Edward Jay Epstein attended college at Cornell. When he was a freshman, he took Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture course about European and Russian literature. Nabokov told his students that a great writer creates pictures in readers’ heads. One of the exam questions, about Anna Karenina, was Describe the train station where Anna met Vronsky.
Epstein hadn’t read the book. However, he had seen the movie, so he described in great detail the train station in the movie. After the exam, Nabokov asked to meet him. Epstein told him he hadn’t read the book. Nabokov said it didn’t matter, and gave him an A. He offered Epstein a job. Ithaca had four movie theaters. Movies were released on Wednesday, so every Wednesday each theater would have a new movie. Nabokov loved movies. He went on Friday. He wanted to know which movie to choose. Epstein’s job, for which he was paid, was to watch all four movies and report back.
Epstein did this conscientiously but in retrospect, he said, one of his comments was a mistake. The Queen of Spades (from Pushkin’s story) was one of the movies. Epstein told Nabokov it reminded him of Dead Souls. (They were reading Dead Souls in class.) This interested Nabokov. He looked at Vera, his wife, who was sitting at his desk facing him. He asked Epstein why The Queen of Spades reminded him of Dead Souls.
“They’re both Russian,” said Epstein.