The lives of nineteenth and twentieth century Russian writers are as fascinating as the poems and novels they wrote and as enigmatic as the nation they inhabited. Fyodor Dostoevski’s own soul was torn by the same explosive spiritual dynamics that brought the Karamazov family to murder and salvation. Leo Tolstoy’s battle against serfdom and autocracy had the epic scale of Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn steeled his opposition to the Soviet state during years of government oppression as multilayered as the structure of V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968). Little wonder the lives of these writers attract both Russian and non-Russian biographers.
Vladimir Nabokov is the latest to offer biographers a life as rich as his writing. Nabokov is a rarity indeed: an author who has written classic novels in two languages. Born in 1899, Nabokov matured with the twentieth century. Truly its child, his life intersected with two cataclysmic revolutions, the 1917 Bolshevik coup d’etat in Russia and the 1933 Nazi ascendancy in Germany. Similarly, his art interwove numerous modern concepts, especially the twentieth century’s fascination with the idea of consciousness and the shaping of empirical reality by perception.
Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years studies the first forty years of Nabokov’s life and works. Though Nabokov left Russia at age twenty in 1919, after the Red Army’s defeat of the White forces, Boyd’s subtitle is not inaccurate. Nabokov wrote in Russian while he studied in England and later lived in Russian emigre’ communities in Berlin and Paris. He wrote about the life of Russian e’migre’s and the continuing impact of prerevolutionary history, which the Marxists and Leninists were convinced they had undone, upon the lives and consciousness of all Russians. Boyd ends the volume with Nabokov’s flight to the United States in 1940 to escape the war in Europe; Nabokov understood that if he were to make a living in America as a writer, he would have to write in English. Only then did his years stop being Russian.
Boyd extensively studies Nabokov’s family background and youth. Vladimir was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, the first child of Vladimir Dmitrievich and Elena Ivanovna. His father was a prominent lawyer and politician, well-known for advocating liberal principles even as Czar Nicholas II’s government grew more conservative. His mother was a keen observer of the rich cultural life of St. Petersburg. Vladimir lived a comfortable existence in a stimulating world. The family spent winters in the city and summers at a country estate; his parents employed a succession of tutors who schooled Vladimir in French and English as well as Russian and who introduced him to the arts.
Vladimir’s privileged upbringing provided the leisure to cultivate the art of living. By age ten he was an avid butterfly collector. The hobby engaged him passionately all his life, as a topic for scientific and aesthetic inquiry. As an adolescent he learned chess and delighted in creating chess problems; later, as a writer he explored the analogy between the intricacies of the chessboard and the novel. He read voraciously the classic literary works in three languages from his father’s library; on his mother’s tea table he found the latest poetry of St. Petersburg’s flourishing Symbolist poets. They became his heroes. At age fifteen he wrote his first poem, in the style of the Symbolists’ lyrical apprehension of emotional life. A year later Vladimir experienced his first love affair with Valentina Shulgin; he recorded his passion in a series of poems to his “Lyussya.” Though his love for her ebbed, his passion for poetry did not. He experimented with the metrical patterns of every important poet from Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian verse, to Andrei Bely, the most innovative Symbolist.
Young Vladimir remained surprisingly aloof from the political upheavals that marked his youth: the 1905 Rebellion, the Great War beginning in 1914, the October Revolution of 1917. His father did not: He served in the Duma, Russia’s attempt at legislative government; he was exiled for Opposing conservative reforms; and he helped found the Constitutional Democratic party, which tried to replace the autocracy with a Western-style limited monarchy. Vladimir Dmitrievich supported the Provisional Government which succeeded Nicholas II in 1917; when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, he took his family to the Crimea and held a position with the White government there; when the Red Army overwhelmed the Crimea, he led his family into exile. Though young Vladimir observed these upheavals from a distance, he did absorb his father’s earnestly defended political principles: respect for the individual, hatred of anti-Semitism, contempt for ideology, and tolerance for diversity.
The Nabokov family settled in London; Elena sold her jewels for Vladimir’s tuition at the University of Cambridge. He enrolled at Trinity College, ostensibly to study European history and literature. Already well-read in these areas, he devoted most of his time to writing poetry in Russian. He wrote late into the night, chain-smoking and drinking coffee, to keep the muse awake. Adopting the pen name Sirin, Nabokov submitted his verse to Russian literary journals newly sprung up in several European capitals to serve the thousands of White Russians who had fled Bolshevik Russia. While he wrote verse, his...
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