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Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov by Jane Grayson (Overlook Illustrated Lives: Overlook) History seemed to pursue Vladimir Nabokov. In the Russian Revolution and the Second World War he lost his homeland, social position and family, and was even forced to abandon working in his native language. Despite the shadow of exile, Nabokov's work exudes a tremendous vivacity and joy. Even at its darkest it has an inventiveness and a richness of perception that has rarely been surpassed.
His legacy of challenging yet playful fiction, dense with creative exuberance and innovative use of language, continues to reward and dazzle scholars and casual readers alike. "The true conflict is not between the characters in a novel, but between author and reader," he asserted. "In the long run, however, it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts."
The photographs and illustrations in this volume, many previously unpublished, range from early photographs of the Nabokovs' estates in Russia to hand-corrected manuscript pages, first edition book jackets, and examples of Nabokov's lifelong passion for butterflies. Acclaimed scholar Jane Grayson provides fresh insight into the celebrated author's life, making this volume a unique glimpse into the life of the modernist master. This volume makes a useful introduction to Nabokov's life and work.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on (or about) April 23rd, 1899, into a wealthy and aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a prominent and respected liberal politician; his mother, Elena Ivanovna, was a noble and wealthy Russian with an artistic heritage. From his father, VN seems to have inherited a strong work ethic and a love for butterflies; from his mother, a creative sensibility and innate spirituality. The oldest of five children, VN spent his childhood in St. Petersburg and the family estate of Vyra, some 50 miles to the south. (For more on the Nabokov family, see Dieter E. Zimmer's Nabokov Family Web in Zembla.)

Describing himself as "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library," VN first learned English and then French from various governesses; his father, upon realizing that his son could read and write English but not Russian, employed an instructor from a local school to teach VN and his brother Sergei their native tongue. The Nabokov family habitually spoke a melange of French, English, and Russian in their household, and this linguistic diversity would play a prominent role in VN's development as an artist.

A slender but active youth, VN bicycled, played tennis and soccer, and, most especially, spent hours in and around the Vyra estate collecting butterflies. "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting," he would later say, and his pursuit of butterflies was not merely a pleasure, but a passion that would influence his life and art, both overtly and stylistically.

A series of tutors helped to provide a diverse education. In particular, the study of drawing and painting sharpened his powers of observation and imagination. A description of his colored pencils from the memoir, Speak, Memory, is evocative: "The white one alone, that lanky albino among pencils, kept its original length, or at least did so until I discovered that, far from being a fraud leaving no mark on the page, it was the ideal implement since I could imagine whatever I wished while I scrawled."

VN entered the Tenishev School in St. Petersburg in 1911. The Tenishev School was the most advanced and expensive school in Russia, but even among its elite student body, VN was aloof, iconoclastic, even haughty, to students and faculty alike. That he was driven to school each day in the family Rolls-Royce increased the sense of imperious individualism; only his soccer skill won him the social acceptance of his classmates. On the soccer field, VN habitually played goalie, so that, even in a team environment, he functioned alone.

In 1916, his uncle "Ruka" bequeathed VN approximately two million dollars and a large estate. Such personal wealth reinforced his noble bearing and independence, and enabled him to privately publish a 500-printing run of a book of poems.

Nabokovs' childhood was full and rewarding. He was adored by his parents, and through his family had experienced stability, love, and wealth; his position, heritage, and developing literary gifts suggested a bright future. Remarkably, his childhood seems even to have prepared him for the severe manner in which he passed from it; the Russian Revolution deprived VN of his birthright, but inscribed upon his memory his inheritance of Russian culture.

In November 1917, the Nabokov family left St. Petersburg for a friend's estate near Yalta, in the Crimea, in the wake of revolutionary rioting and the March 15 abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. His father accepted a position in the provisional government, but, after being imprisoned by Bolshevik forces, left Russia to join his family in the Crimea. The Nabokovs remained there for 18 months; VN undertook several butterfly safaris, capturing some 77 species of butterfly and more than 100 species of moth, which later formed the basis for his first scholarly publication, in the English journal The Entomologist in 1923.

Fleeing the advance of the Red Army in April 1919, the Nabokovs traveled through Constantinople to England, where VN and his brother Sergei enrolled in Cambridge. VN originally studied ichthyology, but, fatigued by academia, he switched to French and Russian literature. Well served by his own heritage and courses from the Tenishev School, he coasted to graduation in 1922 despite disaffection with University life. VN spent little time in the Library, and seems to have easily passed exams aided by his literary extraction and meticulous lecture notes. He continued to play soccer, and had an active social life. He composed poetry in English, and completed a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland ("Not the first translation," he maintained, "but the best.") Carroll's precise, scientific background and zealous, sprightly paronomasia provide an interesting counterpart to VN's ouevre. Indeed, Alice's signature elements of chess, playing cards, and a young girl in curious circumstances are themes that would occur and reoccur in VN's work.

The Nabokov family had settled in Berlin, where VN's father became editor of the émigré newspaper Rul' ("The Rudder.") In 1922, V.D. Nabokov was murdered by two right-wing assassins who were attempting to kill the politician Pavel Miliukov. The elder Nabokov leapt off of the stage in an effort to disarm one of the gunmen, was shot twice, and died instantly. His wife resettled in Prague, where she was offerred a government pension, and remained there until her death in 1939.

VN received his degree from Cambridge in 1923, and moved to Berlin, which had a large Russian population (the circulation of "The Rudder" was 40,000) He earned a tenuous living by publishing short fiction and poetry, using the pseudonym Vl. Sirin to avoid confusion with his father. He supplemented his income in a variety of ways: by giving lessons in English and tennis; translating; appearing as an extra in films; acting in theatrical productions; and by composing chess problems and the first Russian crossword puzzles.

A lifelong insomniac with a dedication to his art, VN wrote mostly at night, which enabled him to lead an aloof but active social life in Berlin. He continued to play soccer, participated in several literary groups, and gave numerous readings of his works. On April 15th, 1925, he married fellow émigré Véra Slonim. Their son Dmitri was born on May 10th, 1934.

VN and Véra continued to eke out a living in Berlin; a steady stream of novels written in Russian appeared, from Mashen'ka (Mary) in 1925 to Dar (The Gift) in 1938. His body of work during this time was well-received by the émigré audience and critics, but generated little income, and was largely unknown outside of the Russian-speaking population of Berlin and Paris. One consistent criticism of his fiction was its lack of "Russianness," that is, a lack of direct concern with Russia's issues and difficulties. VN would maintain, "I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment."

In 1937, VN and his family left Berlin for Paris due to their disgust with the Nazi regime and Mrs. Nabokov's Jewish heritage. In Paris, VN continued to write in Russian, composed a few works in French, and also wrote his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. He had determined that his most harmonious future lay in the English language; since England was not prepared to supply him with an academic appointment, the Nabokovs prepared to immigrate to America.

In 1940, VN, Véra, and Dmitri, fled Paris for New York, narrowly escaping the invading Germans. In America, VN initially worked for the Museum of Natural History in New York, classifying butterflies. He published two papers, and was also paid by the Museum for his entomological drawings. During the summer of 1941, he taught creative writing at Stanford University, before securing an appointment as resident lecturer in comparative literature and instructor in Russian at Wellesley College. Later he would work at Harvard, first in an entomological capacity and later as visiting lecturer, and at Cornell, as professor of Russian and European literature, from 1948-1958.

During the 1940s, VN embarked upon a fruitful association with the New Yorker; in addition to his entomological work, he spent quite a bit of time preparing his lectures, and published a scholarly work on Gogol. It may be that his comparatively small output of fiction during this time was an adjustment to writing in English; VN would maintain that the Wellesley years were the happiest, and his scholarly pursuits were satisfying. In 1945, the Nabokov family became American citizens. He also compiled a memoir, published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence (later revised and published as Speak, Memory.)

VN continued to pursue butterflies during his summer vacations, often in the Rocky Mountains. It was during these trips in the early 1950s that he composed the novel that would engrave his name in the American popular culture - Lolita. Initially, even the American publishing houses that admitted Lolita's literary virtues were unwilling to discover the legal ramifications of publishing a novel about a man's affair with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. Lolita was first published in France by Olympia Press in 1955, and generated a storm of moral outrage, as well as staunch and significant support for its artistic merit. Eventually published in American in 1958 (and in England the following year,) the Sturm und Drang over Lolita contributed to a remarkable popular success; it spent six months as the number one bestseller in America (displaced by Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.)

Although he glibly suggested about his Lolita that "she is the famous one, not I," profits from the sale of the novel, combined with the sale of the movie rights and a screenplay deal, enabled VN to retire from Cornell in 1959 and devote himself to writing.

In 1961, VN and Véra moved to Montreux, Switzerland, at least in part to be near Dmitri, who was studying for a career in opera in Milan. At first considered a temporary move, they settled in at the Montreux-Palace Hotel and remained for the duration of their lives. Living reclusively, VN continued to produce original novels, including the singular Pale Fire, and directed the translation of his earlier work from Russian into English.

The publication of Glory in 1971 completed the process of translating his Russian novels into English. Often collaborating with his son Dmitri, VN occasionally (but not always) revised and augmented his earlier works during the translation process. VN's magisterial linguistic finesse had long enabled him to compose literature and scholarly translations in Russian, English, and French. George Steiner admiringly summarized VN's philology thus: ". . . whereas so many other language exiles clung desperately to the artifice of their native tongue or fell silent, Nabokov moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate."

Vladimir Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, of a mysterious lung ailment.


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