Born: April 23, 1899
Died: July 2, 1977
Little known facts:
Nabokov composed the first crossword puzzles offered in Russian.
He was a chess problem composer.
The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of his work in the field of entomology as were a number of butterfly and moth species that have labels alluding to Nabokov or characters from his novels.
Much better known facts:
Nabokov could read and write in English before he could in Russian. (Nabokov, 28)
Nabokov provided a new English word for vulgarity—the Russian word Poshlost, which he translated as “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature” like “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” (Paris Review)
There were serious discussions about Carl R. Proffer’s “Keys to Lolita” actually coming from Nabokov because the pedantry could be read as a parody on pedantry and because the name Proffer seemed like one Nabokov might adopt as a pseudonym. But Mr. Proffer was in fact a very serious Indiana University scholar. (Whitman)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov grew up in a wealthy, trilingual household known for high culture and commitment to public service in St. Petersburg, Russia. After two previous forced immigrations, he settled in the United States in 1939, living here until 1959. Nabokov’s American period included the writing of his greatest works, Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire, as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also translated works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. (Whitman)
He won popular recognition and the means to move to Switzerland with the publication of Lolita in 1958. His subsequent works, together with the publication of translations of his earlier novels from the original Russian, earned him a position amongst the best authors of the century. (Whitman) He is considered a major and unique contributor to 20th Century English and world literature—to the point that we have the adjectives “Nabokovian” and “Nabokovesque” in English.
Early Life and Non-Writing Career
Nabokov was the first and favorite of five children of loving, sensitive parents living in a townhouse in the heart of St Petersburg, on idyllic country estates, and at beach resorts. (Boyd) His father was the liberal lawyer, statesman, and journalist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his mother Elena Ivanovna née Rukavishnikova. Vladimir learned to speak and read English before he could read Russian and he developed into an attractive, talented, disciplined and competitive youth. He learned to box and to play tennis, to solve chess problems and to collect butterflies. He wrote his first poem at fifteen. (Whitman)
After the February Revolution in 1917, Nabokov’s father became a secretary of the Russian Provisional Government (a constitutional monarchy) and, after the Bolshevik October Revolution, the family fled the city for Crimea for what they thought would be a short stay. They stayed at a family friend’s estate and in September 1918 moved to Livadiya, part of the first Ukrainian Republic. There Nabokov’s father became a minister of justice in the Crimean Regional Government.
After the German Army withdrew in November 1918 and the defeat of the White Army early in 1919, the Nabokov family finally they accepted they were going into exile. Though Vladimir had just inherited $2 million and an estate from an uncle, the whole family left for Western Europe with only a few jewels and clothing.
Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, first to study zoology, then switching to Slavic and Romance languages. In 1920, the Nabokov family moved to Berlin, where his father started the émigré newspaper Rul’ (“Rudder”).
Nabokov followed his family to Berlin after completing his studies at Cambridge. In 1936, his wife Véra, a Russian Jew, lost her translating job because of the increasingly anti-Semitic environment and his father lost his life, taking an assassin’s bullet meant for another target, while he was second-in-command of the Russian émigré group. It was in that year Nabokov began seeking a position somewhere in the English-speaking world and in 1937, he left Germany for France, considering it a safer place from which to conduct his search. Besides writing and translating, Nabokov spent time during his exile composing chess problems that he published in the Russian émigré press.
After several years in France watching the security of their situation being eroded, he accepted an invitation to lecture on Slavic languages at Stanford in 1939. After Stanford, Mr. Nabokov taught at Wellesley from 1941 to 1948, first as a lecturer, then as a professor of literature, working concurrently as an entomologist specializing in lepidopterology at Harvard where he discovered several species and subspecies of butterflies, including Nabokov’s wood nymph. Because he never learned to drive, he depended on his wife Véra to take him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, he organized the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical and were regarded as significant contributions.
He wrote novels, poems, and short stories while teaching throughout the 40’s and 50’s. From 1949 until 1959, he was a professor at Cornell and an occasional lecturer at Harvard. He became a citizen in 1945 and lived in the United States for 20 years.
In terms of political orientation, Nabokov described himself as a classical liberal like his father. He described Lenin’s Bolsheviks as “grey rag-tag people” in a poem in 1917. While in the United States and later while living in Switzerland, he displayed contempt for student activism, collective movements, and the New Left movements of the 1960s. He found the protestors acting like “conformists” and “hoodlums.” Nabokov supported the Vietnam War effort, most anti-Soviet policies, and most of President Nixon’s policies.
In 1922 Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert, but she broke off the engagement in 1923 because of her parents’ concern about his ability to provide for her. Later in 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim in Berlin and married her in April 1925. Their son Dmitri was born in 1934.
At the Montreux-Palace where the Nabokovs lived for the last quarter of his life, his wife, Vera, was his confidante, typist, chess partner, Scrabble adversary, and butterfly-hunting companion.
In 1976 he was hospitalized with an undiagnosed fever. He was re-hospitalized in Lausanne in 1977 suffering from severe bronchial congestion. He died on 2 July in Montreux surrounded by his family. Mrs. Nabokov said that her husband “had been very sick for the past year and a half. He had some good moments but was very ill,” she said, adding that the exact virus that killed him had not been identified. (Whitman)
For the eighteen years after his 1922 graduation from Cambridge, he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing in Russian, using the pseudonym Sirin, and supporting himself through translations, teaching English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. (Boyd)
While he was lecturing at American universities, he was writing—poems, essays, stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Partisan Review—using his own name.
The critic Edmund Wilson introduced Nabokov to the American literary scene. The two became intimate friends until the late 1950’s, when, as Nabokov liked to say, “a black cat came between us—Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago.” Nabokov was critical of it and Wilson praised it. The schism widened in 1963 when Mr. Nabokov published his annotated English version of Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s romantic novel in verse form. Mr. Wilson attacked his translation, criticizing Mr. Nabokov’s Russian and their dispute continued in The New York Review of Books until their friendship was finally destroyed.
Nabokov’s first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the life story of a gifted novelist, reconstructed after his death by his half-brother. It was followed by Bend Sinister in 1947, a Kafkaesque novel about an intellectual’s striving to maintain his integrity in a totalitarian environment. Conclusive Evidence (subsequently republished as Speak, Memory) followed in 1951, offering a vivid account of Nabokov’s life in Russia. Pnin came in 1957, portraying a Russian émigré’s life in an American university.
Lolita was ultimately published in 1955 in Paris, in 1958 in New York, and in 1959 in London after much controversy in all three cities. Four American publishers rejected it for lewdness before G. P. Putnam’s Sons published it. The Chicago Tribune refused to review it and critical reception was mixed. Orville Prescott of The New York Times called it “highbrow pornography;” Graham Greene called it “a distinguished novel.”
With his royalties and screen rights, Nabokov became financially interdependent, resigned his teaching position, and returned to Europe, establishing himself in the Montreux-Palace Hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He wanted to be near his son, Dmitri, who was an opera singer in Italy, and a sister who lived in Geneva. Lolita became his most famous novel, and is often considered his finest work in English.
Nabokov and his wife self-identified as synesthetes and associated colors with particular letters, though not the same letters. Their son Dmitri shared the trait as well. Nabokov created some of his protagonists as synesthetes and many of his characters have sensory appetites that seem like synesthesia.
Taking Another Look
Journalist Andrea Pitzer has recently published a very different biography of Vladimir Nabokov from those before her, in which she argues that, contrary to his claim that art and history should not mix, the author’s attention to history’s moral components kept him including backstories that alluded to the camps of German and the Soviet Union. She compares and contrasts Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn approaches to the condemnation of Lenin and Stalin and the horrors of their totalitarian regimes and gives new insight into the “mythical kingdom” of Nova Zembla as an allusion to the camp assignment (likely the islands of Solovki) from which no one escaped or returned. She notes the location of Soviet nuclear testing over decades on the real world Novaya Zemlya and that the crown jewels that were allegedly buried there (and were searched for in vain through torture and murder) were in fact a metaphor for the intelligentsia that was squandered in those remote reaches well above the Arctic Circle by two sociopathic tyrants. (Pitzer, 286)
She also examines the discord between Nabokov and Wilson in terms of the battle between them because Wilson would not accept the “history” of the early camps of the Lenin period. The recurring theme was brought again and again by Nabokov without success during his lifetime, though Wilson did acknowledge later in life he was slow to accept the true nature of Lenin’s shadow. (Pitzer 294)
According to Pitzer, Nabokov was bearing witness to the horrors he knew that forced him and his family to flee police states three times as well as those horrors he learned about from other emigres—mixing pure history with pure fiction at will. (Pitzer, 121)
Like Faulkner and Lawrence, Nabokov continued to work his short fiction while he wrote his novels. His “A Visit to the Museum” (1939) develops the idea of museums as a human attempt to slow down the passage of time through labels, displays and models of human activity and combines that with the notion of the exile as a model of the human condition—dubious about the past, not feeling settled in the present, and anxious about the future. The confluence of comedy and suffering is a vivid example of the English adjective “Nabokov” applied to a short tragic comedy. (Young, 180) The more ambiguous the narrator’s dance between edges of perceptions of a French provincial village museum and a contemporary Russian scene which is in turn contrasted with the Russia of his youth, the more the neuroscientists and art critics would expect we would linger over this piece of literature. (Kandel, 192) And the more Ms. Pitzer lingered over Nabokov’s works, the easier it was for her to help us see Nabokov’s mixing of his own history and the larger histories in his fiction and the possibility his conscious (or perhaps his unconscious intent) was to have us all remember and try to understand the horrors of the camps in Germany and the Soviet Union in a more oblique way than Solzhenitsyn who we must remember “exported” his regime condemning works on the Gulag later. Both were concerned, she argues, with the continued health of their information sources and the reading audience’s recognition of the crushing power of successive police states.
The Nabokovesque/Nabokovian Epilogue
At the time of his passing, he was writing a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Véra and son Dmitri were his literary executors and though (like Kafka) he asked them to destroy his unfinished work, they (like Kafka’s secretary) chose not to carry out his wishes. The manuscript existed as 125 handwritten index cards that remained in a Swiss bank vault. Vera and Dmitri shared portions of the manuscript with Nabokov scholars. Dmitri published The Original of Laura on 17 November 2009.
A FEW OF QUOTES OF NABOKOV
“I was too much absorbed by the usual delights of youth . . . either to derive any special pleasure from the legacy or to experience any annoyance when the Bolshevik revolution abolished it overnight.” (Speak Memory, 74)
“The whole business (of the publication of his first collection of poems inspired by his affair with Tamara and the torturous reviews that were by his measure justified) cured me permanently of all interest in literary fame and was probably the cause of that almost pathological and not always justified indifference to reviews which in later years deprived me of the emotions most authors are said to experience.” (Nabokov, 239)
“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.” (Random House)
A FEW QUOTES ABOUT NABOKOV
“In addition to its humor (much of it donnish to a degree, or Joycean), a Nabokov novel was a game, with the reader invited to figure out the illusive reality that the writer offered.” (Whitman)
“Only the long view reveals Nabokov’s strategy. As a casualty of history who found a way to escape, magically, again and again, he let his most famous characters find a parallel refuge in insanity. And he, too, hid his own treasures and grief inside his stories, with their created worlds cobbled out of the brittle past: the dead of the camps, the prisoners’ wild tales, the tenderness for those he had mocked, the reflections of a world steeped in cruelty, his sorrow at everything that had been lost. Whatever tales Nabokov wished to tell, whatever history he hoped we would remember, must be earned. It is inside his stories that he sits and waits.” (Pitzer, 348)
Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1966)
Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked at 53rd, and his memoir, Speak, Memory, was listed eighth on the Modern Library nonfiction list. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times, but never won it.
Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, August 1989.
Pitzer, Andrea. The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Pegasus Books, 2013.
Young, David and Keith Hollaman (eds.). Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman Inc., 1984.
Boyd, Brian. “Vladimir Nabokov 100 Years: On Speak and Memory” Random House | Web. 11 November 2014.
Gold, Herbert. “Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40” Paris Review | Web. 1 December 2014.
“Vladimir Nabokov 100 Years: Biography” Random House | Web. 11 November 2014.
Whitman, Alden. “Vladimir Nabokov, Author of ‘Lolita’ and ‘Ada,’ Is Dead” New York Times on the Web July 5, 1977 | Web. 11 November 2014.
Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.