Sherman Alexie—Writer, Film Director, and Comedian

Born: 1966

Little Known Facts

There was an early expectation that Sherman Alexie would suffer mental retardation because he was born with hydrocephalus (or, water in the brain). He underwent brain surgery, and he suffered seizures throughout his childhood. 

He planned to be a doctor, following an uncle’s suggestion that after credentialing, he return to help his reservation; so in college, he enrolled in a pre-med track. 

Some Native Americans have reacted to his success by calling him a “fucking apple”—white on the inside and red on the outside—for having “sold out” to corporate publishing. His response: “Get off the reservation and make your own luck happen.”

Much Better Known Facts

Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

When he found his mother’s name written in a textbook assigned to him at the reservation school, he made a decision right then that he would not attend the reservation high school.

Snap Shot

Sherman Alexie is a contemporary novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, film director, and comedian who is not always celebrated by his fellow Native Americans. He overcame physical and socio-economic adversity and broke out of the reservation mentality he describes in his poetry, prose, and films. He is an award winner in all three areas and gives highly animated and entertaining interviews.

Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Sherman J. Alexie, Jr., a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born in October of 1966 and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane.

He was born a hydrocephalic (water on the brain), and underwent brain surgery at the age of six months without the doctors or his parents expecting him to survive. When he did survive, the prognosis was that he would live with severe mental retardation.

In spite of these adversities, Alexie learned to read by age three, and was reading novels by age five. All these things separated him from his peers at an early age, making him the object of ridicule on the reservation. Consequently, he discovered his own isolation within his reservation that was in itself an isolation from the rest of America.

As a teenager, he made a conscious decision to attend high school off the reservation in Reardan, about 20 miles south of Wellpinit, where he suspected he would get a better education. At Reardan High, he was the only Indian (apart for the school mascot). He performed well academically and became a standout player on the basketball team. He was the high-school class president, but he points out that earlier on the reservation, he was a bookworm whose nose was broken six times by bullies. This collection of middle school and high school experiences ultimately inspired his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

In 1985 after Alexie graduated from Reardan High School, he attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, on a scholarship. After two years at Gonzaga, he transferred to Washington State University (WSU)  as a pre-med student. 
Alexie’s plan to become a doctor was set aside after he fainted several times in human anatomy class, and he soon found another path after he found his way into a poetry workshop at WSU.

Alexie developed a problem with alcohol at Gonzaga, but after learning that Hanging Loose Press agreed to publish The Business of Fancydancing, he immediately gave up drinking at the age of twenty-three. He has stayed sober ever since. 

Alexie has done stand-up comedy with musician Jim Boyd, a Colville Indian. They collaborated to record the album Reservation Blues, which contains songs from the book of the same name. In 1996, Boyd and Alexie opened for the Indigo Girls at a concert to benefit the Honor the Earth Campaign.

In 1997, Alexie embarked on another artistic collaboration with Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian, who discovered Alexie’s writing while at the New York University’s film school. They collaborated on a film project inspired by Alexie’s “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” a short story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Shadow Catcher Entertainment produced the film that was released as Smoke Signals at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998. The film won two awards: the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy. 

After success at Sundance, Smoke Signals was distributed by Miramax Films in 1998 and in 1999, the film earned a Christopher Award, an award presented to the creators of artistic works “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Subsequently, Alexie was also nominated for the Independent Feature Project/West (now Film Independent) 1999 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

In 2002, Alexie made his debut as a director with The Business of Fancydancing. He wrote the screenplay based loosely on his first poetry collection. The film was produced and distributed independently, and subsequently earned numerous film festival awards.

Major Relationships

Alexie lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane, and two sons.

Writing Career

Alexie found encouragement from his poetry teacher, Alex Kuo, to the point he realized he’d found his new path in life. As a WSU graduate with a BA in American Studies, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and then the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992.

The year after he left WSU, his poetry collections, The Business of Fancydancing and I Would Steal Horses, were published. His first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993, earning a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award.

In 1998, Alexie competed in and won his first World Heavyweight Poetry Bout competition in June 1998 in Taos, New Mexico. He went up against then world champion Jimmy Santiago Baca. During the next three years, he went on to win the title again and again, becoming the first and only poet to hold the title for four consecutive years. 

Taking A Critical Look

Some, like author and critic Gloria Bird (Spokane), argue that a work by a Native American author is capable of subverting Native American identity and sovereignty by idealizing preconceptions that form an outsider’s mythologies of the American Indian. Essayist Nicolas Myers insists that Alexie shouldn’t be painted with this brush and is adamant that Alexie’s Reservation Blues does not promote any totalizing representations. While the novel does addresses many mythologies, it is done in an exaggerated and ironic manner. It “never falls into a trap of stereotypical representation because it never allows for fixed representation of any kind.”

Magical Realism

Alexie’s imagination plays tricks on the reader and Professor Kenneth Lincoln sees him as the best Native American example of one stealing into Olympus to claim legitimacy while neither proving himself to be the “bungling host” nor “the agile parasite.” Throughout Reservation Blues there are “mirrors that redirect any determined gaze until the readers find themselves gliding along with the characters—on an unstoppable ride of laughing, gut-wrenching indeterminacy,” says Myers in his recalibration of Gloria Bird’s criticism of Alexie for exaggerating the negative dimensions of life on a reservation while side stepping the obligation she feels he has to present his community in a more positive light.
There is more to Alexie’s exaggeration than this. There is a deliberate technique being used here that is familiar to readers of Latin American Magical Realism, where exaggeration and hyperbole are often utilized to convey a sense of the unreality of the real—a point made and explained by Gabriel García Márquez in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize.

An example of Alexie’s exaggeration is the character Lester FallsApart who, Alexie tells us, is the most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation and a tribal hero because Indians always flock to the kindest alcoholic on the reservation. The Spokane Indian Reservation loved Lester so much that hundreds came to his dog’s wake and funeral.

A first reading might see this as reinforcing the drunken-Indian stereotype. But the products of these exaggerations and the logic of all of it should be seen differently: “The hyperbolic embrace of Lester is analogous to a very real embrace of the vice—a strong critique, in my opinion, of a particular aspect of reservation culture,” writes Myers.
 This conclusion is reinforced by the fact Lester FallsApart is often Alexie’s alter ego when he takes the stage, as well as a recurring character in his fiction and his poetry.

A Few of Alexie’s Quotes

“Up until now, I’ve always written Joshua B. stories. I felt so conflicted about having fled the rez as a kid that I created a whole literary career that left me there. The lesson of both the young-adult book and in a sense the new book is ‘Get off the rez. Be nomadic.’ ” (Konigsberg interview)

“I’d rather see myself played by a Puerto Rican or an Italian with a tan than have them ruin the basketballness of me.” (Konigsberg interview)

“Liz Cook-Lynn [Dakota] is utterly incapable of irony, of understanding irony, of even seeing the ironic nature of her own existence. So, the stances she has are a kind of fundamentalism that actually drove me off my reservation. I think it’s a kind of fundamentalism about Indian identity, and what “Indian” can be and mean, that damages Indians.” (Nelson interview)

“The social pressures, the social rules inside the Indian world, and the essential conservatism, big C and little c, of Indian people, is something that outsiders rarely understand. I mean, Indian communities are theocracies.” (Nelson interview)

A Few Quotes about Alexie

“Sherman Alexie doesn’t believe there is such a thing as selling out. He has no qualms about his commercial breakthrough’s coming when he wrote a young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, despite the fact that he had already published 18 volumes of fiction and poetry to considerably less fanfare.” (Konigsberg)

“In War Dances he has given readers a few characters of indeterminate ethnicity for the first time.” (Konigsberg)

“But while I was silent, Sherman Alexie wrote the truth. In his books, I found all the ugly and beautiful stories of reservation life laid out right there on the page, for millions to read. He wrote about our poverty, addiction, and repeated cycles of violence and despair. I both envied and resented the freedom and openness of his words.” (Purser)

“His work is wizened with poetic anger, ribald love, and whipsaw humor. The crazy-heart bear is dancing comically, riding a wobbly unicycle, tossing overripe tomatoes at his audience.” (Lincoln)

Awards and Prizes (Selected)

2003—Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, Washington State University 

2007—Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award

2007—National Book Award in Young People’s Literature for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 

2008—Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grades and young adults 
2010—PEN/Faulkner Award for short-story collection War Dances

2010—Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award

Notable Works

Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Business of Fancydancing, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian


Konigsberg, Eric. “In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders.” New York Times Books. Oct 20, 2009. Web. 5 October 2015.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “On Sherman Alexie.” Modern American Poet. Web. 10 October 2015.

Myers, Nick. “Birds of a Feather: Representation, Exaggeration, and Survivance in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.” Web. 10 October 2015.

Nelson, Joshua B. (Cherokee) “Humor Is My Green Card: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today. July 2010. Web. 7 October 2015.

Purser, Heather. “Sherman Alexie, How Do You Dare to Tell the Truth?.” YES! Magazine. Summer 2009. Web. 7 October 2015.


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.


Haruki Murakami-Novelist, Short Story Writer, and Translator


Born: 12 January 1949

Little known facts:
Though the release of each novel is a major event, resulting in sales of up to a million copies within a week or two, he has not been awarded either the Akutagawa Prize—Japan’s most revered literary award—nor the Naoki Prize for popular fiction. (Pilling)

When Haruki Murakami is in the writing mode, he gets up at 4am, works for five or six hours straight, and goes for a 10km run after lunch. He might swim for 1,500m before he reads and listens to music—jazz or classical. He goes to bed at 9pm and then repeats the cycle. (Pilling)

Much better known facts:
Murakami is one of the best selling literary novelists in the world, and practically a deity in Japan. (Verger)

Snap Shot
Haruki Murakami is both the most experimental and the most popular Japanese novelist to have been translated into English—with sales in the millions. His greatest novels are an amalgam of realism, fable, mystery, and science fiction. Murakami uses familiar symbols in his allegorical constructs, but the meaning of those symbols is quite elusive. He is also an accomplished translator who has brought Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others to Japanese readers. (Wray)

Though Murakami has been labeled a publishing sensation, there are those who claim that he is really more of a marketing sensation. His devotees cite his imagination in weaving intricate plots as bringing the ordinary together with the fantastic in ways that reflect our daily reality as a window on a more complex world in a truly post-modern way like we would expect from Vonnegut or Pynchon.

Over the last ten years or so, Barra writing for The Atlantic, says Murikami has become to adults what J.K. Rowling is to children: “Murakami is clever and fun to read.”  His best novels “often end with scenes that seem like lines in poetry that can be intuited if not always defined.”

Early Life and Non-Writing Career
Murakami was born in 1949 in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto into a middle-class family very much interested in contributing to the national culture: his father taught Japanese literature and his grandfather was a Buddhist monk. His family moved to the port city of Kobe, teaming with foreigners (particularly American sailors) who had a strong influence in the evolution of his sensibilities. He discarded Japanese literature, art, and music early on and identified intensely with the Western world—especially that reflected in American jazz, movies, paperbacks by Raymond Chandler and Jack Kerouac.

While studying in Tokyo in the late sixties, Murakami voraciously consumed postmodern fiction and sympathized with many of the protest movements. He married at twenty-three and spent the next several years of his life running a jazz club in Tokyo with his wife until he published his first novel. (Wray)

The author absented himself from the popular adulation to achieve some distance and he spent that time in Europe and America, but mostly teaching at Harvard, Princeton, and Tufts. He returned in 1995, just after a massive earthquake and just before Kobe collapsed. Then a doomsday cult attacked the Tokyo subway with a deadly gas two months later. Mr Murakami reacted with Underground, a non-fictional account of that day. Subsequently, observers noted his fiction seemed to take a turn toward the darker side. (Pilling FT)

Major Relationships
He married Yoko at twenty-three. He is still married to her and she is still his first reader. They have no children.

Writing Career
Living a dream shared by many. but experienced by few, his first novel made it possible for him to write full time. The novel, Hear the Wind Sing, was translated into English but is not available outside Japan at his request. It won him the coveted Gunzo Literature Prize and established a readership for him in Japan. His popularity grew and in 1987 his first realistic novel, Norwegian Wood, which his says was a deliberate exercise in realism to pull more readers over into his preferred mode prompted his being labeled the “voice of his generation” in the Eighties.

Murakami wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle while teaching at Princeton and Tufts and, though he never resumed the realist lyricism of Norwegian Wood, his audience continued to grow. One of his most recent novels is Kafka on the Shore (English in 2004) and it is now regarded as one of his best alongside Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

His most ambitious novel, 1Q84 – a 1,000-page effort set in parallel and intersecting worlds and the recently published Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage “will be happily consumed by his fervent readers” but it will not rank with his best work.

Murakami has made what some deem “a brilliant, Nobel-pending career” out of combinations of “the strange, stark and sentimental” while his critics in Japan have insisted throughout his writing career that he is not Japanese in his expression in terms of topics and style.

Taking Another Look
The praise for Murakami hasn’t been a universal constant inside or outside of Japan. The New York Times has been mixed in their reviews and was quite critical of Murakami’s magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. “In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic, and ultimately unknowable world, Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in 1997.

More recently, Janet Maslin, slammed 1Q84, for being “stupefying” and for quirks like focusing too much on characters’ breasts.

Novelist Nathaniel Rich thinks Murakami often writes awkward and clichéd sentences, but he still praises the work. “I think he’s creating something that’s new, and that doesn’t exist in the world. I think it’s an artistic endeavor. I think he’s creating art.” “What he is,” Rich said, “is an excellent storyteller.”

In Time, Bryan Walsh makes the  observation that what is missing from the novel is “Murakami himself. With 1Q84, the author decided for the first time in his career to fully abandon first-person narration, and the absence is felt … remove Murakami from Murakami, and the magic vanishes.”
Barra says Murakami’s cheerleaders are now, in the aftermath of 1Q84, increasingly apologists.  He wonders if the book continues to slide down the bestseller lists will some critics revisit their first responses.  In the meantime, he says, maybe “everyone might reflect on the pitfalls of treating novelists as if they were rock stars.”

Magical Realism
His greatest novels hover and flirt with boundaries in zones between realism and fable and between mystery and science fiction all at the same time. He seems to violate one of the cardinal rules of magic realism (not to call attention to the fantastic elements of the story) and when asked about it in an interview, he said it reflects his honest observation of how strange the world is and how his protagonists are experiencing what he experiences as he writes, which is also what he wants the readers to experience. Murakami says Kafka and García Márquez wrote magical realism literature in the classical sense. He wants to offer something different.

“My stories are more actual, more contemporary, more the postmodern experience. Think of it like a movie set, where everything—all the props, the books on the wall, the shelves—is fake. The walls are made of paper. In the classical kind of magic realism, the walls and the books are real. If something is fake in my fiction, I like to say it’s fake. I don’t want to act as if it’s real.”

“I don’t like the realistic style, myself. I prefer a more surrealistic style. But with Norwegian Wood, I made up my mind to write a hundred percent realistic novel. I needed that experience.” “Norwegian Wood is very easy to read and easy to understand. Many people liked that book. They might then be interested in my other work; so it helps a lot.” (Wray)

“Some people think literature is high culture and that it should only have a small readership. I don’t think so… I have to compete with popular culture, including TV, magazines, movies and video games.” (Brainyquote)

“I consider A Wild Sheep Chase to be the true beginning of my style.” (Wray)

“But now everyone is so busy, and there is no real leisure class. It’s good to read Moby-Dick or Dostoevsky, but people are too busy for that now. So fiction itself has changed drastically—we have to grab people by the neck and pull them in. Contemporary fiction writers are using the techniques of other fields—jazz, video games, everything. I think video games are closer to fiction than anything else these days.” (Wray)

Novelist Jonathan Franzen, said, “And only at night, and when reading certain books, do I fall down into a tunnel that takes me back to a more enchanted place.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of those books. “While you’re reading it, everything in the world feels different,” he said. “And that for me is the mark of a great novel … I think it’s one of the great novels that’s appeared anywhere in the world in the last 30 to 40 years.” (Verger)

The novelist Charles Baxter gave 1Q84 a favorable review in The New York Review of Books, but said, “Sometimes it doesn’t all add up,” but he also said, “I have to say that I find Murakami’s failures more interesting than other people’s neat successes.”

1979: Gunzo Award (best first novel) for Hear the Wind Sing
1982: Noma Literary Prize (best newcomer) for A Wild Sheep Chase
1985: Tanizaki Prize for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
1995: Yomiuri Prize (best novel) for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
2006: World Fantasy Award (best novel) for Kafka on the Shore
2006: Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
2006: The Franz Kafka Prize
2007: An honorary doctorate of Letters from the University of Liège
2008: An honorary doctorate of Letters from Princeton University
2009: The Jerusalem Prize
2011: The International Catalunya Priz
2014: An honorary doctorate of Letters from Tufts University[
2014: The Welt-Literaturpreis.

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), 1Q84 (2009–2010)

Barra, Allen. “How Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ Became 2011’s Biggest Literary Letdown” 16 December 2011. Web. 15 February 2015.
Boyagoda, Randy. “Strange, stark and sentimental: Haruki Murakami’s winning fictional formula” New Statesman 18 AUGUST 2014 – 15:07. Web. 22 February 2015.
Pilling, David. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki’, by Haruki Murakami,” The Financial Times Ltd. August 1, 2014. Web. 15 February 2015.
Pilling, David. “Novelist Haruki Murakami resurfaces” Financial Times Ltd.
January 9, 2015 2:28 pm. Web. 24 February 2015.
Verger, Rob. “How Good Is Murakami?” The Daily Beast Jun 24, 2013. Web. 4 February 2015.
Wray, John. “Interviews: Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182,”
Paris Review 170 Summer 2004.


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.


Magical Realist Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov

Magical Realist Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov

V Nabokov_Statue_Montreux_284pxVladimir Nabokov

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)


Snap Shot

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)


Writing Career

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)


Magical Realism

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.



“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)



“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.