BORN: 1899, Saint Petersburg, Russia
DIED: 1977, Montreaux, Switzerland
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
King, Queen, Knave (1928)
Speak, Memory (1951)
Pale Fire (1962)
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
Novelist, literary critic, chess enthusiast, and butterfly expert, Vladimir Nabokov left behind a body of work characterized by a love of language and wordplay. Although his style markedly changed over time, becoming increasingly less lyrical, all his works are marked by a complex and sophisticated attention to detail. He achieved worldwide fame in 1955 with his highly controversial Lolita, the story of a middle-aged man's love affair with a twelve-year-old “nymphet.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Family with Liberal Leanings Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 22, 1899, to Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, a distinguished jurist known for his liberal political views, and Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova. Nabokov's father was an Anglophile, and the family had a leaning toward English products that included not only English soap and syrup but also a series of English governesses. As a result, Nabokov initially learned to speak English better than Russian.
A Numb Fury of Verse-Making Nabokov's parents encouraged him to follow his mind and imagination. He played with language and linguistics, mathematics, puzzles and games, including chess, and sports from soccer to boxing to tennis. Interested in butterflies, he became a recognized entomological authority while still young and remained a noted butterfly expert his entire life. Nabokov began to write poems when he was thirteen and, as he described it, “the numb fury of verse-making first came over me.” He began writing poems in Russian, French, and English, but his real passion for writing poetry began in 1914.
Fleeing Revolutionary Russia Nabokov's father, a lawyer who edited St. Petersburg's only liberal newspaper, rebelled against first the czarist regime, then against the communists. He was an active member of the Duma (the Russian parliament) until he was briefly jailed and stripped of his political rights in 1908 for signing a manifesto opposing conscription. In February of 1917, at the height of World War I and in the midst of a chaotic military mutiny, the Duma seized power, thus creating the Russian provisional government. Later that same year, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks in overthrowing this new governing body, thus inciting a bloody civil war. The Russian Revolution, as these two events are called, marked the transfer of governing power from the czarist autocracy to the Soviet Union, ending the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution, deprived of their land and fortune, the family fled Russia for London in 1919, where Nabokov and his brother entered Cambridge University. At Cambridge, Nabokov graduated with honors in 1922 and rejoined his family in Berlin in the wake of an unexpected tragedy. Nabokov's father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists as he tried to shelter their real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile.
Romance and Marriage After relocating to Berlin permanently, Nabokov received some income from public readings and from his publications, which included not
only literary works but also journalistic pieces and chess problems, but he found a more reliable means of support in providing instruction in French and English to students, primarily Russians. A romance with Svetlana Siewert, the subject of several of his poems, was terminated in January 1923 by her parents, who had insisted that he obtain a steady job as a condition for becoming engaged to their daughter. A few months later, he met his future wife, Véra Slonim, at a charity ball. Sensitive and intelligent, she could recite Nabokov's poetry by heart and became indispensable to him.
Nabokov married Slonim in 1925. In the fall, Nabokov wrote his first novel, Mary (1926). Based on Nabokov's relationship with Valentina Shulgina (Nabokov's first love), Mary is perhaps the most poetic novel Nabokov ever wrote. The original Russian version of the book received little attention, but after Nabokov's reputation burgeoned and the work was translated into English, Mary received closer critical attention.
Growing Literary Reputation and Travel As his literary reputation grew, Nabokov traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting his siblings and giving readings of his work. In 1937, he obtained permission for his family to relocate to France. It was at this time that Nabokov began to experiment with English, translating his Russian novel Otchayanie (1934) into the English Despair in 1937. After Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, the Nabokovs fled the Nazi advance into France in 1940 and sailed to the United States.
Early Days in America: A Series of Professorships His next book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), was written in English and marks the demise of the use of the pen name V. Sirin and the emergence of Vladimir Nabokov, an American writer. 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 was also 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.” A Guggenheim fellowship in 1943 resulted in his scholarly 1944 biographical study of Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945 and by then was a regular contributor to popular magazines.
In 1949 Nabokov was appointed professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University, where he taught until 1959. In 1951 he published the memoir of his early life in Russia, Speak, Memory. Six years later, several short sketches published in the New Yorker were incorporated into Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian émigré teaching at an American university.
Lolita Brings Notoriety Despite Nabokov's vast productivity, scholarly status, and high standing in literary circles, Nabokov did not gain widespread popularity until the publication of Lolita. The story of a middle-aged man's obsessive and disastrous lust for a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Lolita is widely considered one of the most controversial novels of the twentieth century. Rejected by four American publishers because of its pedophiliac subject matter, the book was finally published by Olympia Press, a Parisian firm that specialized in pornography and erotica. Lolita attracted a wide underground readership, and tourists began transporting copies of the work abroad. While U.S. Customs permitted this action, the British government pressured the French legislature to confiscate the remaining copies of the book and forbid further sales. However, the English author Graham Greene located a copy and, in a pivotal London Times article, focused on the novel's language rather than its content, designating Lolita one of the ten best books of 1955. Public curiosity and controversy fueled the book's popularity, and in 1958 it was published in the United States. Within five weeks, Lolita was the most celebrated novel in the nation and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year.
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 Montreaux, 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.
In his seventieth year, Nabokov produced his last major work, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), a sexually explicit tale of incest, twice as long as any other novel he had written and, according to the New York Times's John Leonard, “fourteen times as complicated.” An immediate best seller, Ada evoked a wide array of critical response, ranging from strong objections to the highest praise. While the value of the novel was debated, Ada was universally acknowledged as a work of enormous ambition that represented the culmination of all that Nabokov had attempted to accomplish in his writing over the years.
Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, where he had lived since 1959.
Works in Literary Context
Nabokov stated that his fiction expresses his passionate regard for human feelings and morality. Yet, some critics have accused Nabokov of being indifferent to social and political issues of his time, comparing his stories and novels to elegantly constructed, labyrinth-like narratives and riddles. This similarity is largely because of Nabokov's curious ability to combine his passion for literature with his strong interest in chess and crosswords. Many of Nabokov's stories share the motifs, themes, and techniques of his larger narratives and function as “little tragedies,” with some mythological, psychological, and metaphysical overtones. While he has been compared to author Joseph Conrad by some critics, Nabokov was critical of other prominent authors and rejected such comparisons. It was the authors he read in his youth, like Aleksandr Blok, that exerted the most influence on his poetic works.
Themes in Lolita It has been suggested that the character Dolores, whom Nabokov's antihero Humbert Humbert idealizes as “Lolita,” represents the superficiality of American culture viewed from a sophisticated European perspective. While other literary scholars do not deny this interpretation, they view an examination of the effects of the artist's antisocial impulses in addition to Lolita's satirical vision of American morals and values. Several commentators maintained that the accusations of pornography stemmed from Nabokov's lack of moral commentary regarding Humbert's actions, while some argued that the true crime of the novel is not the murder Humbert commits but his cutting short of Lolita's childhood. Critics feel that Lolita is not entirely blameless, however, for at twelve she is already sexually active, and, despite Humbert's extravagant designs, it is she who first seduces him. Lolita's character, as well as other characterizations in the novel, have won Nabokov consistent, unified praise for his ability to evoke both revulsion and sympathy in the reader. For example, it is generally agreed that Lolita has a truly unattractive personality, yet her unhappy life inspires compassion. Humbert is a pedophile and murderer but wins the reader's appreciation for his humor and brutal honesty, while Charlotte, Dolores's mother, is depicted as both a piranha and a pawn.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Nabokov's famous contemporaries include:
Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999): Few American directors were as simultaneously revolutionary and popular as Kubrick. His films—most based on novels—are meticulously constructed masterpieces that push the boundaries of cinematic vision.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008): Russian novelist and dramatist best known for his exposé of the Soviet system of political prison camps, or gulags. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930): Russian futurist poet, he coauthored the 1912 declaration A Slap in the Face to Public Taste. As a futurist, his work focused on the dynamic, hectic pace of modern life and tearing down old social orders and authority figures.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986): American visual artist most closely associated with the American Southwest. O'Keeffe is best known for her paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones, and landscapes that synthesize abstraction and representation.
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969): A leading voice among the so-called Beat Generation, a loose association of poets, writers, and musicians that revolted against the conformity of post–World War II America, Kerouac is best known for his stream-of-consciousness travelogue, On the Road.
Throughout Lolita, Nabokov challenges the reader. The novel's foreword, written by “John Ray, Jr., PhD,” a bogus Freudian psychiatrist, introduces Humbert's confession through overly complex psychological jargon, which Nabokov hated. Unwitting readers believe the foreword is sincere, especially because of Lolita's controversial subject matter. Nabokov's myriad uses of anagrams, coded poetry, and puns provide clues concerning Lolita's mysterious lover. Nabokov also parodies numerous styles of literature in Lolita; it is at times viewed as a satire of the confessional novel, the detective novel, the romance novel, and, most frequently, as an allegory of the artistic process.
Influencing a Generation of Postmodernists Nabokov's powerful writing impacted his contemporaries, such as John Banville, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Edmund White, as well as generations of authors after him. Other prominent authors that acknowledge Nabokov's influence include Martin Amis, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marisha Pessl, and Zadie Smith.
Works in Critical Context
Nabokov earned a secure reputation as one of the twentieth century's most inventive writers. His prose was lauded as both complex and playful, and his descriptive power was unparalleled. While many of his novels might be regarded as masterpieces, it is the blockbuster Lolita for which he is most remembered.
Lolita The initial reviews of Lolita were varied. While several critics expressed shock and distaste, most believed the “pornography” charges were erroneous. Praising Nabokov's lively style, dry wit, and deft characterizations, many reviewers concurred with novelist and literary critic Granville Hicks, who called the novel “a brilliant tour de force.” Beat novelist Jack Kerouac described Lolita as “a classic old love story,” and Charles Rolo commented in his September 1958 Atlantic Monthly article, “Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.”
Responses to Literature
- Research the history of the Russian emigrant community in Berlin in the 1920s through the 1940s. What part did Nabokov play in the larger community? Why did he leave Germany after the Nazis came to power, and what happened to those who chose not to leave?
- At one point in Lolita, Humbert admits that he never found out the laws governing his relationship with Lolita. Investigate what rights Humbert had as a stepfather in 1955 and what the penalties for incest were. Investigate the effects of incest on children and compare your findings to the effects Lolita's relationship with Humbert had on her.
- Analyze Nabokov's use of names in Lolita, such as how names are used in the book's word games. How does the comical name of Humbert Humbert influence the reader's opinion of his criminal acts? How are names used to reinforce the recurring theme of coincidence?
- Compare Nabokov's treatment of taboo-shattering sexual relationships in Lolita and Ada or Ardor. Is there an implied moral judgment in either work? How are the relationships treated differently? How are they similar?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Nabokov often employed emotionally detached, unreliable narrators in his stories, most notably in Lolita. Other writers stretching back to the nineteenth century have approached their stories in a similar fashion; strongly rooted in Russian literature, the technique later became widespread in both fiction and film during the twentieth century. Here are some other works that share Nabokov's detachment:
The Stranger (1942), a novel by Albert Camus. One of the best known works of absurdist fiction, The Stranger features an emotionally detached, unreflecting, and unapologetic main character named Meursault.
Notes from Underground (1864), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Narrated by a bitter, anonymous bureaucrat, this short novel is a collection of disjointed and often contradictory notes that decry the central character's alienation from his fellow man.
Diary of a Madman (1835), a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Considered one of his greatest works, and written from the first-person perspective of a diarist slowly slipping into love-induced insanity, Gogol plays with perceptions of reality and trustworthiness.
Psycho (1960), a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This groundbreaking work utilizes two unreliable narrators, first introducing a female “lead” who is quickly killed off, then misleading the audience as to the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother.
Alexandrov, Vladimir E. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Garland, 1995.
Appel, Alfred, Jr., ed. The Annotated Lolita. New York: McGraw, 1970.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 317: Twentieth-Century RussianÉmigré Writers. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Maria Rubins, University of London. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 278: American Novelists Since World War II, Seventh Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Eds. James R. Giles, Northern Illinois University, and Wanda H. Giles, Northern Illinois University. Detroit: Gale Group, 2003.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Fourth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Eds. Patrick Meanor, State University of New York College at Oneonta, and Joseph McNicholas, State University of New York College at Oneonta. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
Grayson, Jane. Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov's Russian and English Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Press, 1974.
Novels for Students. Vol. 9. Ed. Deborah A. Stanley and Ira Mark Milne. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Short Stories for Students. Vol. 15. Ed. Carol Ullmann. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Wood, Michael. The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Zimmer, Dieter E. A Guide to Nabokov's Butterflies and Moths. Hamburg: D. E. Zimmer, 1996.
Pseudonym (for works in Russian): V. Sirin. Nationality: American. Born: St. Petersburg, Russia, 23 April 1899; emigrated in 1919; became U.S. citizen, 1945. Education: The Prince Tenishev School, St. Petersburg, 1910-17; Trinity College, Cambridge, 1919-22, B.A. (honors) 1922. Family: Married Véra Slonim in 1925; one son. Career: Lived in Berlin, 1922-37, and Paris, 1937-40; moved to the U.S., 1940; instructor in Russian literature and creative writing, Stanford University, California, Summer 1941; lecturer in comparative literature, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1941-48; part-time research fellow, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942-48; professor of comparative literature, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1948-59. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, Spring 1952. Lived in Montreux, Switzerland, 1961-77. Translated or collaborated in translating his own works into English. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1943, 1953; American Academy grant, 1951, and Award of Merit medal, 1969; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1953; National Medal for Literature, 1973. Died: 2 July 1977.
Sobranie sochinenii [Works]. 1987—.
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. 1995.
Novels, 1955-1962: Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita A Screenplay. 1996.
Vozvrashchenie Chorba: Rasskazy i Stikhi [The Return of Chorb:Stories and Poems]. 1930.
Sogliadatai [The Spy] (novella). 1938; as The Eye, translated by the author and Dmitri Nabokov, 1965.
Nine Stories. 1947.
Vesna v Fial'te i drugie rasskazi [Spring in Fialta and OtherStories]. 1956.
Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of 13 Stories. 1958.
Nabokov's Quartet. 1966.
A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, translated by the author, Dmitri Nabokov, and Simon Karlinsky. 1973.
Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories, translated by the author and Dmitri Nabokov. 1975.
Details of a Sunset and Other Stories. 1976.
The Enchanter (novella), translated by Dmitri Nabokov. 1986.
Mashen'ka. 1926; as Mary, translated by the author and MichaelGlenny, 1970.
Korol' Dama Valet. 1928; as King Queen Knave, translated by the author and Dmitri Nabokov, 1968.
Zashchita Luzhina [The Luzhin Defense]. 1930; as The Defense, translated by the author and Michael Scammell, 1964.
Kamera Obskura. 1932; as Camera Obscura, translated by W. Roy, 1936; as Laughter in the Dark, revised and translated by the author, 1938.
Podvig' [The Exploit]. 1933; as Glory, translated by the author and Dmitri Nabokov, 1971.
Otchaianie. 1936; as Despair, translated by the author, 1937; revised edition, 1966.
Priglashenie na Kazn'. 1938; as Invitation to a Beheading, translated by the author and Dmitri Nabokov, 1959; revised edition in Russian, 1975.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. 1941.
Bend Sinister. 1947.
Dar. 1952; as The Gift, translated by the author and MichaelScammell, 1963.
Lolita. 1955; translated into Russian by the author, 1967; as The Annotated Lolita, edited by Alfred Appel, Jr., 1970.
Pale Fire. 1962.
Ada; or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. 1969.
Transparent Things. 1972.
Look at the Harlequins! 1974.
Smert' [Death], 1923, Dedushka [Grandad], 1923, Agaspher[Agasfer], 1923, Tragediia Gospodina Morna [The Tragedy of Mr. Morn], 1924, and Polius [The South Pole], 1924, all in Rul' [The Rudder] magazine.
Skital'tsy [The Wanderers], in Grani II [Facets II] magazine, 1923.
Chelovek iz SSSR [The Man from the USSR] (produced 1926). InRul' [The Rudder] magazine, 1927.
Sobytie [The Event] (produced 1938). In Russkie Zapiski, 1938.
Izobretenie Val'sa (produced 1968). In Russkie Zapiski, 1938; translated as The Waltz Invention (produced 1969), 1966.
Lolita: A Screenplay. 1974.
The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, translated by DmitriNabokov. 1984.
Stikhi [Poems]. 1916.
Dva Puti: Al'manakh [Two Paths: An Almanac]. 1918.
Gornii Put' [The Empyrean Path]. 1923.
Grozd' [The Cluster]. 1923.
Stikhotvoreniia 1929-1951 [Poems]. 1952.
Poems and Problems. 1971.
Stikhi [Poems]. 1979.
Nikolai Gogol. 1944.
Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir. 1951; as Speak, Memory: A Memoir, 1952; revised edition, as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966; as Now Remember, 1996.
Nabokov's Congeries: An Anthology, edited by Page Stegner.1968; as The Portable Nabokov, 1977.
Strong Opinions (interviews and essays). 1973.
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson 1940-1971, edited by Simon Karlinsky. 1979.
Lectures on Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers. 1980.
Lectures on "Ulysses": A Facsimile of the Manuscript. 1980.
Lectures on Russian Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers. 1981.
Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work, edited by J.E. Rivers and Charles Nicol. 1982.
Lectures on Don Quixote, edited by Fredson Bowers. 1983.
Perepiska s sestroi [Correspondence with His Sister]. 1985.
Selected Letters 1940-1977, edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli. 1989.
Editor and Translator, Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin. 4 vols., 1964; revised edition, 4 vols., 1976.
Translator, Nikolka Persik [Colas Breugnon], by Romain Rolland. 1922.
Translator, Ania v Strane Chudes [Alice in Wonderland], by LewisCarroll. 1923.
Translator, Three Russian Poets: Verse Translations from Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev. 1945; as Poems by Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, 1948.
Translator, with Dmitri Nabokov, A Hero of Our Time, by MikhailLermontov. 1958.
Translator, The Song of Igor's Campaign: An Epic of the Twelfth Century. 1960.*
Nabokov: Bibliographie des Gesamtwerks by Dieter E. Zimmer, 1963, revised edition, 1964; Nabokov: A Reference Guide by Samuel Schuman, 1979; Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography by Michael Juliar, 1986.
Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Nabokov by Page Stegner, 1966; Nabokov: His life in Art: A Critical Narrative, 1967, Nabokov: His Life in Part, 1977, and VN: The Life and Art of Nabokov, 1986, all by Andrew Field; Nabokov: The Man and His Work edited by L. S. Dembo, 1967; Keys to Lolita by Carl R. Proffer, 1968, and A Book of Things about Nabokov edited by Proffer, 1974; Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations, and Tributes edited by Alfred Appel, Jr., and Charles Newman, 1970, and Nabokov's Dark Cinema by Appe1, 1974; Nabokov by Julian Moynahan, 1971; Nabokov's Deceptive World by W. Woodlin Rowe, 1971; Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels by Julia Bader, 1972; Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1974; Nabokov by Donald E. Morton, 1974; Reading Nabokov by Douglas Fowler, 1974; Nabokov by L. L. Lee, 1976; The Real Life of Nabokov by Alex de Jonge, 1976; Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov's Russian and English Prose by Jane Grayson, 1977; Nabokov: America's Russian Novelist by George Malcolm Hyde, 1977; Fictitious Biographies: Nabokov's English Novels by Herbert Grabes, 1977; Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody by Dabney Stuart, 1978; Blue Evenings in Berlin: Nabokov's Short Stories of the 1920's by Marina Naumann, 1978; Nabokov: His Life, His Work, His World: A Tribute edited by Peter Quennell, 1979; Nabokov and the Novel by Ellen Pifer, 1980; Nabokov: The Critical Heritage edited by Norman Page, 1982; Nabokov's Novels in English by Lucy Maddox, 1983; The Novels of Nabokov by Laurie Clancy, 1984; Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels by David Rampton, 1984; Critical Essays on Nabokov edited by Phyllis A. Roth, 1984; Problems of Nabokov's Poetics: A Narratological Analysis by Pekka Tammi, 1985; Nabokov: Life, Work, and Criticism by Charles Stanley Ross, 1985; Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Nabokov by D. Barton Johnson, 1985; A Nabokov Who's Who by Christine Rydel, 1986; Nabokov by Michael Wood, 1987; Understanding Nabokov by Stephen Jan Parker, 1987; Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures by Leona Toker, 1989; Nabokov: The Russian Years 1899-1940, 1990, and Nabokov: The American Years, 1991, both by Brian Boyd; A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction edited by Charles Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo, 1993; A Guide to Nabokov's Butterflies and Moths by Dieter E. Zimmer, 1993; Vladimir Nabokov by David Rampton, 1993; Madness, Death and Disease in the Fiction of Vladimir Nabokov by Nina Allan, 1994; The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood, 1995; On Nabokov's Poem Pale Fire by Andrew Hoyem, 1997; Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading by Gavriel Shapiro, 1998.* * *
The privileged first son of an aristocratic family, Vladimir Nabokov grew up fluent in Russian, English, and French. His early introduction to the glories of language developed into a lifelong fascination with words and word play. The rich texture of his style and the highly allusive and parodic quality of his prose produce a body of work so recondite that it requires multiple rereading, good dictionaries, and shelves full of reference books in order to appreciate fully its meaning and structure. Though Nabokov's stories are weaker on the whole than his novels, they still serve as excellent examples of his art. The short stories generally appear less interesting than the novels, mainly because they are more straightforward; several of them, however, do reach the high creative level of the longer works.
Nabokov wrote the majority of his stories in his native tongue during his Berlin exile (1922-37), during which time he also wrote his nine Russian novels. The stories first appeared in the émigré periodical press, and a number of them came out in two collections, Vozvrashchenie Chorba (The Return of Chorb) and Sogliadatai (The Eye). Most of this early fiction deals with the complicated, poignant, sad, and often lonely aspects of émigré life. After having arrived in the United States Nabokov wrote in English the novels that secured his fame and led his adopted country to claim him as her own: Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Nevertheless, émigré life remains a theme in some of his English short stories ("The Assistant Producer," "That in Aleppo Once," "Conversation Piece, 1945"). Émigré life serves as a metaphor for the more general themes of displacement and dislocation of time and space.
Nabokov's own concerns over such issues as the suffering of the weak at the hands of the cruel, the human reluctance to accept responsibility for one's actions, the nature of individuality and freedom, and the role fate plays in individual lives place him in the great tradition of nineteenth-century Russian literature. These subjects also belie both the critical commonplace that he is merely a literary game player and his own contention that there are no "messages" in his work. Never blatantly didactic, Nabokov's fiction nevertheless rests on a firm moral basis.
Perhaps the most prevalent themes in Nabokov's fiction deal with the nature of art, consciousness, and reality. He also writes about love, sexuality, and madness. But most of all Nabokov teaches his audience how to read literature, especially his own, by concentrating on the details that reveal the patterns of his work. And though Nabokov vehemently denies the presence of symbols in his work, motifs such as his favorite butterflies and moths recur in his fictive universe. These patterns in turn provide his ideal readers with the clues necessary to perceive the created reality of each of his stories and novels.
The characters who inhabit Nabokov's special world generally do not fit into their social milieu. Because they usually do not concern themselves with current affairs or the "eternal questions," some critics accuse them of being solipsistic. Other critics contend that all of Nabokov's heroes are artists and writers. But his heroes come from all walks of life and all levels of intelligence and sensitivity—from the most sensitive poet to the least perceptive Philistine, or poshliak. His secondary characters also make up a wide range of types and function on many levels. Especially in the novels and stories of exile, these characters form the background for the action of the heroes. In addition, they fit into the society alien to the heroes and thereby accentuate their dislocation and displacement.
One of Nabokov's best stories, "A Guide to Berlin" ("Putevoditel' po Berlinu," 1925), does not dwell on the standard sights to which a Baedeker might direct a tourist: railway stations, hotels, restaurants, churches. This guide does not even mention the well-known street Unter den Linden or the landmark situated on Berlin's western end, the Brandenburg Gate. Instead the nameless narrator points out to his nameless companion the harmony of black water pipes covered in snow that unites them to the outer edge of the sidewalk on which they are lying; he then boards a tram and concentrates on the conductor's hands and the images they awake in his consciousness. From the tram he observes people at work and takes us with him into his synesthetic view of the city. His next stop is the zoo, which he describes as an artificial Eden, but an Eden that stimulates his imagination. At the end we see the narrator and his drinking companion in a pub, the details of which he sees in a mirror. This sight causes him to speculate on how he might be a future memory in the mind of a child he is observing in the present. "Guide to Berlin" not only presents us with a way of looking at the city Nabokov called home for many years, it also shows us how to perceive the reality of Nabokov's world by teaching us how to read his fiction. One apprehends the entire picture by concentrating on separate details.
The German city in "The Return of Chorb" becomes a modern day Hades for the protagonist who returns to tell his parents-in-law that his wife has died in a freak accident. Chorb checks into the seedy hotel where he spent his wedding night and later takes a prostitute there, but only sleeps with her quite innocently. When he awakens from a troubled dream, he turns and imagines his late wife is at his side. He screams, and she takes fright and runs out of the room just as Chorb's in-laws are arriving. The details of the story evoke an aura of death: the parents walk along "lifeless streets"; Chorb sees everything in shadows and shades. Everywhere he notices leaves, withering trees, the black masses of the city park, black pavement. He sees a "young lady, as light as a dead leaf." It even "seemed to him that happiness itself had … the smell of dead leaves." Mice scurry and spider webs hang about. But one particular detail takes what could be seen as a typical late autumn scene and transforms the surroundings into Chorb's personal hell. From the hotel window "one could make out … a corner of the opera house, the black shoulder of a stone Orpheus," the man who went to Hades to bring his wife back from the dead—Chorb's very quest.
A view from another hotel window offers the main character of "Cloud, Castle, Lake" ("Oblako, ozero, bashnia," 1937) a glimpse of paradise. The narrator's "representative," Vasili Ivanovich, wins a "pleasuretrip" at an émigré raffle. He tries to give the ticket back, but to no avail. He must travel around Germany with a group of louts who torture him because he scorns their collective activities and simply wishes to be alone to read the Russian poet Tiutchev. While hiking he leaves the group and finds an inn from whose window he could see cloud, castle, and lake (cloud, lake, and tower in the Russian version) "in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness." He tells the group he wants to stay behind, but they force him to return and badly beat him. Not only does this story express Nabokov's hatred of cruelty, it also serves as a prologue to and source of the title of his novel Priglashenie na Kazn' (Invitation to a Beheading). In addition, many allusions and parodies provide numerous subtexts to one of Nabokov's favorite and finest stories.
Other stories that deserve critical attention include "Spring in Fialta," "Signs and Symbols," "The Potato Elf," and "The Vane Sisters." The remaining stories are not without merit; they simply suffer in comparison with the brilliance of his best short fiction and novels.
—Christine A. Rydel
See the essay on "Signs and Symbols."
(b. 23 April 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia; d. 2 July 1977 in Montreux, Switzerland), novelist, critic, and poet known as a brilliant prose stylist and experimenter, whose novel Lolita (1955) became an emblem of the new sexual openness in the 1960s; also a renowned lepidopterist.
The eldest of five children, Nabokov published his first book of poems in 1916. He was born to Vladimir Dmitrievich, a prominent local politician in the Saint Petersburg city duma, or council, and Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikov, a homemaker. Nabokov attended Tenishev Academy in Saint Petersburg beginning at age twelve. Nabokov's father, an outspoken opponent of the Bolshevik takeover, escaped with his young family to London in 1919. After fleeing Russia, Nabokov enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, to study Romance and Slavic languages. He graduated in June 1922, just a few months after his father's assassination in Berlin. In his early career Nabokov wrote in Russian, using the name Vladimir Sirin.
Nabokov married Vera Evseevna Slonim, a Russian Jew, on 25 April 1925 and published his first novel, Mashen'ka (Mary) in 1926. Living in Berlin, Nabokov worked as a tutor, translator, and movie extra to supplement his small income from writing. The couple's only child, Dmitri, was born on 10 May 1934. In 1937 the Nabokovs moved to Paris, and in 1940, when France became occupied by the Nazis during World War II, they fled to New York. Nabokov took with him the manuscript of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), his first novel in English and his first to be published under his given name. Once in the United States, Nabokov's work in lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths, won him a research fellowship at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nabokov became a naturalized U.S. citizen on 12 July 1945; at about the same time, he heard that his brother Sergei, who had remained in Berlin during World War II, had died in a Nazi concentration camp.
By the late 1940s Nabokov already saw himself as an American writer, but the works that gained him the reputation as one of the most inventive writers of the twentieth century were produced in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the most important are Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). His best-known and most influential novel is Lolita. Although Lolita first appeared in France in 1955, its full impact was not felt until the 1960s, largely because it was banned in many countries until then. Chronicling a middle-aged man's sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl, Lolita contributed to the relaxation of attitudes toward sex in the 1960s and triggered revisions to obscenity laws around the world.
Nabokov himself anticipated problems with Lolita and initially hoped to publish under a pseudonym to protect his position as a professor at Cornell. Five major American publishers rejected the novel, and a reader at Simon and Schuster called it "sheer pornography." Lolita finally was accepted by Olympia Press in France, the publisher of such "difficult" avant-garde writers as Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs. In 1957 U.S. Customs seized but later released the Olympia Press edition, and it was banned in France until 1958. When Putnam published the novel in the United States that year, it sold 100,000 copies in just three weeks. A British edition appeared in 1959, after a relaxation of the obscenity laws. The public response to the novel was a strange mixture of popular trivializing and moral outrage. By 1960 the words "Lolita" and "nymphet" had been adopted widely into the language, and Nabokov himself was alarmed to discover that girls were dressing up as Lolita to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. The comedian Groucho Marx said that he had put off reading Nabokov's novel for six years, when Lolita would be eighteen.
The income from Lolita enabled Nabokov to resign his post at Cornell and become a full-time man of letters. The director Stanley Kubrick planned to make a movie of the novel, and Nabokov, by this time in hiding in Europe, was offered $75,000 to write the screenplay. Kubrick later said that it was the best screenplay ever written for a Hollywood movie. The idea of a film about Humbert Humbert's sexual obsession was too much for Americans campaigning against the relaxation of Hollywood's moral standards. Kubrick took refuge in England, where he made the film and where he stayed for the rest of his life. When the movie appeared in 1962, the flames of notoriety were fanned still further. Kubrick's film challenged establishment views about good taste and decent behavior and made Nabokov a household name.
Nabokov was uneasy with his fame and sought protection from interviewers, journalists, moralists, and fans, all of whom mobbed him whenever he appeared in public. He lived at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, from 1959 onward, though he retained his American citizenship. It was there that he wrote Pale Fire (1962), a long poem about an exiled king, with a critical commentary by the poem's subject, a fictionalized, satirical representation of an exiled Balkan monarch. Despite its controversial subject matter, Lolita is perhaps the most conventional of Nabokov's works from the 1950s and 1960s. Both Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor are ambitious, experimental works that emphasize Nabokov's view of literature as a game. At the same time as he tells his stories, Nabokov exposes their construction with puns, word games, and tricks. By the 1960s Nabokov had become a major influence on the cultural and literary climate of the United States and Europe. With the help of his son, he translated novels originally published in Russian and made pronouncements on other major figures, calling Sigmund Freud the "Viennese witch doctor" and attacking the sloppiness of modern scholarship.
Nabokov was a reluctant celebrity. He turned down honorary degrees and memberships of learned societies on the grounds that he could not be an active member of any organization. In fact, the only society he joined was the American Lepidopterists' Society, but he asked that his name be left off the membership lists. By the end of the twentieth century Nabokov was widely regarded as one of the finest postwar writers and one whose influence reached far beyond literature. He died from a viral infection at the age of seventy-eight and is buried in Montreux.
Nabokov's papers are divided between the Vladimir Nabokov archive in Montreux, Switzerland, and the Library of Congress. He published an autobiography based on sketches of life in prerevolutionary Russia, Speak, Memory (1966), and his Selected Letters: 1940–1977 was published in 1989. The definitive biography of Nabokov is by Brian Boyd and comes in two parts, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990) and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 5 July 1977).
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.
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 (1809–1852). 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 theNew Yorker were put together in Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian teaching at an American university.
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.
In 1963 Nabokov's English translation of Alexander Pushkin's (1799–1837) 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.
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."
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.
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). □