Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Владимир Владимирович Набоков (April 22, 1899 – July 2, 1977) was a Russian-American novelist, critic, and lepidopterist. He wrote his first literary works in Russian under the pseudonym of Sirin, but rose to international prominence as a masterly English prose stylist.
Nabokov's best-known works in English include Lolita (1955), a notorious, boundary-defying novel about a middle aged man's affair with a 12-year-old girl, and the uniquely structured Pale Fire (1962). Nabokov's fiction, poetry, and criticism are informed by clever wordplay, descriptive detail, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages of terms. A novelist of formidable erudition, Nabokov combined satire and social commentary with complex explorations of time and memory.
Nabokov's novels represent a clear break with the social and utilitarian values that characterized Russian literature during the nineteenth century, and especially the socialist realism of the twentieth century. Nabokov embraced a view that would become increasingly popular in twentieth-century art and fiction, namely the self-referential nature of the literary text, its "extract of personal reality," and the inherently collaborative role of the reader. Writing in Lectures on Literature, Nabokov said that "the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense—which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance."
Nabokov constructed novels like puzzles. His Pale Fire has been described by critic Mary McCarthy as "a clockwork toy, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel." Like other modernists, Nabokov examined contemporary life with little reference to tradition or a conventional moral framework, believing that literature has no instructive or moral purpose, although the rigor of the literary enterprise could fortify the mind. "My books," he wrote provocatively in his preface to The Eye, "are blessed by a total lack of social significance."
The eldest son of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife Elena, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, Nabokov was born to a prominent and aristocratic family in Saint Petersburg, where he also spent his childhood and youth. The family spoke Russian, English, and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age.
The Nabokov family left Russia in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution for a friend's estate in the Crimea, where they remained for 18 months. Following the defeat of the White Army in Crimea, they left Russia for exile in Western Europe. After emigrating from Russia in 1919, the family settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, studying Slavic and Romance languages. In 1923, he graduated from Cambridge and relocated to Berlin, where he gained some reputation within the colony of Russian émigrés as a novelist and poet, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir Sirin. In 1925, he married Véra Slonim in Berlin, where he lived from 1922 to 1937. Their son, Dmitri, was born there in 1934. In the late 1930s, Nabokov lived in Paris.
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 clearly traumatized the young Nabokov. The theme of mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in the author's fiction, where characters would meet their ends under erroneous terms. In Pale Fire, for example, John Shade is mistaken for the king of Zembla and is assassinated.
Nabokov had a condition known as was a synaesthesia, a neurological mixing of the senses in which the perception of one stimulus evokes a second perception. A synaesthete may, for example, hear colors, see sounds, taste tactile sensations, or experience correspondences between shades of color, tones of sounds, and intensities of tastes. These experiences are not metaphorical or associative, but involuntary and consistent, and Nabokov described aspects of the condition in several of his works. In his memoir, Strong Opinions, he noted that his wife also exhibited synaesthesia and that their son Dmitri shared the trait, with the colors he associated with some letters in some cases being blends of his parents' hues.
Nabokov left Germany with his family in 1937 for Paris and in 1940 fled from the advancing German Nazi troops to the United States. It was here that he met the critic Edmund Wilson, who introduced Nabokov's work to American editors, eventually leading to his international recognition.
Nabokov came to Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1941, founding Wellesley's Russian Department and serving as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position was created specifically for him, providing an income, free time to write creatively and pursue his scientific interests. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944–1945 academic year and served first as a lecturer in Russian and then as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were wildly popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to become chairman of Cornell's comparative literature department and in 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Nabokov later returned to Europe, and from 1960 to the end of his life he lived in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977. His wife Vera died in 1991.
His first writings were in Russian, consisting of nine short novels, a few short stories, two plays, some poetry, and some essays. By far his greatest distinction was achieved for his works in the English language. For this achievement, he has been compared with the Polish national Joseph Conrad, who only composed in English, never in his native Polish. (Nabokov himself disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, declaring with his typical playfulness with language, "I differ from Joseph Conradically.") 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 another with only a candle for illumination.
Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, and use of alliteration. His plots are all unique, although his heroes typically suffered under some illusion or nexus from which they are unable to set themselves free. For example, Luzhin's Defense, which also displays Nabokov's love of chess, has a parallel structure between a chess match and the hero's fate. Invitation to a Beheading has echoes of Kafka's The Trial. Cincinnatus awaits execution, apparently for being different. Nabokov gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man's consummated passion for a 12-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the great novelists of the twentieth century. Perhaps his defining work, which met with a mixed response, is his longest novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). He devoted more time to the construction of this novel than any of his others.
Nabokov's literary output is absent the kind of moral or philosophical preoccupations that characterized much Russian fiction, but is often characterized by linguistic playfulness. The short story "The Vane Sisters," for example, is famous in part for its acrostical final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a ghostly message from beyond the grave.
Nabokov's stature as a literary critic is founded on his four-volume translation and commentary on Alexander Pushkin's Russian epic novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, as well as the publication of his classroom lectures from his courses at Wellesley and Cornell, Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature.
His translation of Eugene Onegin was the focus of a bitter polemic with other translation theorists; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse as (by his own admission) stumbling, non-metrical, 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.
His commentary ended with an appendix called Notes on Prosody, which has developed a reputation of its own. This essay stemmed from an observation that while Pushkin's iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short period of 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.
Nabokov's Lectures on Literature reveal his strong opposition to the utilitarian view of art that had developed in his native Russia by Belinsky and others in the nineteenth century, which culminated in the socialist realism of the Soviet period. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not only empathize with the characters but that a “higher” enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to detail. His lectures focused on many of those small, easily overlooked details that convey much of the meaning of the text. He detested sentimentalism and what he saw as “general ideas” in novels. 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 essential to an understanding of the novel.
His essays on Russian authors, particularly Gogol, Tolstoy (whom he met as a child), and Chekhov, are considered among the best available. His love of Tolstoy's realistic attention to detail and Chekhov's lack of sentimentality demonstrate his sense of them not only as objects of criticism, but as Nabokov's literary progenitors.
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 is "a magnificent, complex, and sterile art."
Recent scholarship has uncovered the fact that Nabokov may have had cryptomnesia (a form of unintentional or unconscious plagiarism) while he was composing his most famous novel, Lolita. There is a German short story also entitled "Lolita" about an older man obsessed with a young girl that was published in 1916. Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin, Germany as the author, who wrote using the pseudonym Heinz von Lichberg,and was most likely familiar with the author's work, which was widely available at that time in Germany.
His career as a lepidopterist, a person who studies, or collects butterflies, was equally distinguished. Throughout an extensive career of collecting he never learned to drive a car, and he depended on his wife to bring him to collecting sites. During the 1940s he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical. This, combined with his specialty in the relatively unspectacular tribe Polyommatini of the family Lycaenidae, has left this facet of his life little explored by most admirers of his literary works.
The paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould discussed Nabokov's lepidoptery in an essay reprinted in his book I Have Landed. Gould notes that Nabokov was occasionally a scientific "stick-in-the-mud"; for example, Nabokov never accepted that genetics or the counting of chromosomes could be a valid way to distinguish species of insect. Many of Nabokov's fans have tried to ascribe literary value to his scientific papers, Gould notes. Conversely, others have claimed that his scientific work enriched his literary output. Gould rather proposed that both stemmed from Nabokov's love of detail, contemplation, and symmetry.
List of Works
- Nabokov Library e-text depository, many works mentioned below are available here (for non-commercial use and non-public presentation only)
Novels and novellas
Novels and novellas written in Russian
- (1926) Mashen'ka (Машенька); English translation: Mary (1970)
- (1928) Korol' Dama Valet (Король, дама, валет); English translation: King, Queen, Knave (1968)
- (1930) Zashchita Luzhina (Защита Лужина); English translation: The Luzhin Defense or The Defense (1964) (also adapted to film, The Luzhin Defence, in 2001)
- (1930) Sogliadatai (Соглядатай (Eavesdropper)), novella; first publication as a book 1938; English translation: The Eye (1965)
- (1932) Podvig (Подвиг (Deed)); English translation: Glory (1971)
- (1932) Kamera Obskura (Камера Обскура); English translations: Camera Obscura (1936), Laughter in the Dark (1938)
- (1936) Otchayanie (Отчаяние); English translation: Despair (1937, 1966)
- (1938) Priglasheniye na kazn' (Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to an execution)); English translation: Invitation to a Beheading (1959)
- (1938) Dar (Дар); English translation: The Gift (1963)
- (Unpublished novella, written in 1939) Volshebnik (Волшебник); English translation: The Enchanter (1985)
Novels written in English
- (1941) The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
- (1947) Bend Sinister
- (1955) Lolita, self-translated into Russian, (1965)
- (1957) Pnin
- (1962) Pale Fire
- (1969) Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
- (1972) Transparent Things
- (1974) Look at the Harlequins!
- (1977) The Original of Laura (Unfinished/Unpublished)
Short story collections
- (1929) Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb"). Fifteen short stories and twenty-four poems, in Russian, by "V. Sirin."
- (1947) Nine Stories
- (1956) Vesna v Fial'te i drugie rasskazy ("Spring in Fialta and other stories")
- (1958) Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories (Also reprinted as Spring in Fialta and First Love and Other Stories.)
- (1966) Nabokov's Quartet
- (1968) Nabokov's Congeries; reprinted as The Portable Nabokov (1971)
- (1973) A Russian Beauty and Other Stories
- (1975) Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
- (1976) Details of a Sunset and Other Stories
- (1995) The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (alternative title The Collected Stories)—complete collection of all short stories
- (1938) Izobretenie Val'sa (The Waltz Invention); English translation The Waltz Invention: A Play in Three Acts (1966)
- (1974) Lolita: A Screenplay (Despite the credits given in the earlier film version, this was not used.)
- (1984) The Man from the USSR and Other Plays
- (1916) Stikhi ("Poems"). Sixty-eight poems in Russian.
- (1918) Al'manakh: Dva Puti (An Almanac: Two Paths"). Twelve poems by Nabokov and eight by Andrei Balashov, in Russian.
- (1922) Grozd ("The Cluster"). Thirty-six poems in Russian, by "V. Sirin."
- (1923) Gornii Put' ("The Empyrean Path"). One hundred and twenty-eight poems in Russian, by "Vl. Sirin."
- (1929) Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb"). Fifteen short stories and twenty-four poems, in Russian, by "V. Sirin."
- (1952) Stikhotvoreniia 1929–1951 ("Poems 1929–1951") Fifteen poems in Russian.
- (1959) Poems. The contents were later incorporated within Poems and Problems.
- (1971) Poems and Problems (a collection of poetry and chess problems) ISBN 0070457247
- (1979) Stikhi ("Poems"). Two hundred and twenty-two poems in Russian.
From French into Russian
- (1922) Nikolka Persik Translation of Romain Rolland's novel Colas Breugnon.
From English into Russian
- (1923) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Аня в стране чудес)
From Russian into English
- (1945) Three Russian Poets: Selections from Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tyutchev. Expanded British edition: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev: Poems (1947)
- (1958) A Hero of our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov.
- (1960) The Song of Igor's Campaign: An Epic of the Twelfth Century
- (1964) Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin, in prose. Includes "Notes on Prosody." Revised edition (1975).
- (1944) Nikolai Gogol
- (1963) Notes on Prosody (Later appeared within Eugene Onegin)
- (1980) Lectures on Literature
- (1980) Lectures on Ulysses, Facsimiles of Nabokov's notes.
- (1981) Lectures on Russian Literature
- (1983) Lectures on Don Quixote
Autobiographical and other
- (1951) Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir—first version of Nabokov's autobiography. (British edition titled Speak, Memory: A Memoir)
- (1954) Drugie Berega (Другие берега, "Other Shores")—revised version of the autobiography
- (1967) Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited—final revised and extended edition of Conclusive Evidence. It includes information on his work as a lepidopterist.
- (1973) Strong Opinions. Interviews, reviews, letters to editors.
- (1979) The Nabokov–Wilson Letters Letters between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson
- (1984) Perepiska s Sestroi (Переписка с Сестрой (Correspondence with the Sister)) Correspondence between Nabokov and Helene Sikorski; also includes some letters to his brother Kirill
- (1987) Carrousel. Three recently rediscovered short texts.
- (1989) Selected Letters
- (2000) Nabokov's Butterflies, Dmitri Nabokov (Translator). collected works on butterflies. Penguin Books, ISBN 0807085405
Works about Nabokov
By far the best biography is the large, two-volume work by Brian Boyd. A photograph collection complements this.
- Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0691067945 (hardback) 1997; London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. ISBN 0701137002
- Boyd, Brian, Vladimir Nabokov: The American years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0691024715; London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. ISBN 0701137010
- Proffer, Elendea, ed. Vladimir Nabokov: A pictorial biography. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1991. ISBN 0875010784 (a collection of photographs)
- Johnson, Kurt, and Steve Coates. Nabokov's blues: The scientific odyssey of a literary genius. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0071373306 (very accessibly written)
- Sartori, Michel, ed. Les Papillons de Nabokov. [The butterflies of Nabokov.] Lausanne: Musée cantonal de Zoologie, 1993. ISBN 2970005107 (exhibition catalogue, primarily in English)
- Zimmer, Dieter. A guide to Nabokov's butterflies and moths. Privately published, 2001. ISBN 3000076093
- Ron Rosenbaum, April 18, 2004, New Lolita Scandal! Did Nabokov Suffer From Cryptomnesia?Observer.com. Retrieved October 3, 2008.
- Stephen Jay Gould. I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History. (Three Rivers Press, 2003. ISBN 1400048044)
All links retrieved May 3, 2023.
- Cornwell, Neil, Literary Encyclopedia
- Nabokov Under Glass—A website of the New York Public Library exhibit.
- Review of Nabokov's Butterflies—In The Atlantic Monthly.
- Nabokov on Moshkow's site—Nabokov's fiction, translations, criticism, scientific papers, and interviews (mostly in Russian).
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist Short essay by S. Abbas Raza of 3 Quarks Daily
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