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Vladimir Nabokov

[nah' bO kahf] novelist

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, was a liberal politician, lawyer, and journalist; his mother, Eleva Ivanovna Nabokov, was a noble woman with an artistic heritage. His parents spoke both Russian and English, so Vladimir was already proficient in two languages by the time he learned to talk. At the age of five, he learned French. In addition to a string of well-paid tutors, he was also educated at the Tenishev, the most innovative and expensive private school in St. Petersburg.

At the age of 16, Vladimir's uncle left him a sizable estate and an equally sizable bank account, but he was not destined to enjoy either for long. In 1918, the family was forced to flee St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and eventually made its way to England. The family moved to Berlin while Vladimir attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1922. That same year, Vladimir's father was killed when he attempted to stop an assassination attempt on Russian politician Pavel Miliukov. After receiving his degree from Trinity in 1923, Vladimir joined his mother and brother in Berlin.

Nabokov spent the next 15 years in Berlin, where he worked as a translator, tutor, and tennis coach. He also won acceptance as one of the leading young writers in Berlin's Russian community. In 1925, he married Véra Evseevna Slonim, a Jewish woman, with whom he had one son, Dmitri, in 1934.

In 1937, Adolf Hitler let the killer of his father go free. This, combined with the beginning of the Nazi persecution of Jews, led Nabokov to take his family to Paris. In 1940, following the German occupation of Paris, he again moved the family, this time to the United States. The Nabokov family became U.S. citizens in 1945.

Once in the U.S., Nabokov initially worked for the Museum of Natural History in New York as a classifier of butterflies (he had had a passion for butterflies since his early childhood). He also published two scientific papers and was paid by the Museum for entomological drawings. During the summer of 1941, he taught creative writing at Stanford University. He then became a resident lecturer in comparative literature and an instructor in Russian at Wellesley College. From there he went on to Harvard University, where he worked first at the Museum of Comparative Theology and then as a visiting lecturer. From 1948 to 1958, he was a professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University.

By 1958 Nabokov had made enough money from his books to leave his position at Cornell and focus on his writing. In 1959 he moved his family to Montreaux, Switzerland, where he and his wife spent the rest of their lives. He died there on July 2, 1977.

His Writings

Nabokov's novels, most of which were originally published in Russian, are noted for their complicated plots and the complex attitudes they express toward their subjects. Critics praised his novels for their wit, intricate use of words, and rich language. He also published collections of stories and poetry and translated several Russian classics into English.

In 1939, while living in Paris, Nabokov published Volshebnik (The Enchanter), a novel centered around a middle-aged man who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her sick, widowed mother in order to satisfy his erotic desires. He molests the girl in a Riviera hotel while she sleeps, but she awakens during the crime, and the man runs into traffic and is killed while trying to escape.

Nabokov's first novels to be written in English were The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947). In 1951, he published Conclusive Evidence, an autobiographical work which he later revised into Speak, Memory (1966), which was set mainly in pre-revolutionary Russia.

The work for which Nabokov is probably best known was a revised version of Volshebnik. Published in Paris in 1955 and in New York in 1958, Lolita deals with the unnatural desires of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged pedophile. Written as if it were Humbert's prison diaries, the work details the man's lifelong fascination with pubescent girls, especially one named Annabel Leigh, who dies of typhus. From Annabel, Humbert turns his lust toward Dolores Haze, aka Lolita. Unfortunately for him, Lolita ends up with Clare Quilty, a playwright and pornographic filmmaker. Humbert kills Quilty, and eventually dies in prison of a heart attack. Meanwhile, his Lolita dies while giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Although Lolita was praised by critics, its content shocked many readers and the book was actually banned in Paris for three years. American sales reached six figures, and the novel was at the top of the best seller list for months. It was the proceeds from the sale of Lolita, along with the play and film rights, that allowed Nabokov to give up teaching.

1958 edition of Lolita

Most of Nabokov's principal works are shown in the list below:

STIKHI (1916)
GROZD' (1922)
MASHEN'KA -- Mary -- (1926)
KOROL-DAMA-VALET -- King, Queen, Knave (1928)
SOGLYADATAY -- The Eye (1930)
-- The Defense (1930)
CAMERA OBSCURA -- Camera Obscura (1933)
PODVIG' -- Glory (1933)
OTCHAYANIYE -- Despair (1936)
DAR -- The Gift (1937-1938)
PRIGLASHENIYE NA KAZN -- Invitation to a Beheading (1938/1959)
VOLSHEBNIK -- The Enchanter (1939)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
Nikolai Gogol (1944)
Bend Sinister (1947)
Nine Stories (1947)
Conclusive Evidence (1951)
Lolita (1955)
Pnin (1957)
Pale Fire (1962)
Speak, Memory (1966)
Ada (1969)
Transparent Things (1972)
Look at the Harlequins! (1975)

Site of Interest

The International Vladimir Nabokov Society

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This page was last updated on 11/08/2018.