Vladimir Nabokov - biography
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков, pronounced [vlɐˈdʲimʲɪr nɐˈbokəf]; 22 April [O.S. 10 April] 1899c – 2 July 1977) was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made contributions to entomology and had an interest in chess problems.
Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as among his most important novels and is his most widely known, exhibiting the love of intricate word play and synesthetic detail that characterised all his works. The novel was ranked at #4 in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels. Pale Fire (1962) was ranked at #53 on the same list. His memoir, Speak, Memory, was listed #8 on the Modern Library nonfiction list.
Life and career
Nabokov was born on 22 April 1899 (10 April 1899 Old-Style), in Saint Petersburg, to a wealthy and prominent Saint Petersburg family of the minor nobility. He was the eldest of five children of liberal lawyer, statesman, and journalist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova. His cousins included the composer Nicolas Nabokov. He spent his childhood and youth in St. Petersburg and at the country estate Vyra near Siverskaya, south of the city.
Nabokov's childhood, which he called "perfect", was remarkable in several ways. The family spoke Russian, English, and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, much to his patriotic father's chagrin, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian. In Speak, Memory Nabokov recalls numerous details of his privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past was a boon to him during his permanent exile, as well as providing a theme that echoes from his first book, Mary, all the way to later works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. While the family was nominally Orthodox, they felt no religious fervor, and little Vladimir was not forced to attend church after he lost interest. In 1916, Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhdestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov ("Uncle Ruka" in Speak, Memory), but lost it in the revolution one year later; this was the only house he would ever own.
After the 1917 February Revolution, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov became a secretary of the Russian Provisional Government, and the family was forced to flee the city after the Bolshevik Revolution for Crimea, not expecting to be away for very long. They lived at a friend's estate and in September 1918 moved to Livadiya; Nabokov's father was a minister of justice of the Crimean provisional government. After the withdrawal of the German Army (November 1918) and the defeat of the White Army in early 1919, the Nabokovs left for exile in western Europe. On 2 April 1919, the family left Sevastopol on the last ship. They settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge and studied Slavic and Romance languages. He later drew on his Cambridge experiences to write the novel Glory. In 1920, his family moved to Berlin, where his father set up the émigré newspaper Rul' (Rudder). Nabokov would follow to Berlin after his studies at Cambridge two years later.
Berlin years (1922-1937)
In March 1922, Nabokov's father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists as he was fighting to protect their real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. This mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in Nabokov's fiction, where characters would meet their deaths under mistaken terms. In Pale Fire, for example, one interpretation of the novel has a communist assassin murder the poet John Shade while attempting to kill a displaced monarch who has escaped from his home country. Shortly after his father's death, his mother and sister moved to Prague. Nabokov stayed in Berlin, where he had become a recognised poet and writer within the émigré community and published under the pen name V. Sirin. To supplement his scant writing income, he taught languages and gave tennis and boxing lessons. Of his fifteen Berlin years, Dieter E. Zimmer wrote: "He never became fond of Berlin, and at the end intensely disliked it. He lived within the lively Russian community of Berlin that was more or less self-sufficient, staying on after it had disintegrated because he had nowhere else to go to. He knew little German. He knew few Germans except for landladies, shopkeepers, the petty immigration officials at the police headquarters."
In 1922 Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert; the engagement was broken off by her family in early 1923 because he had no steady job. In May 1923 he met a Jewish-Russian woman, Véra Evseyevna Slonim, at a charity ball in Berlin and married her in April 1925. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934.
In 1936, Vera lost her job because of the increasingly anti-Semitic environment; also in that year the assassin of Nabokov's father was appointed second-in-command of the Russian émigré group. In the same year Nabokov began seeking a job in the English-speaking world. In 1937 he left Germany for France, where he had a short affair with Russian émigrée Irina Guadanini; his family followed, making their last visit to Prague en route. They settled in Paris, but also spent time in Cannes, Menton, Cap d'Antibes, and Frejus. In May 1940 the Nabokov family fled from the advancing German troops to the United States on board the SS Champlain.
The Nabokovs settled in Manhattan and Vladimir started a job at the American Museum of Natural History. In October he met Edmund Wilson, who became his close friend (until their falling out two decades later) and introduced Nabokov's work to American editors. Nabokov went to Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley's Russian Department. His lecture series on major nineteenth-century Russian writers was hailed as "funny", "learned", and "brilliantly satirical." The Nabokovs resided in Wellesley, Massachusetts during the 1941-42 academic year. In September 1942 they moved to Cambridge where they lived until June 1948. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944–45 academic year as a lecturer in Russian. In 1945, he became a naturalised citizen of the United States. He served through the 1947-48 term as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University.
Nabokov wrote Lolita while travelling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States that he undertook every summer. (Nabokov never learned to drive, type, fold an umbrella, or answer the telephone. Vera acted as "secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy"; when Nabokov attempted to burn unfinished drafts of Lolita, it was Vera who stopped him. He called her the best-humoured woman he had ever known.) In June 1953 he and his family went to Ashland, Oregon, renting a house on Meade Street from Professor Taylor, head of the Southern Oregon College Department of Social Science. There he finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin. He roamed the nearby mountains looking for butterflies, and wrote a poem called Lines Written in Oregon. On 1 October 1953, he and his family left for Ithaca, New York.
After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to return to Europe and devote himself exclusively to writing. His son had obtained a position as an operatic bass at Reggio Emilia. On 1 October 1961, he and Véra moved to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland; he stayed there until the end of his life. From his sixth-floor quarters he conducted his business and took tours to the Alps, Corsica, and Sicily to hunt butterflies. In 1976 he was hospitalised with an undiagnosed fever. He was rehospitalised in Lausanne in 1977 suffering from severe bronchial congestion. He died on 2 July in Montreux surrounded by his family and, according to his son, Dmitri, "with a triple moan of descending pitch". His remains were cremated and are buried at the Clarens cemetery in Montreux.
At the time of his death, he was working on a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Vera and son Dmitri were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, and though he asked them to burn the manuscript, they chose not to destroy his final work. The incomplete manuscript, around 125 handwritten index cards, remained in a Swiss bank vault where only two people, Dmitri Nabokov and an unknown person, had access. Portions of the manuscript were shown to Nabokov scholars. In April, 2008, Dmitri announced that he would publish the novel. The Original of Laura was published on 17 November 2009.
Prior to the incomplete novel's publication, several short excerpts of The Original of Laura were made public, most recently by German weekly Die Zeit, which in its 14 August 2008 issue for the first time reproduced some of Nabokov's original index cards obtained by its reporter Malte Herwig. In the accompanying article, Herwig concludes that "Laura", although fragmentary, is "vintage Nabokov".
In July 2009, Playboy magazine acquired the rights to print a 5,000 word excerpt from "The Original of Laura." It was printed in the December issue.
Nabokov's first writings were in Russian, but he came to his greatest distinction in the English language. For this achievement, he has been compared with Joseph Conrad; yet Nabokov viewed this as a dubious comparison, as Conrad composed in French and English. Nabokov disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson, "I am too old to change Conradically" — which John Updike later called, "itself a jest of genius." 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 the next with only a candle for illumination. Nabokov himself translated into Russian two books that he had originally written in English, Conclusive Evidence and Lolita. The first "translation" was made because of Nabokov's feeling of imperfection in the English version. Writing the book, he noted that he needed to translate his own memories into English, and to spend a lot of time explaining things which are well-known in Russia; then he decided to re-write the book once again, in his first native language, and after that he made the final version, Speak, Memory (Nabokov first wanted to name it "Speak, Mnemosyne"). Nabokov was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression, such as totalitarianism in its various forms as well as Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. Poshlost, or as he transcribed it, poshlust, is disdained and frequently mocked in his works.
Nabokov published under the pseudonym "Vladimir Sirin" in the 1920s to 1940s, occasionally to mask his identity from critics. He also makes cameo appearances in some of his novels, such as the character "Vivian Darkbloom" (an anagram of "Vladimir Nabokov"), who appears in both Lolita and Ada, or Ardor.
Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, and use of alliteration. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man's devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov's fiction is characterised by its linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave.
Nabokov's stature as a literary critic is founded largely on his four-volume translation of and commentary on Alexander Pushkin's epic of the Russian soul, Eugene Onegin, published in 1964. That commentary ended with an appendix titled Notes on Prosody which has developed a reputation of its own. It stemmed from his observation that while Pushkin's iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short 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. In his own words:
I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little—in comparison to the forced preliminaries — namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.
Nabokov's translation was the focus of bitter polemics by Edmund Wilson and others; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse to (by his own admission) stumbling, 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. Nabokov's Lectures on Literature at Cornell University where he was appointed an instructor in 1948, reveals his controversial ideas concerning art. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not merely empathise with characters but that a 'higher' aesthetic enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to details of style and structure. He detested what he saw as 'general ideas' in novels, and so 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 being essential to an understanding of the novel. During his ten years at Cornell, Nabokov introduced undergraduates to the delights of great fiction, including Bleak House by Charles Dickens, in fifty-minute classroom lectures. Not until glasnost did Nabokov's work become officially available in his native country. Mikhail Gorbachev authorised a five-volume edition of his writing in 1988.
In 2010, Kitsch Magazine, a student publication at Cornell, published a piece that focused on student reflections on these lectures and also explored Nabokov's long relationship with Playboy Magazine.
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's is "a magnificent, complex, and sterile art." Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov's prose.
Nabokov was a self-described synesthete, who at a young age equated the number five with the color red. Aspects of synesthesia can be found in several of his works. In his memoir Speak, Memory, he notes that his wife also exhibited synesthesia; like her husband, her mind's eye associated colours with particular letters. They discovered that Dmitri shared the trait, and moreover that the colours he associated with some letters were in some cases blends of his parents' hues—"which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle".
For some synesthetes, letters are not simply associated with certain colours, they are themselves coloured. Nabokov frequently endowed his protagonists with a similar gift. In Bend Sinister Krug comments on his perception of the word "loyalty" as being like a golden fork lying out in the sun. In The Defense, Nabokov mentioned briefly how the main character's father, a writer, found he was unable to complete a novel that he planned to write, becoming lost in the fabricated storyline by "starting with colours." Many other subtle references are made in Nabokov's writing that can be traced back to his synesthesia. Many of his characters have a distinct "sensory appetite" reminiscent of synesthesia.
His career as an entomologist was equally distinguished. His interest in this field had been inspired by books of Maria Sibylla Merian he had found in the attic of his family's country home in Vyra. Throughout an extensive career of collecting he never learned to drive a car, and he depended on his wife Véra to take him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, as a research fellow in zoology, 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. He described the Karner Blue. The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of this work, as were a number of butterfly and moth species (e.g. many of the genera Madeleinea and Pseudolucia). In 1967, Nabokov commented: "The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.
The palaeontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould discussed Nabokov's lepidoptery in his essay, "No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov" (reprinted in 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 insects, and relied on the traditional (for lepidopterists) microscopic comparison of their genitalia. The Harvard Museum of Natural History, which now contains the Museum of Comparative Zoology, still possesses Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet", where the author stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. "Nabokov was a serious taxonomist," according to the museum staff writer Nancy Pick, author of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "He actually did quite a good job at distinguishing species that you would not think were different—by looking at their genitalia under a microscope six hours a day, seven days a week, until his eyesight was permanently impaired."
Though his work was not taken seriously by professional lepidopterists during his life, new genetic research supports Nabokov's hypothesis that a group of butterfly species, called the Polyommatus blues, came to the New World over the Bering Strait in five waves, eventually reaching Chile.
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 advocates a third view, holding that the other two positions are examples of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. Rather than assuming that either side of Nabokov's work caused or stimulated the other, Gould proposes that both stemmed from Nabokov's love of detail, contemplation and symmetry.
Nabokov spent considerable time during his exile on the composition of chess problems. Such compositions he published in the Russian émigré press, Poems and Problems (18 chess compositions) and Speak, Memory (one problem). He describes the process of composing and constructing in his memoir: "The strain on the mind is formidable; the element of time drops out of one's consciousness..." To him, the "originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity" of creating a chess problem was similar to that in any other art.
Nabokov described himself as a classical liberal, in the tradition of his father. Throughout his life he was profoundly opposed to all forms of socialism and fascism. In a poem he wrote in 1917, he described the Bolshevik revolutionaries as "grey rag-tag people". Later, during his American period, he expressed contempt for student activism, and all collective movements. In both letters and interviews, he shows a profound contempt for the left-wing protest movements of the 1960s, describing the protestors as "conformists" and "goofy hoodlums".
The critic James Wood argued that Nabokov's use of descriptive detail proved an "overpowering, and not always very fruitful, influence on two or three generations after him", including authors such as Martin Amis and John Updike. While a student at Cornell in the 1950s, Thomas Pynchon attended several of Nabokov's lectures and went on to make a direct allusion to Lolita in chapter six of his novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) in which Serge, counter-tenor in the band The Paranoids, sings:
What chance has a lonely surfer boy
For the love of a surfer chick,
With all these Humbert Humbert cats
Coming on so big and sick?
For me, my baby was a woman,
For him she's just another nymphet.
It has also been argued that Pynchon's prose style is influenced by Nabokov's preference for actualism over realism. Of the authors who came to prominence during Nabokov's lifetime, John Banville, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Edmund White were all influenced by Nabokov.
Several authors who came to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s have also cited Nabokov's work as a literary influence. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon listed Lolita and Pale Fire among the "books that, I thought, changed my life when I read them," and stated that "Nabokov's English combines aching lyricism with dispassionate precision in a way that seems to render every human emotion in all its intensity but never with an ounce of schmaltz or soggy language". Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides said that "Nabokov has always been and remains one of my favorite writers. He's able to juggle ten balls where most people can juggle three or four." T. Coraghessan Boyle said that "Nabokov's playfulness and the ravishing beauty of his prose are ongoing influences" on his writing, and Jhumpa Lahiri, Marisha Pessl, Maxim D. Shrayer, Zadie Smith, and Ki Longfellow have also acknowledged Nabokov's influence. Nabokov is featured both as an individual character and implicitly in W.G. Sebald's 1993 novel The Emigrants.