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Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

The Russian-born American poet, fiction writer, critic, and butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), one of the most highly acclaimed novelists of his time, was noted for his sensuous and lyrical descriptions, verbal games and experimental narrative style, and his carefully structured and intricate plots.

Best known as the author of Lolita, the scandalous 1950s novel about an underage temptress, Vladimir Nabokov was much more than a chronicler of lecherous professors. He was one of the most productive and creative writers of his era. His novels, short stories, essays, poems, and memoirs all share his cosmopolitan wit, his love of wordplay, his passion for satire, and his complex social commentary. Nabokov's work appeals to the senses, imagination, intellect, and emotions. His themes are universal: the role of the artist in society; the myth of journey, adventure, and return; and humanity's concepts of memory and time, which he called a tightrope walk across the "watery abyss of the past and the aerial abyss of the future."

Child Prodigy

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, as one of five children of a wealthy noble couple. Nabokov's parents encouraged the gifted youth to follow his mind and imagination. He played with language and linguistics, mathematics, puzzles and games including chess, and soccer, boxing and tennis. He read English before he read Russian. Interested in butterflies, he became a recognized entomological authority while still young and remained a noted lepidopertist his entire life. Nabokov began to write poems when he was 13 and, as he described it, "the numb fury of verse making first came over me." His first book of poetry was published in 1914, and a second appeared in 1917. He called his early writing an attempt "to express one's position in regard to the universe."

Nabokov's father, a lawyer who edited St. Petersburg's only liberal newspaper, rebelled against first the czarist regime, then against the Communists. Bereft of land and fortune after the Russian Revolution, the family fled Russia for London in 1919, where Nabokov entered Cambridge University. He graduated with honors in 1922 and rejoined his family in Berlin, where Nabokov's father was gunned down by a monarchist. Nabokov married Vera Slonim in 1925 and they had a son, Dmitri, who later became an opera singer. In Berlin, Nabokov taught boxing, tennis and languages and constructed crossword puzzles. He began writing under the pseudonym "V. Sirin," selling stories, poems and essays to Russian-language newspapers in Berlin and then, after fleeing the Nazis in 1938, in Paris. His work included translations as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and the poem La Belle dame sans merci into Russian, literary criticism, short stories, plays, and novels. He began writing in English and in 1940 moved to the United States.

Early Days in America

In 1940, Nabokov taught Slavic languages at Stanford University. From 1941 to 1948 he taught at Wellesley College and became a professor of literature. He also was a research fellow in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University from 1942 to 1948, and later discovered several butterfly species and subspecies, including "Nabokov's wood nymph." While teaching, he wrote The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), a parody of the mystery-story genre, whose hero is derived from the author's own life. A Guggenheim fellowship in 1943 resulted in his scholarly 1944 biographical study of Russian author Nicolai Gogol. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945 and by then was a regular contributor to popular magazines.

Nabokov's 1947 novel Bend Sinister is about an intellectual's battle with a totalitarian police state. It is considered a parody of the utopia genre. In 1949 Nabokov was appointed professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University, where he taught until 1959. His memoir of his early life in Russia, Speak, Memory (1951), is a charming autobiography. Several short sketches published in the New Yorker, were incorporated into Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian emigre teaching at an American university.

Lolita Brings Notoriety

Despite Nabokov's vast productivity, scholarly status, and high standing in literary circles, he remained relatively unknown to the general public until Lolita, a sadly hilarious account of Humbert Humbert, a pompous middle-aged professor who is seduced by a 12-year-old schoolgirl. It was first published in Paris in 1955. After its first American edition came out in 1958, some U.S. libraries banned it. The scandal helped the book become immensely popular. Critical reaction ran the gamut from outrage to high praise. Nabokov sold the film rights and wrote the screenplay for the 1962 movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. With royalties from the novel and the film, Nabokov was able to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to his writing and to butterfly hunting.

In 1959 Nabokov published Invitation to a Beheading, a story of a man awaiting execution, which he had first written in Russian in 1938. In 1960 he and his family moved to Montreux, Switzerland. Nabokov received critical acclaim for Pale Fire (1962), a strange, multidimensional exercise in the techniques of parable and parody, written as a 999-line poem with a lengthy commentary by a demented New England scholar who is actually an exiled mythical king.

Playing with Time

In 1963 Nabokov's English translation of Alexander Pushkin's romantic verse novel Eugene Onegin was published; the four-volume scholarly work was, Nabokov said, his "labor of love." Several translations of earlier Russian works followed, including The Defense, a novel about chess. Nabokov's Ada (1969), an "autumnal fairy tale" whose principal characters are imprisoned by time, is subject to many levels of interpretation, with its intricate construction, complex allusions, word games, staggering erudition, chronological ambiguities and literary parody. Time in this novel is blended into a totally free-ranging and distorting present, what Nabokov called "the essential spirality of all things in their relationship to time." The novel is the fulfillment of Nabokov's theme from Speak, Memory: "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip."

Nabokov constructed his novels like puzzles, rather than working from beginning to end. In 1964, he told Life magazine: "Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime." Nabokov died July 2, 1977, at the Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, where he had lived since 1959.

Further Reading

See Nabokov: The Man and His Work, edited by L.S. Dumbo (1967); Andrew Field's, VN, The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (1986); Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The British Years (both 1991) by Brian Boyd's; Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov (1966) and his introduction to Nabokov's Congeries (1968) by Page Stegners). □

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Nabokov, Vladimir

Vladimir Nabokov

Born: April 23, 1899
St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: July 2, 1977
Montreaux, Switzerland

Russian-born American writer and poet

Russian-born American poet, fiction writer, and butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov, most famous for the novel Lolita, noted for his dramatic descriptions, experimental style, and carefully structured plots, was one of the most highly acclaimed novelists of his time.

Gifted child

Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 23, 1899, one of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and Helene Rukavishnikov Nabokov's five children. Nabokov's parents were wealthy and encouraged him to develop his imagination. He studied languages, mathematics, puzzles, and games, including chess, soccer, and boxing. He was educated by private tutors and read English before he read Russian. He entered Prince Tenishev School in St. Petersburg at age eleven. Interested in butterflies his entire life, he became a recognized authority on the subject while still young. Nabokov began writing poems when he was thirteen years old and, as he described it, "the numb fury of verse making first came over me." His first book of poetry was published in 1914.

Nabokov's father, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was part of a failed movement to establish democracy (a system of government where the people rule) in Russia. The family lost its land and fortune after the Russian Revolution (a Communist overthrow of the government) in 1917 and fled to London, England, where Nabokov entered Cambridge University in 1919. Nabokov graduated in 1922 and rejoined his family in Berlin, Germany, where his father was shot to death by a monarchist (a believer in absolute rule by a single person).

Begins writing career

Nabokov married Vera Slonim in 1925. They had one son, Dmitri, who later became an opera singer. In Berlin Nabokov taught boxing, tennis, and languages and constructed crossword puzzles. He began writing under the name "V. Sirin," selling stories, poems, and essays to Russian-language newspapers in Berlin and then Paris, France. His work included translating different stories and poems into Russian and writing short stories, plays, novels, and criticism. In 1940 he moved to the United States.

In 1940 Nabokov taught languages at Stanford University in California. From 1941 to 1948 he taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he became a professor of literature. He also did research in entomology (the study of insects) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Massachusetts from 1942 to 1948. He later discovered several species of butterflies, including "Nabokov's wood nymph." While teaching he wrote The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), a parody (humorous imitation) of a mystery story whose hero is based on the author's own life. In 1944 he completed a study of the life of Russian author Nicolai Gogol (18091852). Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945. By then his stories were appearing regularly in popular magazines.

Nabokov's 1947 novel Bend Sinister is about an intellectual's battle with a police state. In 1949 Nabokov was appointed professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University in New York, where he taught until 1959. He wrote a book of memories of his life in Russia, Speak, Memory, in 1951. Several short sketches published in the New Yorker were put together in Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian teaching at an American university.

Popular success

Nabokov remained unknown to the general public until writing Lolita, a sad but funny account of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged professor who falls for a twelve-year-old schoolgirl. It was first published in Paris in 1955. After its American release in 1958, some U.S. libraries banned it. The publicity helped the book become immensely popular. Nabokov also wrote the screenplay (the script for a movie) for the 1962 movie version of the book. With profits from the novel and the film, Nabokov was able to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to his writing and butterfly hunting.

In 1959 Nabokov published Invitation to a Beheading, a story of a man awaiting execution, which he had first written in Russian in 1938. In 1960 he moved his family to Montreux, Switzerland. He received critical praise for Pale Fire (1962), written as a 999-line poem with a long speech by an unstable New England scholar who is actually a mythical king in exile.

Later works

In 1963 Nabokov's English translation of Alexander Pushkin's (17991837) romantic novel Eugene Onegin was published. Nabokov called the four-volume work his "labor of love." Several translations of earlier Russian works followed, including The Defense, a novel about chess. Nabokov constructed his novels like puzzles, rather than working from beginning to end. In 1964 he told Life magazine, "Writing has always been for me a torture and a pastime." Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, at the Palace Hotel in Montreaux.

In April 2000 Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, which contained fiction, poems, nonfiction, and writings related to Nabokov's love of butterflies, was published. Dmitri Nabokov translated it from Russian.

For More Information

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Cornwell, Neil. Vladimir Nabokov. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1999.

Dembo, L. S., ed. Nabokov: The Man and His Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Field, Andrew. VN, The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Crown, 1986.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. Rev. ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967. Reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

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Nabokov, Vladimir

Vladimir Nabokov (vlädē´mĬr näbô´kŏf), 1899–1977, Russian-American author, b. St. Petersburg, Russia. He emigrated to England after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and graduated from Cambridge in 1922. He moved to the United States in 1940. From 1948 to 1959 he was professor of Russian literature at Cornell. He moved to Switzerland in 1959.

One of the great novelists of the 20th cent., Nabokov was an extraordinarily imaginative writer, often experimenting with the form of the novel. Although his works are frequently obscure and puzzling—filled with grotesque incidents, word games, and literary allusions—they are always erudite, witty, and intriguing. Before 1940, Nabokov wrote in Russian under the name V. Sirin. Among his early novels are Mary (1926, tr. 1970) and Invitation to a Beheading (1938, tr. 1959). His first book in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1938).

Nabokov's most widely known work is undoubtedly Lolita (1958). The story of a middle-aged European intellectual's infatuation with a 12-year-old American "nymphet," Lolita was considered scandalous when it was first published. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) is a philosophical novel that is both the chronicle of a long incestuous love affair and a probe into the nature of time. Among Nabokov's other novels are Bend Sinister (1947), Pnin (1957), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). His unfinished final novel, which he wanted destroyed, was published as The Original of Laura (2009).

Nabokov's volumes of poetry include Poems and Problems (1970) and the posthumous Selected Poems (2012). Among collections of his short stories are Nine Stories (1947), Nabokov's Dozen (1958), and A Russian Beauty (1973); many of them are gathered in The Stories of Vladimir Nobokov (1995). Among his other writings are his first major work, a play entitled The Tragedy of Mister Morn (1923–24), posthumously published in Russian (1997) and English (2013). His other works include a critical study of Gogol (1944); translations from the Russian, notably a four-volume version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964); and several autobiographical volumes, most notably Speak, Memory (1966). His college lectures, posthumously published, include Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German Writers (1980) and Lectures on Russian Literature (1981).

Nabokov also was an internationally recognized lepidopterist. He and his wife collected hundreds of species of butterflies, and he was the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. In the years since his death, his scientific stature has grown. His theories of the evolution and classification of the Polyommatus blue butterfly, once discredited, have since been shown by genetic studies to be remarkably accurate.

See selected letters ed. by M. J. Bruccoli and D. Nabokov (1989); biography by B. Boyd (2 vol., 1990–91); studies by A. Field (1967), W. W. Rowe (1971), D. Fowler (1974), L. Toker (1989), M. Wood (1995), and M. Maar (tr. 2010); B. Boyd and R. M. Pyle, ed., Nabokov's Butterflies (2000); J. W. Connolly, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov (2005). See also biography of his wife by S. Schiff (1999).

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Nabokov, Vladimir

Nabokov, Vladimir (1899–1977) US novelist, b. Russia. His family emigrated in 1919, and he settled in Germany. His debut novel was Mary (1926). The rise of fascism forced Nabokov to flee, first to France then to the USA (1940). His first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1938). Nabokov composed some of the greatest imaginative novels of the 20th century. Bend Sinister (1947) is a political novel on authoritarianism. His best-selling work, Lolita (1955), is a controversial, lyrical novel about an old man's desire for a 12-year old ‘nymphette’. Other works include Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada (1969).

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