Boyd, Brian 1952- (Brian David Boyd)

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Boyd, Brian 1952- (Brian David Boyd)


Born July 30, 1952, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; son of David Boyd and Jean Abernethy; married Janet Eden, 1974 (divorced, 1980); married Bronwen Nicholson (an editor), 1994; stepchildren: Cassandra, Thomasin, Alexandra. Education: University of Canterbury, B.A., 1972, M.A. (with honors), 1974; University of Toronto, Ph.D., 1979.


Home—Auckland, New Zealand. Office—Department of English, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1, New Zealand. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]


Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, junior lecturer, 1974; University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand, postdoctoral fellow, 1979-80, lecturer, 1980-85, senior lecturer, 1986-91, associate professor, 1992-99, professor of English, 1999-2001, university distinguished professor, 2001—. Visiting professor at University of Nice at Sophia Antipolis, 1994-95, and V.V. Nabokov Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2002.


International Vladimir Nabokov Society, Human Behavior and Evolution Society, New Zealand Society of Authors.


Thomas Carter Essay Prize, Shenandoah, 1989, for a chapter of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years; Robert and Suzanne Weiss fellow, Amherst College, 1992; James Cook fellow, Royal Society of New Zealand, 1997-99; Einhard Prize (Germany), 2001.


Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness, Ardis (Ann Arbor, MI), 1985, 2nd edition, Cybereditions (Christchurch, New Zealand), 2001.

Vladimir Nabokov (biography), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), Volume 1: The Russian Years, 1990, Volume 2: The American Years, 1991.

(Editor) Nabokov: Novels and Memoirs, 1941-1951, Library of America (New York, NY), 1996.

(Editor) Nabokov: Novels, 1955-1962, Library of America (New York, NY), 1996.

(Editor) Nabokov: Novels, 1969-1974, Library of America (New York, NY), 1996.

Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1999.

(Editor, with Robert Martin Pyle, and coauthor of annotations and introductions) Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncorrected Writings by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.

(Editor) Words that Count: Essays on Early Modern Authorship in Honor of MacDonald P. Jackson, University of Delaware Press (Newark, NJ), 2004.

(Editor, with Stanislav Shvabrin, and author of introduction) Vladimir Nabokov, Versions and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry (Nabokov's translations of verse by other poets), Harcourt Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor to books, including introduction to Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999; and foreword, Alphabet in Color, by Nabokov, Gingko Press (Corte Madera, CA), 2005. Contributor to periodicals, including Shenandoah, Scripsi, Southern Review, Islands, Landfall, Times Literary Supplement, Natural History, Shakespeare Quarterly, Philosophy and Literature, American Scholar, Washington Post, and New York Times.

Boyd's work has been translated into Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.


Brian Boyd is the author of Vladimir Nabokov, a two-volume biography of the celebrated writer whose works include the novels Lolita and PaleFire. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years traces the first half of Nabokov's life, ending as Nabokov leaves Paris for America in 1940, while the second volume, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, is concerned with the remaining years of Nabokov's life, which he split between the United States and Switzerland. New York Times Book Review contributor Sergei Davydov called the first volume "superb" and credited Boyd for bringing "back to life a most remarkable man, who valued literature above all else," adding: "We will not need another biography of Nabokov for the foreseeable future." Walter Kendrick, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the second volume "a truly monumental achievement" and observed that "Nabokov has found, at last, a biographer worthy of him." Jay Parini wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Prof. Boyd … has done his homework with almost superhuman diligence, tracking his subject to the far ends of the Earth, and it shows." Parini concluded: "The Russian Years is an exquisitely written book that will not be superseded for a very long time." "In every respect then," Michael Dirda noted in the Washington Post Book World, "this is yet another of those masterly literary biographies of recent years, eligible to sit at the right hand of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce," which won a National Book Award in 1960.

In The American Years, Boyd describes Nabokov's life in America, where he taught literature at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and Cornell University. Butterfly collecting, a passion Nabokov had developed in his youth, occupied much of his time throughout his life, and he spent many summers pursuing that interest in the American West. In the twenty-one years Nabokov lived in America, he never owned a house. Instead, he and his family lived in "sublets" and motels until 1961, when they took up residence in a hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, where they remained until Nabokov's death in 1977. In 1960, Nabokov had become independently wealthy due to the huge success of his novel Lolita, enabling him to give up his teaching career and focus on his writing in relative seclusion. In the last eighteen years of his life he published a book virtually every year; his last, Look at the Harlequins!, came out in 1974.

Nabokov also published an autobiography, Speak, Memory, which, years later, was reprinted with an introduction by Boyd. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited was released five decades after Nabokov wrote his account of his life and marked the 100th anniversary of Nabokov's birth. Random House's Web site posted some of Boyd's comments on the acclaimed author's autobiography: "Speak, Memory is the one Nabokov work outside his finest novels—The Gift, Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada—that is a masterpiece on their level…. [It is] the most artistic of autobiographies…. [It] fuses truth to detail with perfection of form, the exact with the evocative, and acute awareness of time with intimations of timelessness."

Boyd's interest in Nabokov started at an early age: He read Pale Fire three times when he was seventeen. Around the age of forty-seven, Boyd published a study of that work, Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, in which he "skillfully peels away the layers of [that] novel in a feast of literary detective work," observed Library Journal contributor Ronald Ratliff. In Nabokov's Pale Fire, Boyd refutes some people's contentions that Pale Fire is merely a satire of the literary life.

Boyd collaborated with butterfly expert Robert Martin Pyle to edit, annotate, and introduce Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncorrected Writings by Vladimir Nabokov, publication that contains some text translated from Russian by Nabokov's son, Dmitri. Nabokov's Butterflies is "a fascinating volume" that brings to light "Nabokov's obsession with butterflies," noted Jay Parini in the Guardian. Nabokov's Butterflies contains segments of Nabokov's diaries, correspondence, interviews, poems, stories, novels, drawings, and autobiography, as well as scientific writing.

Reviewers such as New York Times Book Review contributor Laurie Adlerstein noted that Nabokov's Butterflies, particularly the portions of heavily scientific writings by Nabokov, would be tiring if read through completely. Parini, however, found relief in the editorial decision to truncate some of Nabokov's more scientific text and appreciated Boyd and Pyle's inclusion of multiple forms of Nabokov's writing.

"In his shrewd introduction [to Nabokov's Butterflies] Boyd teases out the connections between the writer and the lepidopterist," observed Parini, explaining: "One comes to understand Vladimir Nabokov as novelist more completely and precisely by understanding that science gave this canny author ‘a sense of reality that should not be confused with modern (or "postmodern") epistemological nihilism.’" "I had not realized the extent to which Nabokov's fiction depended on his attention to the natural world," revealed Parini, who concluded: "Nabokov offered, in his magnificent fiction, a complete taxonomy of the human spirit. He might not have been so meticulous and thorough were it not for the parallel interest in lepidoptery." In contrast, Adlerstein said that "Nabokov's Butterflies juxtaposes science and art, but cannot integrate them."

Discussing the importance of Nabokov's Butterflies in the Spectator, John Fowles commented: "We can't begin to enter Nabokov's world, or worlds, unless we realize that, like every great writer of fiction, he had a vital sense of humour. This scholarly book (an outstanding triumph for Anglo-American publishing) constantly hints at or suggests this. It is expertly edited and annotated…. [I]t gives an unbelievably rich portrait of a genius…. Nobody who has not read this book can call himself a true natural historian."

Boyd once told CA: "Biography offers a writer a rare combination: to undertake exhaustive scholarly research on a figure of major intellectual importance and yet to excite an audience far beyond academia. Although Nabokov was highly regarded—in the 1960s he was often considered the best writer alive—many have thought of him as primarily an astonishing stylist, a verbal magician. I wanted to suggest that there was much more to him than that: that he had a coherent and highly individual philosophy that shaped his style, his structures, his strategies, and that there was meaning in his magic."

Boyd later added: "Over the last few years I have tried to develop a new approach to literary study. I had felt strongly for some time that academic literary studies had taken a wrong turn, that the humanities absurdly overplayed the importance of language, culture, and cultural difference, and underplayed the physical, biological, and neurological worlds, and human similarities. Along with others I think we need to find an approach to literature that reflects the fact that humans have evolved, that we are shaped in part by our deep past. What can fields like evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary economics, and cognitive neuroscience offer literary study? Why as a species do we spend so much time in telling or attending to stories that both sides know are untrue? How do we make up and understand stories so effortlessly? How can evolutionary lenses deepen our vision of the human nature depicted and appealed to in literature?

"Before I had found an evolutionary way out of my dissatisfaction with the literary-critical fads of the 1980s and 1990s, I had thought of another way out: biography. I looked for a literary writer, a twentieth-century figure, who would inspire me enough for years of intense work and hadn't already been the subject of a first-rate biography, but there wasn't one who satisfied my personal criteria. But I found myself being drawn irresistibly to a non-literary writer who, like Nabokov, had received world recognition, and had at one time been considered at the top of his field, but was now not appreciated as I think he deserves. That is the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who has been rated as one of the most important philosophers, even the most important, of the twentieth century. He certainly has had more impact on science, politics, and economics than any other twentieth-century philosopher. And the common critiques of his supposed ideas leave his actual ideas intact."



Boyd, Brian, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1990.


Guardian, March 25, 2000, Jay Parini, "The Wings of Desire."

Library Journal, October 15, 1999, Ronald Ratliff, review of Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, p. 70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 11, 1990, Jay Parini, review of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, pp. 1, 8.

New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1990, Sergei Davydov, review of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, pp. 3, 26-27; September 22, 1991, Walter Kendrick, review of Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, pp. 1, 22-23; May 7, 2000, Laurie Adlerstein, review of Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncorrected Writings by Vladimir Nabokov.

Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2000, review of Nabokov's Butterflies, p. 74.

Quadrant, April, 1991, Jill Kitson, "Nabokov and Fate," pp. 71-74.

Spectator, April 15, 2000, John Fowles, "The High Ridges of Knowledge," pp. 36-37.

Washington Post Book World, October 21, 1990, Michael Dirda, review of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, pp. 1, 11.

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Boyd, Brian 1952- (Brian David Boyd)

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