's no surprise that we learn the architecture of only a few novels, although some of us may be surprised to learn how few we learn. Smith does not explain the the upper limit (half a dozen), and is discretely silent on how many rereadings are required to come to know a novel's architecture. As it happens, she provides evidence that she required at least five such re-rereadings; Smith decided to inhabit "Pnin," which is a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita," (42) and later in the essay she admits that only during the "most recent rereading" (that is sixth time she read it) that she thinks "to kneel in front" of her "desk, place a glass of water at eye level and a position a comb, on end, behind it. Zebra cocktail! Nabokov saw it--now I do. And it's beautiful. Gratitude does not seem out of place." (54)
As it happens, on re-reading Smith's essay, I noticed that in between her analysis of Nabokov and Barthes, and the nature of writing and reading, she weaves two other analyses on subjects close to my troubled heart: first, that of the constitution of meaning (which I will largely ignore here); second, that of teaching (which I will focus on). Near the end of her essay, Smith notes that "Whether one quite approves of it or not, it's a Nabokovian assumption that if you work to give him back what he has given to you, this should be reward enough (for you). His students learned this soon enough." (54) Smith then adds a footnote (13) with quote from Nabokov: "My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examination." (54 n. 13).
On Smith's rendering, Nabokovian teachers demand from their students a mastery of detail both of the subject matter studied (e.g., novels) and the matter taught (the lectures about these novels, etc.). There is no surplus to be generated by the student; she aims to master all, but no more than the subject studied and the lectures taught about the subject. The Nabokovian teacher is godlike, and the student's attitude qua student is a form of gratitude to the teacher for his gifts (recall this post). The student acquires (quite partial) mastery of a subject, and that is its own reward for a certain type of student.
I don't think Smith means to endorse Nabokovian teachers. For, earlier in her essay, she had remarked (i) that there is more than one type of student, and (ii) that the teacher need not force the students into a particular kind of mold (and i-ii are at odds with Nabokovian position):
To observe these two natural, unschooled reactions is fascinating [qua teacher]: they reveal within the famous ideological debate a more intimate and important question of character, into which a teacher should not necessarily intrude. Why not allow each student to find out for himself what kind of rereader he is? No bad blood need to be spilled over it (as it was when I was in college). After all, you can storm the house of a novel like Barthes, rearranging the furniture as you choose, or you can enter on your knees, like the pilgrim Nabokov thought you were, and try to figure out the cunning design of the place--the house will sand either way. (43)
I am a bit suspicious of the idea that the two reactions she describes -- (A) "to those students who have a tendency to feel humbled before the act of writing, [Barthes'] 'The Death of an Author' is a perverse assault on the privileges of authorship, on the possibility of fixed meaning, even upon 'Truth' itself' and (B) those students who "are excited to to add to the text's indeterminacy, their own indeterminacy as well" (42) -- are natural and unschooled. Perhaps, they are natural to "writing students" at elite colleges. (For those that like traditional schemas, (A) stands for authority loving types and (B) stands for the freedom-loving types. [Smith tells us she is naturally drawn to (B; 43; see also 49)]) That we teach to multiple souls at once is also a familiar fact of life to teachers who teach in some non-selective environments.
Smith advocates a kind of restraint in which the teacher allows the student to find out for herself what kind of rereader the student is. The problem is that it is not entirely clear that the restraint Smith advocates on the side of teachers also permits the discovery by students of being (say) a kind of Nabokovian rereader. That is to say, it's quite crucial to Smith's advocacy that certain ways of responding to texts are natural and unschooled. But her own text undermines this thought because to become a Nabokovian rereader one must also be schooled by Nabokov or some other teacher that shares in his "vision of total control." (55) This Nabokovian teacher does not permit the existence "of a secondary power directing and diverting," (55)* and so cannot allow a student unschooled nature to remain unschooled inside his classroom.
There is evidence that, Smith recognizes the point of the previous paragraph. Above, I suggested that Smith recognizes two souls. But that's not quite right. She also recognizes a third, educated soul which recognizes that the relationship between author and reader is a "partnership" which is "far more hesitant and delicate than" Barthes's (or Nabokov) allows. In this partnership, author and reader are "stumbling towards meaning simultaneously, together." (56) Smith does not say much to explain that 'simultaneously'--it can't mean what it means either in special relativity or in ordinary common sense. Against Barthes, Smith wants to hold on to the idea that the Author completes the text before the reader reads it. Both writing and reading can be intentional activities, but the meaning of/produced by the text is something that exceeds the Author's intentions, even though she must be willing to (decide to) live with the meaning so unfolded. (An Author can always press delete and restart until the text is submitted.) So, I suspect she means that for Author and reader the meaning of the text is something unfolds as the text unfolds. There is more to be said about her notion of meaning (but that's for another time).
The partnership is a "connection" between the reader and "a consciousness other than" her "own." That is, to read is to connect with bits of somebody else's mind. It is based not on an implicit or explicit contract, but on the reader's "cautious faith." (56) By contrast, writing is an imposition of one's thoughts on imagined/unknown others: "in many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want..." (55 n. 7 quoting Joan Didion)** Smith is clear that these 'many ways' don't exhaust the act of writing, but they are necessarily a part of it (while also exploring this act simultaneously in her novels [recall here and here]).
To reach the point of allowing for some such partnership, one must be taught to be schooled in reflexes that correct or transform the unschooled natural responses. Frustratingly, Smith is not very elaborate on the ways one is taught to become a hesitating (I have used stuttering) rereader (although it's clear that in her case, it means a giving up an exclusive embrace of freedom). But we can discern at least two ingredients: first, the very practice of rereading is a necessary step in such an education. It's only then that you learn that while you can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable, (46, quoting Nabokov). That is, one must become accepting of failure in one's life (51), while not resting in it. Mastery of detail is an indirect means toward recognizing this end.
But second, and this is something that Nabokov does not seem to permit, one must be allowed to recognize that one's loneliness is an original and enduring impulse in reading about another "individual's experience of the world through the unstable medium of language." (56) There is, of course, a lot to be said about all the words in the previous sentence. But here I just want to note that if Smith is right, this requires as a duty on teachers to make space for the recognition of the existence of such loneliness by students (without of course drawing attention to their particular loneliness in front of other students--after all, a a teacher should not necessarily intrude nor embarrass) and then orient this recognition not to their (vain teacherly) selves, but to the thoughts of other worthy, individuals.
*The context is Nabokov's hostility to Freud and the very idea of the unconscious.
**From Why I Write. In another essay, Smith portrays Didion as an expert on what it is to be not frivolous (cf. Derrida).