Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Nabokov established himself as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century. During the first half of his life, he wrote in Russian, while in his later years, he turned out a series of English-language masterpieces.
Vladimir Nabokov was born into a wealthy, aristocratic Russian family. In his cosmopolitan home, he learned to read and write in English, Russian, and French. By the time he was fifteen, he had read all of the works of William Shakespeare in English, all of Gustave Flaubert in French, and all of Leo Tolstoy in Russian.
Nabokov’s father was a courageous fighter for individual freedom, and his liberalism caused him to be imprisoned first by the czarist government and then by the Bolsheviks. In 1917, when the czar was overthrown, Nabokov’s father and other liberals fought to build a democratic state, but the Bolsheviks quickly took over and established a dictatorship. The family fled to Western Europe, and Nabokov never returned to his homeland. Although his family was financially ruined, Nabokov did not become embittered by his losses. He took with him what he valued most: his family, culture, and language.
His mother’s jewelry financed Nabokov’s two years at Cambridge University, from which he graduated in 1922. He wrote poetry, short stories, and plays at a fever pitch and, under the pseudonym Vladimir Sirin, established himself as a major figure in the émigré community centered in Berlin, Germany. In March, 1922, his father was killed trying to protect a friend from attack by two czarist sympathizers. Nabokov survived financially by writing, tutoring, translating, and lecturing. Despite the losses and hardships he suffered, Nabokov never lost the feeling that life was an exciting gift, an endless source of wonder and joy.
In April, 1925, Nabokov married Vera Slonim, a beautiful and cultured Jewish woman. Over their long life together, Vera acted as Nabokov’s secretary, editor, business manager, teaching and research assistant, chauffeur, and translator. She, an observer wrote, allowed Nabokov to put his genius into his work, while she managed their life. In 1934 Dmitri, their only child, was born.
In 1926 Nabokov published his first novel, Mashenka (Mary, 1970), which was followed in 1928 by Korol’, dama, valet (King, Queen, Knave, 1968). These first two books were greeted with excitement in the émigré community, but it was Zashchita Luzhina (1930; The Defense, 1964), Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959), and Dar (1952; The Gift, 1963) that placed him among the major writers in twentieth century Russian literature.
Seldom has loneliness and obsession been more compellingly portrayed than in The Defense. Luzhin is a withdrawn, clumsy boy who sits like a lump when his doting mother and father try to communicate with him and writhes in silence at the torment of his schoolmates. However, he discovers a genius for chess and retreats into a safe world of harmony and abstraction. As an adult, Luzhin becomes a world chess master, but Nabokov portrays his torturous descent into a mental breakdown. His slow recovery requires his absolute abstention from chess, but then Luzhin begins to believe that his entire life is composed of moves in some monstrous chess game against an unknown opponent. He decides that he can avoid the game in only one way: by dropping out. He plunges out of an apartment window, and, as he falls to his death, the courtyard below resolves itself into a gigantic chessboard.
Nabokov always maintained that his books had no political or social message, but read against the backdrop of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Invitation to a Beheading makes its political point by portraying the cruelty and crudity of the type of leaders that totalitarianism inevitably draws upward into power. In The Gift, Fyodor, a young émigré writer, struggles to find his calling. He contemplates writing a biography of his famous explorer father, and, through Fyodor’s musings, Nabokov is able to pay a tribute to his own father. Fyodor then decides to write a biography of Nikolay Chernyshevsky, whose writings had a freeing impact on Russian political thinking but whose crude aesthetic principles helped cripple Soviet literature. The Chernyshevsky biography is incorporated into The Gift, allowing Nabokov to make his point about the vulgarity of Soviet culture. Fyodor finally discovers his gift by writing a love story for a woman named Zina, which is the book in the reader’s hands, The Gift.
Nabokov angered some critics because he frequently proclaimed that art had no value for society. He had no concern with moral messages or...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Nabokov was a prodigiously gifted literary jeweler who sometimes cut deeply into human experience and at other times preferred to play clever games on its surface. At his worst, he sought to trick the reader with exotic wordplay, cultural booby traps, and exhibitionistic displays of stylistic arabesques. In his best work, such as Lolita; Speak, Memory; Pnin; and Pale Fire, however, he is a poetic fabulist and magician whose aestheticism is at the service of love, tenderness, compassion, kindness, empathy, grief, loneliness, wonder, and, above all, great art.
Biography (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Vladimir Nabokov was an unusual American writer to say the least. Born in St. Petersburg, prompted to flee Russia after the Revolution, his formal education completed at Cambridge, Nabokov settled in Berlin where he wrote in Russian and gave instruction in English and in tennis. In 1937 he moved to Paris and shortly thereafter began to write a novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). In 1940 the advancing Nazi horde forced Nabokov, his wife, and son Dmitri to flee to the United States. That son, coeditor with Matthew I Bruccoli of this correspondence, chose and in some instances translated fifteen letters from the Berlin and Paris phases of his father’s life as a prelude to the American letters....
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov’s life divides neatly into four phases, each lasting approximately twenty years. He was born on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1899 to an aristocratic and wealthy family residing in St. Petersburg. His grandfather was State Minister of Justice for two czars; his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, a prominent liberal politician, married a woman from an extremely wealthy family. Vladimir Vladimirovich, the first of two sons, was reared with much parental love and care, eloquently evoked in his lyrical memoir, Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir (1951), later expanded and retitled Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966).
In 1919, the October Revolution forced the Nabokovs to...
(The entire section is 736 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born to Vladimir Dmitrievich and Elena Rukavishnikov Nabokov in St. Petersburg, Russia, the eldest of five children. He grew up in comfortable circumstances, tracing his ancestry back to a Tartar prince of the 1380’s and through a number of military men, statesmen, Siberian merchants, and the first president of the Russian Imperial Academy of Medicine. His father was a noted liberal who had helped found the Constitutional Democratic Party, was elected to the first Duma, and coedited the sole liberal newspaper in St. Petersburg. In his childhood, the young Nabokov was taken on trips to France, Italy, and Spain, and he summered on the country estate of Vyra, accumulating memories that would become...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (NAB-uh-kawf) was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was the eldest son of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, a prominent liberal politician and Anglophile aristocrat, and Elena Rukavishnikov, a member of a prominent family of industrialists. Young Vladimir, the favorite child, grew up amid great wealth and cultural privilege. Trilingual from childhood, he had live-in tutors and attended a private school. From his idolized father he inherited a love of nature, especially butterflies, and of chess; from his mother he acquired a passion for the visual arts, particularly painting, and for the marvels of memory and commemoration. His early life was divided between the family’s elegant town...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The critic George Steiner suggested that many of the writers who have left lasting marks in twentieth century literature share a characteristic that he termed “extraterritoriality.” In the past, writers were closely bound to their own countries and cultures. Their settings and their points of view were restricted to their own background. Vladimir Nabokov, like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges, lived in a multilingual, multicultural world. By drawing on his multicultural heritage, Nabokov revitalized the novel, creating master works for a new international audience.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (NAB-uh-kawf) occupies a unique niche in the annals of literature by having become a major author in both Russian and English. He wrote nine novels, about forty stories, and considerable poetry in Russian before migrating to the United States in 1940. Thereafter, he not only produced eight more novels and ten short stories in English but also translated into that tongue the fiction he had composed in his native language. His fifty-year career as a writer included (besides fiction and poetry) drama, memoirs, translations, reviews, letters, critical essays, literary criticism, and the screenplay of his novel Lolita.
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Vladimir Nabokov was bom on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Twenty years later, during the Bolshevik Revolution, he and his aristocratic family fled to Berlin. After graduating with honors from Cambridge in 1922 Nabokov lived in Berlin and Paris where he wrote and taught English and tennis. In 1925, he married Vera Slonim, who became his lifelong helpmate and mother of his only child, Dmitri.
In 1940, Nabokov immigrated to the United States where he soon became a citizen and embarked on an illustrious teaching career at Stanford, Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard. After he moved to America, he began writing in English, a change that he notes with despair in his Afterword to Lolita:
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
Critics, however, insist that Nabokov's American period was his most successful. During his years in the United States, he completed his highly acclaimed Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), Lectures on Literature (1980), and Speak Memory (1951), as well as other noteworthy works. Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, Switzerland. During his lifetime, he was awarded the Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing in 1943 and 1952, the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1951, a literary achievement prize from Brandeis University in 1964, the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969, the National Medal for Literature in 1973, and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980 for his Lectures on Literature.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov’s life divides neatly into four phases, each lasting approximately twenty years. The oldest of five siblings, he was born April 10 (Old Style), 1899, to an aristocratic and wealthy family in St. Petersburg. Nabokov later insisted on the New Style birth date of April 23, because it coincided with William Shakespeare’s.
Nabokov’s grandfather, Dmitri Nikolayevich, had been state minister of justice for two czars. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, a prominent liberal statesman, was married to Elena Rukavishnikova, a beautiful woman from an extremely rich family. Vladimir’s parents...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
IntroductionBorn in Russia, Nabokov emigrated to England in 1919, became an American citizen in 1945, and resided in Switzerland during the last years of his life. He was a prolific contributor to many literary fields, producing work in both Russian and English and distinguishing himself as a novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, and autobiographer. Nabokov was fascinated with all aspects of the creative life: in his works he explored the origins of creativity, the relationships of the artist to his work, and the nature of invented reality. A brilliant prose stylist, Nabokov entertained and sometimes exasperated his readers with his love of intellectual and verbal games. His technical genius as well as the exuberance of his creative imagination mark him as a major twentieth-century author. -- Vladimir Nabokov Criticism