History of Literature

Vladimir Nabokov


Vladimir Nabokov


Vladimir Nabokov

in full Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

born April 22, 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia
died July 2, 1977, Montreux, Switz.

Russian-born American novelist and critic, the foremost of the post-1917 émigré authors. He wrote in both Russian and English, and his best works, including Lolita (1955), feature stylish, intricate literary effects.

Nabokov was born into an old aristocratic family. His father, V.D. Nabokov, was a leader of the pre-Revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) in Russia and was the author of numerous books and articles on criminal law and politics, among them The Provisional Government (1922), which was one of the primary sources on the downfall of the Kerensky regime. In 1922, after the family had settled in Berlin, the elder Nabokov was assassinated by a reactionary rightist while shielding another man at a public meeting; and although his novelist son disclaimed any influence of this event upon his art, the theme of assassination by mistake has figured prominently in Nabokov’s novels. Nabokov’s enormous affection for his father and for the milieu in which he was raised is evident in his autobiography Speak, Memory (revised version, 1967).

Nabokov published two collections of verse, Poems (1916) and Two Paths (1918), before leaving Russia in 1919. He and his family made their way to England, and he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, on a scholarship provided for the sons of prominent Russians in exile. While at Cambridge he first studied zoology but soon switched to French and Russian literature; he graduated with first-class honours in 1922 and subsequently wrote that his almost effortless attainment of this degree was “one of the very few ‘utilitarian’ sins on my conscience.” While still in England he continued to write poetry, mainly in Russian but also in English, and two collections of his Russian poetry, The Cluster and The Empyrean Path, appeared in 1923. In Nabokov’s mature opinion, these poems were “polished and sterile.”

Between 1922 and 1940 Nabokov lived in Germany and France, and, while continuing to write poetry, he experimented with drama and even collaborated on several unproduced motion-picture scenarios. By 1925 he settled upon prose as his main genre. His first short story had already been published in Berlin in 1924. His first novel, Mashenka (Mary), appeared in 1926; it was avowedly autobiographical and contains descriptions of the young Nabokov’s first serious romance as well as of the Nabokov family estate, both of which are also described in Speak, Memory. Nabokov did not again draw so heavily upon his personal experience as he had in Mashenka until his episodic novel about an émigré professor of entomology in the United States, Pnin (1957), which is to some extent based on his experiences while teaching (1948–58) Russian and European literature at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

His second novel, King, Queen, Knave, which appeared in 1928, marked his turn to a highly stylized form that characterized his art thereafter. His chess novel, The Defense, followed two years later and won him recognition as the best of the younger Russian émigré writers. In the next five years he produced four novels and a novella. Of these, Despair and Invitation to a Beheading were his first works of importance and foreshadowed his later fame.

During his years of European emigration, Nabokov lived in a state of happy and continual semipenury. All of his Russian novels were published in very small editions in Berlin and Paris. His first two novels had German translations, and the money he obtained for them he used for butterfly-hunting expeditions (he eventually published 18 scientific papers on entomology). But until his best-seller Lolita, no book he wrote in Russian or English produced more than a few hundred dollars. During the period in which he wrote his first eight novels, he made his living in Berlin and later in Paris by giving lessons in tennis, Russian, and English and from occasional walk-on parts in films (now forgotten). His wife, the former Véra Evseyevna Slonim, whom he married in 1925, worked as a translator. From the time of the loss of his home in Russia, Nabokov’s only attachment was to what he termed the “unreal estate” of memory and art. He never purchased a house, preferring instead to live in houses rented from other professors on sabbatical leave. Even after great wealth came to him with the success of Lolita and the subsequent interest in his previous work, Nabokov and his family (he and his wife had one son, Dmitri) chose to live (from 1959) in genteelly shabby quarters in a Swiss hotel.

The subject matter of Nabokov’s novels is principally the problem of art itself presented in various figurative disguises. Thus, The Defense seemingly is about chess, Despair about murder, and Invitation to a Beheading a political story, but all three works make statements about art that are central to understanding the book as a whole. The same may be said of his plays, Sobytiye (“The Event”), published in 1938, and The Waltz Invention. The problem of art again appears in Nabokov’s best novel in Russian, The Gift, the story of a young artist’s development in the spectral world of post-World War I Berlin. This novel, with its reliance on literary parody, was a turning point: serious use of parody thereafter became a key device in Nabokov’s art. His first novels in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947), do not rank with his best Russian work. Pale Fire (1962), however, a novel consisting of a long poem and a commentary on it by a mad literary pedant, extends and completes Nabokov’s mastery of unorthodox structure, first shown in The Gift and present also in Solus Rex, a Russian novel that began to appear serially in 1940 but was never completed. Lolita (1955), with its antihero, Humbert Humbert, who is possessed by an overpowering desire for very young girls, is yet another of Nabokov’s subtle allegories: love examined in the light of its seeming opposite, lechery. Ada (1969), Nabokov’s 17th and longest novel, is a parody of the family chronicle form. All of his earlier themes come into play in the novel, and, because the work is a medley of Russian, French, and English, it is his most difficult work. (He also wrote a number of short stories and novellas, mostly written in Russian and translated into English.)

Nabokov’s major critical works are an irreverent book about Nikolay Gogol (1944) and a monumental four-volume translation of, and commentary on, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1964). What he called the “present, final version” of the autobiographical Speak, Memory, concerning his European years, was published in 1967, after which he began work on a sequel, Speak On, Memory, concerning the American years.

As Nabokov’s reputation grew in the 1930s so did the ferocity of the attacks made upon him. His idiosyncratic, somewhat aloof style and unusual novelistic concerns were interpreted as snobbery by his detractors—although his best Russian critic, Vladislav Khodasevich, insisted that Nabokov’s aristocratic view was appropriate to his subject matters: problems of art masked by allegory.

Nabokov’s reputation varies greatly from country to country. Until 1986 he was not published in the Soviet Union, not only because he was a “White Russian émigré” (he became a U.S. citizen in 1945) but also because he practiced “literary snobbism.” Critics of strong social convictions in the West also generally hold him in low esteem. But within the intellectual émigré community in Paris and Berlin between 1919 and 1939, V. Sirin (the literary pseudonym used by Nabokov in those years) was credited with being “on a level with the most significant artists in contemporary European literature and occupying a place held by no one else in Russian literature.” His reputation after 1940, when he changed from Russian to English after emigrating to the United States, mounted steadily until the 1970s, when he was acclaimed by a leading literary critic as “king over that battered mass society called contemporary fiction.”

Andrew Field



Vladimir Nabokov

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков) (April 22 [O.S. April 10] 1899, Saint Petersburg – July 2, 1977, Montreux) was a multilingual Russian-American novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made significant contributions to entomology and had an interest in chess problems.

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as his most important novel, and is his most widely known, exhibiting the love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail that characterized all his works.

The eldest son of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, he was born to a rich and prominent Orthodox family of the untitled nobility of Saint Petersburg. He spent his childhood and youth there and at the country estate Vyra near Siverskaya. Nabokov's childhood, which he called "perfect," was remarkable in several ways. The family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, much to his father's patriotic chagrin, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian. In Speak, Memory Nabokov recalls numerous details of his privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past was a boon to him during his permanent exile, as well as providing a theme which echoes from his first book, Mary, all the way to later works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. In 1916 Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov ("Uncle Ruka" in Speak, Memory), but lost it in the revolution one year later; this was the only house he would ever own.

The Nabokov family left Saint Petersburg in the wake of the 1917 Revolution for a friend's estate in the Crimea, where they remained for 18 months. The family did not expect to be out of Saint Petersburg for very long, but in fact they would never return. In September of 1918, they moved to Livadia. After the withdrawal of the German Army (November 1918) and following the defeat of the White Army in early 1919, the Nabokovs left for exile in western Europe. On April 2, 1919, the family left Sevastopol. They settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge and studied Slavic and Romance languages. His Cambridge experiences would later help him in the writing of the novel Glory. In 1920, his family moved to Berlin where his father set up the émigré newspaper Rul'. VN would follow to Berlin after his studies at Cambridge two years later. In 1922, 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. This episode of mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in the author's fiction, where characters would meet their deaths under mistaken terms. In Pale Fire, for example, the poet Shade is murdered accidentally (allegedly) when an assassin fires his weapon at an (alleged) former king. Shortly after his father's death, his mother and sister moved to Prague. VN, however, stayed in Berlin where he became a recognized poet and writer within the émigré community and published under his pen name V. Sirin - it may signify an owl or a mythological bird - , a pseudonym he used for his Russian writings for about four decades. In Berlin, he also tutored and gave tennis lessons. In 1922 Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert; the engagement was broken off in early 1923 as he had no steady job. In May 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim and married her in 1925. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934. In 1936, when Vera lost her job due to the antisemitic environment, and the assassin of his father was appointed second-in-command of the Russian émigré group, Nabokov started to look for jobs in the English-speaking world. He left Germany with his family in 1937. He and his family moved to Paris, but also stayed during this journey at times at Prague, Cannes, Menton, Cap d'Antibes, and Frejus. In May 1940 the Nabokov family fled from the advancing German troops to the United States on board the Champlain.

The Nabokovs settled down in Manhattan and VN started a job at the American Museum of Natural History. In October he met Edmund Wilson, who introduced Nabokov's work to American editors, leading eventually to his recognition. Nabokov came to Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley's Russian Department. His lecture series on major nineteenth-century Russian writers was hailed as "funny," "learned," and "brilliantly satirical." The Nabokovs resided in Wellesley, Massachusetts during the 1941-42 academic year; they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 1942 and lived there until June 1948. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944–45 academic year as a lecturer in Russian. He served through the 1947-48 term as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was curator of lepidoptery at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Biology. After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University. In 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita while traveling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States. (Nabokov never learned to drive, Vera acted as chauffeur; when VN attempted to burn unfinished drafts of Lolita, it was Vera who stopped him. He called her the best-humored woman he had ever known. Despite this, biographers - in particular, Stacy Shiff - have made it clear that he regularly strayed in his marriage.) In June 1953 he and his family came to Ashland, Oregon, renting a house on Meade Street from Professor Taylor, head of the Southern Oregon College Department of Social Science. There he finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin. He roamed the nearby mountains looking for butterflies, and wrote a poem Lines Written in Oregon. On October 1, 1953, he and his family left for Ithaca, New York.

After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to return to Europe and devote himself exclusively to writing. Also his son had gotten a position as an operatic bass at Reggio Emilia. On October 1, 1961, he and Véra moved to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland; he stayed there until the end of his life. From his sixth-floor quarters he conducted his business and took tours to the Alps, Corsica, and Sicily to hunt butterflies. In 1976 he was hospitalized with an undiagnosed fever; rehospitalized in Lausanne in 1977, he suffered from severe bronchial congestion, and died on July 2. His remains were cremated and are buried at the Clarens cemetery in Montreux.At the time of his death, he was working on a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Vera and son Dmitri were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, and though he asked them to burn the manuscript, they were unable to destroy his final work. The incomplete manuscript, which is said to consist of around 125 handwritten index cards, has remained in a Swiss bank vault ever since. Only two people, Dmitri Nabokov and an unknown person, have access to the vault. Portions of the manuscript have been shown to Nabokov scholars. In April, 2008, Dmitri announced that he would publish the novel.

Birth date
Nabokov was born on April 10, 1899 according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at that time. The Gregorian equivalent is April 22, which is achieved by adding 12 days to the Julian date. Some sources have incorrectly calculated a date of April 23, by inappropriately using the 13-day difference in the calendars that applied only after February 28, 1900. In Speak, Memory Nabokov explains the cause of the error and confirms the correct date of April 22. But he himself celebrated his birthday on April 23, and stated in an interview with The New York Times, "That is also Shakespeare’s and Shirley Temple’s, so I have nothing to lose by saying I was born on the 23rd."


Nabokov's first writings were in Russian, but he came to his greatest distinction in the English language. For this achievement, he has been compared with Joseph Conrad; yet some view this as a dubious comparison, as Conrad composed only in English, never in his native Polish. (Nabokov himself disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson, "I am too old to change Conradically" — which John Updike later called, "itself a jest of genius." Nabokov, in the very early fifties, offered the critic Edmund Wilson a pocket appraisal: "Conrad knew how to handle readymade English better than I; but I know better the other kind. He never sinks to the depths of my solecisms, but neither does he scale my verbal peaks.")  Nabokov translated many of his own early works into English, sometimes in cooperation with his son Dmitri. His trilingual upbringing had a profound influence on his artistry. He has metaphorically described the transition from one language to another as the slow journey at night from one village to the next with only a candle for illumination. Nabokov himself translated two books he wrote in English into Russian, Conclusive Evidence, and Lolita. The first "translation" was made because of Nabokov's feeling of imperfection in the English version. Writing the book, he noted that he needed to translate his own memories into English, and to spend a lot of time explaining things which are well-known in Russia; then he decided to re-write the book once again, in his first native language, and after that he made the final version, Speak, Memory (Nabokov first wanted to name it "Speak, Mnemosyne"). Nabokov was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression, such as totalitarianism in its various forms as well as Freud's psychoanalysis. Poshlost, or as he transcribed it, poshlust, is disdained and frequently mocked in his works.

Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, and use of alliteration. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man's devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov's fiction is characterized by its linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave. Nabokov's stature as a literary critic is founded largely on his four-volume translation of and commentary on Aleksandr Pushkin's epic of the Russian soul, Eugene Onegin, published in 1964. That commentary ended with an appendix titled Notes on Prosody which has developed a reputation of its own. It stemmed from his observation that while Pushkin's iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short two centuries, they were clearly understood by the Russian prosodists. On the other hand, he viewed the much older English iambic tetrameters as muddled and poorly documented. In his own words:

I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little—in comparison to the forced preliminaries — namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.

Nabokov's translation was the focus of a bitter polemic with Edmund Wilson and others; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse to (by his own admission) stumbling, non-rhymed prose. He argued that all verse translations of Onegin fatally betrayed the author's use of language; critics replied that failure to make the translation as beautifully styled as the original was a much greater betrayal. Nabokov's Lectures on Literature at Cornell University where he was appointed an instructor in 1948, reveals his controversial ideas concerning art. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not merely empathise with characters but that a 'higher' aesthetic enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to details of style and structure. He detested what he saw as 'general ideas' in novels, and so when teaching Ulysses, for example, he would insist students keep an eye on where the characters were in Dublin (with the aid of a map) rather than teaching the complex Irish history that many critics see as being essential to an understanding of the novel. During his ten years at Cornell, Nabokov introduced undergraduates to the delights of great fiction, including the Bleak House of Charles Dickens in fifty-minute classroom lectures. Nabokov's detractors fault him for being an aesthete and for his over-attention to language and detail rather than character development. In his essay "Nabokov, or Nostalgia," Danilo Kiš wrote that Nabokov's is "a magnificent, complex, and sterile art." Russian poet Yvgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in VN's prose. Not until glasnost did Nabokov's work become officially available in his native country. Gorbachev authorized a five-volume edition of his writing in 1988.




Vladimir Nabokov

The first publication of Lolita, by risque Parisian press Olympia, caused widespread outrage. The violent erotic passion of the novel's protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert, for the twelve-year-old Lolita, and the intensity and extent of Humbert's abuse of her, remain genuinely shocking, particularly in a culture preoccupied with child abuse and the sexualization of children.
Written in Nabokov's characteristic immaculate style, this violent and brutal novel poses fascinating questions about the role of fiction. Is it possible for us to find beauty, pleasure, and comedy in a narrative that is ethically repugnant? Can we suspend moral judgment in favor of aesthetic appreciation of a finely tuned sentence or a perfectly balanced phrase? The answers to these questions remain unclear, but in pitting substance against style, in balancing the ethical so delicately against the aesthetic, Nabokov invents a new kind of literary fiction. Humbert's abduction of Lolita and his fleeing with her across the U.S. in a crazed attempt to outrun the authorities make this novel an inaugural work of postmodern fiction, as well as a kind of proto-road movie. Humbert is an old-world European, a lover of Rimbaud and Balzac, who finds himself displaced in the shiny world of corporate 1950s America and entranced by the lurid charms of gum-sucking, soda-drinking Lolita. The story of this encounter between venerable age and crass youth, between Europe and America, between high art and popular culture, is the story upon which many of the novels and films that come in the wake of Lolita are based. Without Lolita, it is difficult to imagine Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 or Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. It is a mark of its originality and power that, after so many imitations, it remains so troubling, so fresh, and so moving.




Vladimir Nabokov

This short comic novel brought Vladimir Nabokov his first National Book Award nomination, widespread popularity, and first commercial success. An early example of the 1950s campus novel, it follows the experiences of the hapless Russian emigre Professor Timofey Pnin. As a teacher of Russian at Waindell College, he inhabits the rather strange and detached world of academia, and he struggles to adapt to American university life. Physically awkward and an implacable pedant, Pnin's greatest misfortune is his inability to marshal English idiom, and much of the comedy of the book arises from his idiosyncratic use of the language. However, his ultimately dignified conduct ensures that his character cannot be reduced to the pared-down stereotype offered by the somewhat uncharitable narrator, and in comparison with his other non-American colleagues he is an undeniably decent man.
Evolving out of a series of short stories originally published in the New Yorker between 1953 and 1955, the book has been criticized for appearing more as a series of discrete sketches than a novel. This criticism is unfair, however, as—in keeping with Nabokov's concern for thematic rather than plot-driven cohesion—the novel returns to Pnin's inability to feel physically or linguistically "at home" in North American culture. Above all, the unmistakably deft Nabokovian style, with its extended linguistic digressions and offbeat humor, make this novel a comic masterpiece and a real joy.


Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov

Entering a web of reflections, imputations, madness, neighborliness, gayness, exiled royalty, murder, and literary criticism, it is hard to discern any stable world outside the text of Nabokov's novel. With astonishing literary dexterity, Nabokov takes to considerable lengths here the notion that writing need be about nothing but itself. The novel is divided into two parts: the four cantos of the poem "Pale Fire,"attributed to invented author John Shade, and their annotated exegesis written, after Shade's death, by his friend, neighbor, and editor, Charles Kinbote.The poem and its notes, along with Kinbote's explanatory preface and index, form the novel's entire substance. Shade's poem is an apparently uncomplicated reflection upon his life, his daughter's suicide, and his Christian thoughts on the nature of divine order. Kinbote's notes suggest that he believes himself to be Charles the Beloved, king of an obscure European country called Zembla. Escaping to the United States from revolution, Charles pseudonymously took up a post at Words mith University alongside his favorite poet, John Shade, whom he befriended and whose work he claims to understand. In his opinion/'Pale Fire" is really a coded history of Zembla. Is Kinbote an editor, a stalker, a madman, or an academic? Or is he a fiction supplied by a Shade writing his own annotations? Welcome to the funhouse.



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