The Russian-born American poet, fiction writer, critic, and butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), one of the most highly acclaimed novelists of his time, was noted for his sensuous and lyrical descriptions, verbal games and experimental narrative style, and his carefully structured and intricate plots.
Best known as the author of Lolita, the scandalous 1950s novel about an underage temptress, Vladimir Nabokov was much more than a chronicler of lecherous professors. He was one of the most productive and creative writers of his era. His novels, short stories, essays, poems, and memoirs all share his cosmopolitan wit, his love of wordplay, his passion for satire, and his complex social commentary. Nabokov's work appeals to the senses, imagination, intellect, and emotions. His themes are universal: the role of the artist in society; the myth of journey, adventure, and return; and humanity's concepts of memory and time, which he called a tightrope walk across the "watery abyss of the past and the aerial abyss of the future."
Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, as one of five children of a wealthy noble couple. Nabokov's parents encouraged the gifted youth to follow his mind and imagination. He played with language and linguistics, mathematics, puzzles and games including chess, and soccer, boxing and tennis. He read English before he read Russian. Interested in butterflies, he became a recognized entomological authority while still young and remained a noted lepidopertist his entire life. Nabokov began to write poems when he was 13 and, as he described it, "the numb fury of verse making first came over me." His first book of poetry was published in 1914, and a second appeared in 1917. He called his early writing an attempt "to express one's position in regard to the universe."
Nabokov's father, a lawyer who edited St. Petersburg's only liberal newspaper, rebelled against first the czarist regime, then against the Communists. Bereft of land and fortune after the Russian Revolution, the family fled Russia for London in 1919, where Nabokov entered Cambridge University. He graduated with honors in 1922 and rejoined his family in Berlin, where Nabokov's father was gunned down by a monarchist. Nabokov married Vera Slonim in 1925 and they had a son, Dmitri, who later became an opera singer. In Berlin, Nabokov taught boxing, tennis and languages and constructed crossword puzzles. He began writing under the pseudonym "V. Sirin," selling stories, poems and essays to Russian-language newspapers in Berlin and then, after fleeing the Nazis in 1938, in Paris. His work included translations as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and the poem La Belle dame sans merci into Russian, literary criticism, short stories, plays, and novels. He began writing in English and in 1940 moved to the United States.
Early Days in America
In 1940, Nabokov taught Slavic languages at Stanford University. From 1941 to 1948 he taught at Wellesley College and became a professor of literature. He also was a research fellow in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University from 1942 to 1948, and later discovered several butterfly species and subspecies, including "Nabokov's wood nymph." While teaching, he wrote The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), a parody of the mystery-story genre, whose hero is derived from the author's own life. A Guggenheim fellowship in 1943 resulted in his scholarly 1944 biographical study of Russian author Nicolai Gogol. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945 and by then was a regular contributor to popular magazines.
Nabokov's 1947 novel Bend Sinister is about an intellectual's battle with a totalitarian police state. It is considered a parody of the utopia genre. In 1949 Nabokov was appointed professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University, where he taught until 1959. His memoir of his early life in Russia, Speak, Memory (1951), is a charming autobiography. Several short sketches published in the New Yorker, were incorporated into Pnin (1957), his novel about a Russian emigre teaching at an American university.
Lolita Brings Notoriety
Despite Nabokov's vast productivity, scholarly status, and high standing in literary circles, he remained relatively unknown to the general public until Lolita, a sadly hilarious account of Humbert Humbert, a pompous middle-aged professor who is seduced by a 12-year-old schoolgirl. It was first published in Paris in 1955. After its first American edition came out in 1958, some U.S. libraries banned it. The scandal helped the book become immensely popular. Critical reaction ran the gamut from outrage to high praise. Nabokov sold the film rights and wrote the screenplay for the 1962 movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. With royalties from the novel and the film, Nabokov was able to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to his writing and to butterfly hunting.
In 1959 Nabokov published Invitation to a Beheading, a story of a man awaiting execution, which he had first written in Russian in 1938. In 1960 he and his family moved to Montreux, Switzerland. Nabokov received critical acclaim for Pale Fire (1962), a strange, multidimensional exercise in the techniques of parable and parody, written as a 999-line poem with a lengthy commentary by a demented New England scholar who is actually an exiled mythical king.
Playing with Time
In 1963 Nabokov's English translation of Alexander Pushkin's romantic verse novel Eugene Onegin was published; the four-volume scholarly work was, Nabokov said, his "labor of love." Several translations of earlier Russian works followed, including The Defense, a novel about chess. Nabokov's Ada (1969), an "autumnal fairy tale" whose principal characters are imprisoned by time, is subject to many levels of interpretation, with its intricate construction, complex allusions, word games, staggering erudition, chronological ambiguities and literary parody. Time in this novel is blended into a totally free-ranging and distorting present, what Nabokov called "the essential spirality of all things in their relationship to time." The novel is the fulfillment of Nabokov's theme from Speak, Memory: "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip."
Nabokov constructed his novels like puzzles, rather than working from beginning to end. In 1964, he told Life magazine: "Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime." Nabokov died July 2, 1977, at the Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, where he had lived since 1959.
Further Reading on Vladimir Nabokov
See Nabokov: The Man and His Work, edited by L.S. Dumbo (1967); Andrew Field's, VN, The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (1986); Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The British Years (both 1991) by Brian Boyd's; Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov (1966) and his introduction to Nabokov's Congeries (1968) by Page Stegners).