Titles by the Author
"For all exiles, language itself takes the place of the country they have lost," writes V.S. Pritchett. And Vladimir Nabokov was no exception. Born in St. Petersburg in 1899, Nabokov was driven from Russia by the Revolution and went to study at Cambridge Univeristy, where he specialized in Slavic and Romance languages. He graduated from Cambridge in 1922, the same year that his father, a liberal statesman, was murdered by Russian monarchists in Berlin.
From England, Nabokov went to Germany, where he lived in a Russian colony and published his first novels in Russian. With the ascendance of Hitler and the Nazis, however, he was forced to flee first Germany and later Paris. In 1940, he and his wife, Vera, obtained passage to the United States on one of the last ships to leave France through the help of a Jewish welfare organization, not merely because of Vera’s Jewish ancestry but also because Nabokov’s father had been an avowed champion of Jewish rights in Czarist Russia.
Nabokov’s arrival in the United States and the publication a year later of his novel The Real Life of Sebastion Knight (1941) marked his transition from a Russian to an English medium. In 1945 he became a U.S. citizen. Years later, he was to translate many of his English works into Russian in the hope that the Soviet Union would one day lift its ban on his writings. Still, the implications of his shift to English were made apparent by his admission that, having settled in this country he partiotically stopped barring his sevens.
"It would be difficult," wrote George Snell, "to think of two or three writeres to whom English is native who could match [his style] in any degree." Indeed, comparisons with Contad, an earlier émigré and master of English prose, though displeasing to Nabokov for reasons other than literary, become inevitable. Like Conrad, Nabokov only attained financial independence late with the publication and the attending scandal of his masterpiece, Lolita (1958).
Often maligned for its sexual explicitness, Lolita in fact deals satirically with the passion of a middle-aged man for a twelve-year-old girl as they wander across the United States. Of Lolita, the playwright Edward Albee, who adapted the novel for the stage in 1981, writes: "[It is] a brilliantly written, violently funny, profoundly sad and highly moral novel whose true subject was that which had concerned both Proust and Chekhov - the thrall of the past, pure first love, and the absurdity of that which we call adulthood..."
Nabokov’s other novels include Laughter in the Dark (Camera Obscura) (1938), which traces the moral collapse of a respectable Berliner; Pnin (1957), the amusing if not always funny story of a Russian-born professor struggling to cope with American idioms and idiosyncrasies at a university in upstate New York; Pale Fire (1962), a satirical tour de force centering on a poem about an exiled Balkan king in a small New England town; and Despair (1936), a macabre story of a man who plots his own murder.
In addition to his fiction and poery, Nabokov has also written a biography of Nicholai Gogol, considered by some scholars as indispensable; an autobiography, conclusive Evidence (1951), in which he sketches life in Imperial Russia; and a translation and analysis of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1964), which he once described as "the great work of my life." It was this last work that led initially to one of the most celebrated critical battles in modern literature between the author and his longtime friend Edmund Wilson and ultimately to the end of their friendship.
For years Nabokov taught Russian and European literature at Stanford, Wellesley, and Cornell. Described as a "tragically affecting" teacher, he has also had two volumes of his lectures published posthumously.
After literature, Nabokov’s greatest interest was entomology. A recognized authority on certain lepidoptera, he has been credited with discovering several new species of butterflies in the United States. According to his son, it was impossible for him to come upon a strange bird, plant, or insect without looking up its name.
Nabokov died in Switzerland in 1977.