Authors: Vladimir Nabokov

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Russian-born novelist, short-fiction writer, dramatist, and poet

April 23, 1899

St. Petersburg, Russia

July 2, 1977

Montreux, Switzerland

Biography

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov occupies a unique niche in the annals of literature by having become a major author in both Russian and English. He wrote nine novels, about forty stories, and considerable poetry in Russian before migrating to the United States in 1940. Thereafter, he not only produced eight more novels and ten short stories in English but also translated into that tongue the fiction he had composed in his native language. His fifty-year career as a writer included (besides fiction and poetry) drama, memoirs, translations, reviews, letters, critical essays, literary criticism, and the screenplay of his novel Lolita.

Nabokov’s life divides neatly into four phases, each lasting approximately twenty years. He was born to an aristocratic and wealthy family, with his father a prominent liberal politician. He eloquently evokes his affectionate upbringing in his lyrical memoir, Conclusive Evidence, later expanded and retitled Speak, Memory. The results of the October Revolution forced the Nabokovs to flee Russia in 1919. Vladimir, who had learned both French and English from governesses during his childhood, enrolled in the University of Cambridge and took a degree in foreign languages in 1923. Meanwhile, his parents settled in Berlin, where his father was assassinated in 1922 by right-wing Russian expatriates. Vladimir took up residence in Berlin in 1923, and in 1925 he married a beautiful Jewish émigré, Véra Slonim; they maintained an unusually harmonious union. In the mid-to late 1920’s, he published, in Russian-language exile newspapers and periodicals, dozens of poems and more than twenty short stories. Many were later translated into English, with the stories distributed among several collections and the poems published in 1952.

Vladimir Nabokov

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(Library of Congress)

The Nabokovs stayed in Berlin until 1937. During that time, their only child, Dmitri, was born. The family then moved to Paris for three years. In his writings during these years, he continued to dramatize the autobiographical themes of political exile, nostalgic anguish, displacement, and other variations of vagrant rootlessness. His most important novels during the 1920’s and 1930’s are commonly considered to be The Defense and The Gift. In the former, a genius of a chess master finds refuge from an incomprehensible world in the ordered clarity of the chessboard’s threats and defenses. Chess feeds the protagonist’s delusions, haunts him, and drives him to madness and eventually his last move—suicide. In The Gift, the young hero, like his author, lives in Berlin and tries to get his prose and poetry published in émigré periodicals. The novel, centering on the development of aesthetic consciousness by a lord of language, is written in a dazzlingly evocative style.

The third phase of Nabokov’s life started in 1940, when he escaped the Nazis by emigrating to the United States. There he taught primarily at Wellesley College in the 1940’s and Cornell University from 1948 to 1958. In 1944 he published a brilliant as well as eccentric study of Nikolai Gogol, whose absurdist perspective on life deeply influenced Nabokov. For a decade, Nabokov became a celebrated ornament of Cornell’s upstate New York campus, specializing in a course called Masters of European Fiction, alternately charming and exasperating his students with witty lectures and difficult examinations. Three volumes of these lectures were issued after his death. Two of his best novels were written during this span: Pnin and Lolita. Pnin deals with a plodding Russian émigré professor at a small eastern college who wins a Pyrrhic triumph over the English language, wrestling comically with American idioms.

Lolita was for years refused publication by American firms; Olympia Press in Paris was first to publish it, in 1955. By 1958 the work had become celebrated and notorious, and its American publisher, Putnam’s, found itself with the year’s best-seller. The novel is now recognized as a major achievement, uniting wildly grotesque humor with both the shock value and tragedy of its protagonist’s attraction to young girls. It succeeds on many levels: as a satire of billboard America, progressive-school education, and teenage promiscuity; as a commentary on Continental-American cultural relations; but above all, as a gripping, yet disturbing love story, with the perverted Humbert Humbert captive to the cruel caprices of his indifferent child-mistress. Lolita was later adapted for film, with Nabokov himself writing the screenplay, and for the stage, as a 2006 opera.

After he became famous and rich, Nabokov abruptly broke off his academic career in the winter of 1958 and moved to an elegant hotel on the banks of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva for what were to prove nineteen more fecund years. He produced a four-volume translation of and commentary on Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 Yevgeny Onegin in 1964 and wrote several new novels, including two—Pale Fire and Ada, or Ardor—deserving consideration among the twentieth century’s leading literary texts. Pale Fire is an extremely complex and ingenious satire, a work consisting of a thousand-line poem by a fictional mad poet, swathed in more than 250 pages of inappropriate commentary by an equally fictional mad editor. The book is both parody and allegory, with the failure of adequate communication its commanding theme. Ada, or Ardor has divided Nabokov’s critics into those who laud it as a superb dynastic novel, loaded with spectacular romance as well as witty wordplay, and others who regard it as an unduly intricate, overly cerebral, and emotionally distancing book.

During this last arc of his career, Nabokov basked in an aura of worldwide acclaim as an eminent writer. Whether he is to be ranked alongside Thomas Mann or Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges or Samuel Beckett, Nabokov is a modern master who has influenced such diverse writers as Anthony Burgess, John Barth, William Gass, Tom Stoppard, Milan Kundera, John Updike, and Thomas Pynchon. Nabokov’s writing is never intentionally didactic. He detested message-ridden, moralistic fiction. Instead, he delighted in playing brilliantly with the reader’s credulity, regarding himself as a fantasist, a Prospero of verbal enchantment. Few writers produced art for the sake of art with his talent and discipline.

Nabokov died in July 1977 in Montreux, Switzerland. His son, Dmitri, had long aided in the translation of Nabokov's Russian-language works and then served as literary executor of his estate. In that capacity, Dmitri oversaw the posthumous publication of The Enchanter, a proto-Lolita novella, in 1986 and The Original of Laura, Nabokov's final, unfinished novel, in 2009. Following Dmitri's demise, Vladimir Nabokov's correspondence with Véra and his dream diary also appeared in print, providing further material on which Nabokov scholars can draw to better understand the man and the writer.

Author Works Long Fiction: Mashenka, 1926 (Mary, 1970) Korol’, dama, valet, 1928 (King, Queen, Knave, 1968) Zashchita Luzhina, 1929 (serial), 1930 (book; The Defense, 1964) Podvig, 1932 (Glory, 1971) Kamera obskura, 1932 (Camera Obscura, 1936; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938) Otchayanie, 1934 (serial), 1936 (book; Despair, 1937; revised 1966) Priglashenie na kazn’, 1935-1936 (serial), 1938 (book; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959, with Dmitri Nabokov) Dar, 1937-1938 (serial), 1952 (book; The Gift, 1963) The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941 Bend Sinister, 1947 Lolita, 1955 Pnin, 1957 Pale Fire, 1962 Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969 Transparent Things, 1972 Look at the Harlequins!, 1974 The Enchanter, 1986 The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun), 2009 (Dmitri Nabokov, editor) Short Fiction: Vozrashchenie Chorba, 1930 Soglyadatay, 1938 Nine Stories, 1947 Vesna v Fialte i drugie rasskazy, 1956 Nabokov’s Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories, 1958 Nabokov’s Quartet, 1966 A Russian Beauty, and Other Stories, 1973 Tyrants Destroyed, and Other Stories, 1975 Details of a Sunset, and Other Stories, 1976 Drama: Smert’, pb. 1923 Dedushka, pb. 1923 Polius, pb. 1924 Tragediya gospodina Morna, pb. 1924 (The Tragedy of Mr. Morn, 2013; Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan, translators) Chelovek iz SSSR, pb. 1927 Sobytiye, pr., pb. 1938 Izobretenie Val’sa, pb. 1938 (The Waltz Invention, 1966) Screenplay: Lolita, 1962 Poetry: Stikhi, 1916 Dva puti, 1918 Gorny put, 1923 Grozd’, 1923 Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951, 1952 Poems, 1959 Poems and Problems, 1970 Nonfiction: Nikolai Gogol, 1944 Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir, 1951 Drugie berega, 1954 Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966 (revision of Conclusive Evidence and Drugie berega) Strong Opinions, 1973 The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, 1979 Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German, 1980 Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981 Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983 Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977, 1989 Letters to Véra, 2015 (Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, editors) Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov, 2017 (Robert Golla, editor) Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time, 2017 (Gennady Barabtarlo, editor) Translations: Anya v strane chudes, 1923 (of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tiutchev, 1944 (with Dmitri Nabokov) A Hero of Our Time, 1958 (of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel; with Dmitri Nabokov) The Song of Igor’s Campaign, 1960 (of the twelfth-century epic Slovo o polki Igoreve) Eugene Onegin, 1964 (of Alexander Pushkin’s novel) Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, 2008 (Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin, editors) Bibliography Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Alexandrov argues that “The central fact of both Nabokov’s life and his art was something that could be described as an intuition about a transcendent realm of being.” Showing how an awareness of this “otherworld” informs Nabokov’s works, Alexandrov focuses on Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited and on six of Nabokov’s novels, but his study illumines Nabokov’s short fiction as well, correcting the widely accepted view of Nabokov as an aloof gamesman preoccupied with verbal artifice for its own sake. Includes notes, a secondary bibliography, and an index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Nabokov’s handling of time, illusion and reality, and art. There are separate essays on each of his major novels, as well as an introduction, chronology, and bibliography. Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. A critical biography of Nabokov focusing on his privileged upbringing in imperial Russia and his years of exile and wandering in Europe until the rise of Adolf Hitler. Analyzes Nabokov's major works. Includes illustrations, notes, and index. Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. In the course of the two volumes of this critical biography, Boyd discusses virtually all Nabokov’s stories. Boyd generally provides a brief summary of each story, relating it to Nabokov’s development as an artist and noting recurring themes. Each volume includes illustrations, extensive notes, and an exceptionally thorough index. Connolly, Julian W. The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. A concise introduction to Nabokov’s life and his writing. Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. Field singles out several of Nabokov’s stories for analysis. Of particular interest is his discussion of “The Potato Elf,” which he describes as “a classic instance of a brilliantly executed short story whose compressed action is an essential function of its success.” In Field’s judgment, “The Potato Elf” is “Nabokov’s greatest short story.” Field, Andrew. VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Crown, 1986. A sympathetic, relatively comprehensive biography of Nabokov's personal and professional life. Foster, John Burt. Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Burt divides his study into three parts: Nabokov’s early years in Russia, his period in Europe, and his prolonged period in America. This is a more specialized study for advanced students. Grayson, Jane, Arnold B. McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer, eds. Nabokov’s World: Reading Nabokov. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. A collection of fifteen essays focusing on intertextuality in Nabokov’s works and their literary reception. Nicol, Charles. “‘Ghastly Rich Glass’: A Double Essay on ‘Spring in Fialta.’” Russian Literature Triquarterly, no. 24 (1991): 173-184. One of two pieces devoted to Nabokov’s short fiction in this special Nabokov issue, Nicol’s article on “Spring in Fialta” has two concerns: “First, a consideration of the plot structure … and second, a further perspective on the vexed question of whether this story has any autobiographical relevance or personal reference to its author.” Nicol, Charles, and Gennady Barabtarlo, eds. A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993. Contains sixteen essays on Nabokov’s stories from a variety of critical points of view. The essays discuss themes, sources, parallels, and symbols in such stories as “Spring in Fialta,” “Signs and Symbols,” and several others. Parker, Stephen Jan. Understanding Vladimir Nabokov. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. An introductory guide to Nabokov for students and nonacademic readers. After an introductory chapter on the self-reflexive aspects of Nabokov’s narrative technique, the book focuses on individual analyses of five Russian novels and four American novels. The section on the short stories provides brief summary analyses of “Spring in Fialta,” “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” “Signs and Symbols,” and “The Vane Sisters.” Parker, Stephen Jan. “Vladimir Nabokov and the Short Story.” Russian Literature Triquarterly, no. 24 (1991): 63-72. Parker worked with Nabokov and Véra Nabokov in the early 1970’s to establish a precise chronology of Nabokov’s short stories in Russian and to discuss possible titles for the English translations. Listed here are the results of their conversation and correspondence. Also included is a previously unpublished interview (conducted by mail) centering on the short story as a genre, with some characteristically provocative responses from Nabokov. Pifer, Ellen, ed. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Nine essays and an interview with Nabokov are collected to provide a range of approaches to the reading of Lolita. Schiff, Stacy. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Random House, 1999. The story of a woman’s fifty-five-year marriage to a brilliant but self-centered poet and novelist. Shrayer, Maxim D. “Mapping Narrative Space in Nabokov’s Short Fiction.” The Slavonic and East European Review 75 (October, 1997): 624-641. Discusses the figurations of space in Nabokov’s stories; emphasizes rendering three-dimensional space on an atomistic scale and the way in which a whole narrative serves as a travel guide to its own space; compares Nabokov’s method of rendering the narrative space with that of his Russian predecessors. Shrayer, Maxim D. The World of Nabokov’s Stories. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. A detailed analysis of Nabokov’s mastery of the short-story form and his worldview. Traces Nabokov’s literary practice from the early 1920’s to the 1930’s; focuses on Russian stories, such as “The Return of Chorb” and “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” Also discusses Nabokov’s relationship to Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin. Wood, Michael. The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Wood’s close reading of the Nabokovian texts shows the power and beauty of his language and the subtly of his art, and it uncovers an ethical and moral foundation of his work that Nabokov denied existed.

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