Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most brilliant, original, and complex writers of the twentieth century. Though best known for his novels, he is the author of works in a variety of genres, ranging from verse to memoir, biography to translation. No writer of the last half century has had so broad or so decisive an influence on American – as well as non-American – fiction, from his student Thomas Pynchon to his early advocate John Updike, from Martin Amis to W. G. Sebald, Aleksandar Hemon to Jhumpa Lahiri, Don DeLillo to Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith to Michael Chabon.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born into a family of great wealth and influence in St. Petersburg on April 22, 1899. He was the eldest of five children and the son of a renowned jurist and liberal politician. The family, a member of the untitled nobility, spent their summers on family estates in the Russian countryside, and the rest of the year in St. Petersburg – a rhythm recounted in his Speak, Memory (1966). Also related therein is that Nabokov's exceptionally happy childhood was also a trilingual one. Alongside his native Russian, the rules of fashionable society demanded a thorough knowledge of French. He first learned the language in which he would become most famous from his English governess. Inheriting an independent fortune from an uncle at the age of 17, Nabokov used a small part of his briefly held riches to publish a collection of his Russian verse. With the rise to power of the Bolsheviks in 1917 his family fled St. Petersburg for the Crimea, remaining there for 18 months before leaving Russia in 1919, never to return.
Nabokov and his brother Sergei were sent to study at Cambridge University, while his parents (stripped of their considerable wealth) and younger siblings settled in Berlin, then the center of Russian émigré society. At Trinity College Nabokov studied Russian and French literature. In 1922 his father was murdered by Russian monarchists in Berlin (he was not the target of the attack but was killed while trying to hinder the assassins). The following year Nabokov met his future wife, Véra, whom he married in 1925. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934. In response to the mounting danger posed by the National Socialist government, made particularly acute by the fact that Véra was Jewish, the couple and their young son left Berlin for Paris in 1937. Under renewed pressure from the Nazis, they sailed from Paris for New York in 1940.
During the years between the end of his university studies and his fleeing Europe, Nabokov wrote eight novels in Russian, culminating in his masterful The Gift (1938). Alongside these he wrote a large body of verse and short fiction (including two novellas). Despite the critical success with which both his poetry and fiction were met, the exigencies of the émigré market made it impossible for him to earn a living from writing. To supplement his income, he composed chess problems and crossword puzzles for newspapers, as well as gave lessons in French, English, Russian, tennis, and boxing.
By the late 1930s it became clear to Nabokov that if he was to have any hope of supporting his family through literature, he would need to remake himself as either a French or an English writer. His first forays into the French literary world were successful, but the political situation there soon led him to set his sights on the Anglophone world. While he had actually learned to read English before Russian (much to his parents' surprise), and attended an English university, his first creative writing in English – what was to become The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – dates from 1938, when Nabokov was 39 years old. It is for this reason all the more remarkable that the literary language he developed in that and later works is neither simplified nor stiff. As his readers soon remarked, it abounds in both stylistic refinement and colloquial flavor (an important early critic of his work, Alfred Appel, Jr., notably dubbed it “colloquial baroque”). At many points it displays a foreigner's heightened sensitivity to the neglected resources of a language. The striking felicity of much of his writing is inflected by echoes of other languages and is strongly marked by what George Steiner called its “extraterritoriality.”
Upon arriving in New York in 1940, Nabokov found himself in the same narrow financial straits he had known in Europe. He took a curatorial job in the entomology department of New York's Museum of Natural History, which was later supplanted by a similar post at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Alongside this scientific work, Nabokov taught Russian and comparative literature at Wellesley College, stealing time for creative writing where he could. During these years he found a publisher for his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), and wrote and published his second one, Bend Sinister (1947). Nabokov at last found a full-time teaching post at Cornell University in 1948, where he remained until the proceeds from Lolita (1955) would allow him to retire permanently from teaching 10 years later. After completing another novel, Pnin (1957), and writing a screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film version of Lolita, Nabokov left America for Switzerland in 1960, where he spent the last 17 years of his life in peaceful seclusion, and during which he wrote and published Pale Fire (1962); Ada, or Ardor (1969); Transparent Things (1972); and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). Despite his injunction against posthumous publication, since his death Lectures on Literature (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), and Lectures on Don Quixote (1983) have appeared. At the time of his death, Nabokov was at work on a novel entitled The Original of Laura (2009). He had instructed that it was to be burnt in the event he died before being able to complete it. After long years of uncertainty, and an intense flurry of media attention, his son and literary executor, Dmitri, agreed to its publication.
Just as Nabokov's exceptional talent did not limit itself to a single language, it did not limit itself to a single genre. While indeed best-known for his novels, he also wrote verse, short fiction, a richly evocative memoir, a biography, two stage plays, a screenplay, scientific papers treating the taxonomy and behavior of butterflies and moths, and one of the most extensively annotated translations of a poem ever produced. And yet this translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1975) – for which Nabokov thought he would be, along with Lolita, best remembered – only represented a modest part of the total translating he did during his life. In addition to early translations such as one from English to Russian of Alice in Wonderland and later ones from Russian to English such as that of the twelfth-century epic The Song of Igor's Campaign, Nabokov either himself translated, or had a significant hand in the translations of, all his earlier Russian works, as well as translated Lolita into Russian.
Nabokov's energetic movement between genres is also clearly reflected within his preferred genre, the novel. Ever impatient with generic constraints, each of Nabokov's English novels presents some significant formal or thematic innovation. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight begins as a fictionalized literary biography and ends as a riddle of authority and identification. The dystopian Bend Sinister oscillates between the political and the private, between a reflection on totalitarianism and one on suffering and loss, and closes with the curious intervention of a figure Nabokov described as “an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.” Pnin is a touching, tender, and often melancholy story of emigration and academia which, however, does not fail to raise many of the same questions of authority as had Nabokov's first English novel. As its subtitle indicates, Ada, or Ardor is a “family chronicle” but one where familial resemblances, history, and even the passage of time are subject to highly specialized rules of engagement. Fittingly enough, Nabokov's final completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, at once reflects and mocks the genre of the literary autobiography.
The most striking instance of Nabokov's formal innovation is offered, however, by Pale Fire. The novel takes the form of a 999-line poem written by a (fictional) poet accompanied by the preface and annotations of a (fictional) critic who, as becomes ever more apparent to the reader, is either a monomaniacal monarch in exile or a madman – or both. Still other possibilities, however, are gradually suggested, as certain details of plot and presentation seem to indicate that both poem and commentary were written by the poet himself, while others imply that both were written by the commentator. In an important early review, Mary McCarthy described the novel as “a Jack-in-the-Box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel” (21). Still other elements in the dizzyingly complex construction point to yet another author within the world of the novel (a local professor). Further conjectures have been made, though these might suffice to give a sense of the playful complexity of the novel's intricate structure (for an overview of the varying possibilities, as well as the impassioned advocacy of a single one of them, see Boyd 1999).
Nabokov is, however, best known for his tale of ardent love, aching loss, and cruel mistreatment, Lolita. The novel combines elements of the case history, the confession, the lyric, and the detective novel. Its most unsettling formal characteristic, however, is also its most unsettling moral one, as Lolita is told in the first-person voice of a criminal graced with unsettling eloquence. Humbert is remarkable not only for his wit, imagination, and powers of observation, but also for how little he corresponds to stereotypical images of pedophiles. Lolita has become one of the most famous books of its century, and yet its nature has remained resolutely enigmatic with readers divided as to whether it is a sterile exercise of linguistic virtuosity or a deeply human account of love and loss, whether it is an incitement to vice or an encouragement to virtue, whether it is art for nothing but its own sake or a work of rare moral force.
While present in all Nabokov's fiction, this innovative element is not limited to it. Nabokov was fiercely independent in all his activities, from the conventional genre of the biography to the freer one of the novel. Much to his publisher's chagrin, in writing his biography of Nikolai Gogol he refused to either offer summaries of Gogol's works or proceed chronologically in the telling of his life. Equally remarkable is that this same principle was followed in Nabokov's own memoir – published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence, translated into Russian in 1954, and published in expanded and altered form as Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited in 1966. In all its incarnations, this memoir follows thematic rather than chronological strands and accords far greater importance to seemingly minor details and chance recollections than to what are customarily viewed as formative experiences and watershed events.
Nabokov's view of art can be most succinctly described as art for art's sake. He categorically dismissed the importance or interest – in both his works and those of others – of social, political, or moral questions and displayed a particularly strong antipathy toward writers and critics whom he saw using literature to advocate social or political views. In the introduction to Bend Sinister he stated, “I am not ‘sincere,' I am not ‘provocative,' I am not ‘satirical.' I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of ‘thaw' in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent” (xii). Of Dickens's Bleak House, he claimed that “the sociological side … is neither interesting nor important” (1980,68); and of Madame Bovary, he remarked, “[T]he subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books” (1980, 138). When he addressed the question of audience, it was most often to dismiss it as not worth discussing, and was fond of quoting Pushkin's dictum, “I write for pleasure and publish for money” (1973, 273). This is not to say, however, that he was indifferent to his audience, and, in private communications, he reacted with pride and pleasure to the reactions of attentive readers.
What Nabokov most demanded from readers was attention to detail. Both in life and in art, he stressed the need to study even and especially the subtlest details – the finest shades of color and most delicate nuances of meaning. This resulted in a virulent dislike for generalizations, most clearly visible in his repeated attacks on Freud. Freud was not alone, however, in receiving such harsh treatment. In 1973 Nabokov published a collection of interviews, essays, and chess problems entitled Strong Opinions (1973) in which the vehemence of his literary opinions is on prominent display. Both there and elsewhere, his reverence for Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Dickens, Proust, and Bely found its complement in the contempt in which he held a number of celebrated authors from Marx to Dostoevsky, and from Balzac to Thomas Mann. Amongst notable American writers whom Nabokov deemed “mediocrities” are T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Faulkner, and Saul Bellow.
In virtually all of Nabokov's work, early and late, themes of madness, cruelty, and suffering recur frequently. In some cases, they are presented in relatively conventional fashion, albeit with unconventional insight, as in such early works as Laughter in the Dark (1938) and The Defense (1930). In Lolita and Ada, or Ardor, they are filtered through the more or less villainous eyes of the perpetrators. In still other instances, a remarkable figure enters the world of the fiction – that of the work's creator – as at the end of Bend Sinister and the story “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” Unsurprisingly, the relation of creator to creation and the role of cruelty in that creation have comprised a topic of perennial curiosity – and unease – amongst readers and critics, as has been the theme of emissaries from the beyond.
Given the complexity of Nabokov's works, it should come as no surprise that the question as to what extent his readers are meant to unravel them has also been a recurrent one, as has been the related one of whether singular definitive answers to the riddles posed in works such as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight or Pale Fire are to be had. Arguments for the ultimate impossibility of certainty and determinacy in such matters are to be found expressed with particular clarity in Wood (1994). A spirited defense of determinacy in interpretation – brought to bear on the most densely and deceptively patterned of Nabokov's works, Pale Fire – is given by Boyd (1999).
In conclusion, for the reader experiencing surprise at finding Nabokov listed as an American author, a few details bear noting. As concerns his own view of the matter, Nabokov exclaimed, “I am as American as April in Arizona” (1973, 98). More precisely, he noted elsewhere, “I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England where I studied French literature, before spending fifteen years in Germany” (1973, 26). When asked where in the library classification his works should be placed, his widow remarked that they belonged under American Literature as his best works were written in that language.
SEE ALSO: Expatriate Fiction (AF); McCarthy, Mary (AF); Modernist Fiction (AF); Postmodernist Fiction (AF)
- Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1991).
- Alexandrov, V. (ed.) (1995). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Garland.
- Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1990).
- Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1991).
- Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1999).
- Connolly, J. (ed.) (2005). The Cambridge Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (2007).
- Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Ann Arbor: Ardis. (1985).
- Laughter in the Dark. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. (1938).
- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. New York: New Directions. (1941).
- Bend Sinister. New York: Holt. (1947).
- Lolita. Paris: Olympia Press. (1955).
- Pnin. New York: Doubleday. (1957).
- Invitation to a Beheading [trans. of Priglashenie na kazn', 1938] (trans. Nabokov, D. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: Putnam's. (1959).
- Nikolai Gogol , corr. ed. New York: New Directions. (1961).
- Pale Fire. New York: Putnam's. (1962).
- The Gift [trans. of Dar, 1937–38] (trans. Scammell, M. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: Putnam's. (1963).
- The Defense [Zashchita Luzhina, 1930] (trans. Scammell, M. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: Putnam's. (1964).
- The Eye [Sogliadatai, 1938] (trans. Nabokov, D. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: Phaedra. (1965).
- Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Putnam's. (1966).
- King, Queen, Knave [Korol', dama, valet, 1928] (trans. Nabokov, D. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: McGraw-Hill. (1968).
- Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. New York: McGraw-Hill. (1969).
- Mary [Mashen'ka, 1926] (trans. Glenny, M. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: McGraw-Hill. (1970).
- Glory [Sovremennye Zapiski] (trans. Nabokov, D. with Nabokov, V. ). New York: McGraw-Hill. (1971).
- Transparent Things. New York: McGraw-Hill. (1972).
- Strong Opinions. New York: McGraw-Hill. (1973).
- Look at the Harlequins! New York: McGraw-Hill. (1974).
- Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin  (trans. and comm. Nabokov, V. ), rev. ed., 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1975).
- Lectures on Literature (ed. Bowers, F. ). New York: Harcourt, Brace. (1980).
- Lectures on Russian Literature (ed. Bowers, F. ). New York: Harcourt Brace. (1981).
- The Annotated Lolita  (ed., pref., intro., and notes, Appel, A. Jr.). NewYork: Vintage. (1991).
- Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Knopf. (1996).
- Page, N. (ed.) (1982). Nabokov: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge.
- Nabokov and the Novel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (1980).
- Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1989).
- Extraterritorial. TriQuarterly, 17, 119-27. (1970).
- The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. London: Chatto and Windus. (1994).
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