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...
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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 social improvement. “I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses,” he said. He detested Freudianism and Marxism. He had no use for organized religion; he believed Darwinism could not account for the world’s wonderful diversity. He was a scientist and a lepidopterist, but he believed that science could never explain life’s deepest mysteries.
Nabokov’s work did carry a moral message made not by preaching but by his attention to the details of specific lives: the loneliness of a young misfit, the cruelty of the strong toward the weak, and the moral crime of an older man robbing a young girl, Lolita, of her childhood. He often explored the mind of characters to find why they were unable to grasp the joy the world offered them. The world was a place of wonder and mystery. “Every day, every instant all this around me laughs, gleams, begs to be looked at, to be loved,” he said. “The world stands like a dog pleading to be played with.” Consciousness allowed humans to partake of all the wonders the world had to offer, yet consciousness was strictly limited by, above all, death: “The cradle rocks above an abyss,” Nabokov wrote, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Nabokov rebelled against this limitation and explored the possibility of escape through love and art.
As Nazi leader Adolf Hitler tightened his grip on Germany, Vera, a Jew, was in danger. In 1937 the Nabokovs moved to France, now the center of émigré life. When Hitler’s forces invaded France, the Nabokovs again were threatened. Sensing where his future lay, Nabokov wrote his first English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). A friend arranged a summer position for him at Stanford University, and in 1940 Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri left for the United States.
Nabokov stitched together a career in the United States. He got temporary appointments at several American universities and a part-time position at a Harvard natural history museum; he tutored, wrote reviews, and established a lucrative relationship with The New Yorker. In 1948 he got a tenured position at Cornell University, giving him economic security for the first time since 1917.
Despite the pressures of teaching, Nabokov continued to write. He completed a major study of Nikolai Gogol and began his translation of and commentary on Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeniy Onegin (1831; Eugene Onegin, Nabokov translation, 1964). He published the novel Bend Sinister (1947), a brilliant study of the banality of totalitarian rule. In 1950 he finished his autobiography, which was later reworked into Speak, Memory (1966), regarded as one of his masterpieces.
In 1953 he finished writing Lolita (1955), a study of obsession and cruelty. Humbert Humbert is consumed with his desire for the twelve-year-old Lolita. He marries her mother to have access to the girl and after her mother’s death holds Lolita captive through psychological manipulation, moving her back and forth across the United States from one dreary motel to another. Humbert tells his own story so persuasively and contritely that it seduced many readers into accepting his version of himself as a victim. Nabokov had little patience for that view; Humbert was an enslaver, rapist, and murderer who victimized a young orphan girl. Publishers realized that Lolita was a masterpiece but feared the legal consequences of publishing it. It was finally released in the United States in 1958, where it won critical acclaim and became a best-seller; it was twice made into major films and, by the mid-1980’s, had sold fourteen million copies.
Nabokov’s next novel, Pnin (1957), also became a best-seller. Publishers brought out translations of virtually all of his Russian writing, and his new wealth allowed him to quit teaching and devote the rest of his life to literature.
In 1959 Nabokov and Vera left the United States and moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where they began to put Nabokov’s life’s work in order, especially by supervising translations of his early writing. He also finished four more novels, including Pale Fire (1962), which biographer Brian Boyd called the most perfect novel in form ever written. Pale Fire is narrated by Kinbote, a madman, who tells the story of the poet John Shade, a pairing that allows Nabokov to summarize many of his old concerns: love and isolation, healthy creative sanity and perverted inward-dwelling madness, and death and the possibility that it can be transformed into something more.
As he approached his seventieth year, Nabokov continued to write and translate his earlier works. In 1974 he began a new novel, but in 1975 he developed a series of health problems and died on June 30, 1977, without finishing his book. Vera died in 1991.
Vladimir Nabokov’s self-assurance and aristocratic manner veiled the losses he suffered in his life from public view. Forced to flee from the Bolsheviks and then the Nazis, he sometimes wrote while listening to the sounds of gunshots and rioting in the streets. He, with Vera’s help, carved out a space for artistic serenity in the midst of political turmoil and economic deprivation. Toward the end of his life, he told Dmitri that he had achieved all of his important dreams and that his life had been marvelously happy.
By the mid-1960’s, Nabokov was often referred to as the world’s greatest living writer. He had achieved success with literary critics and had a large and devoted group of readers. Some critics found his work too cerebral, but Nabokov trusted his readers and wanted them to feel the excitement of untangling his meaning and following his shifts in thought.
By the mid-1970’s, Nabokov enjoyed the acclaim of literary critics, but his books were not selling well. Many readers had probably been attracted by the controversy surrounding Lolita and were disappointed when they searched for explicit sex scenes that were not there. In addition, with the translations of his Russian works, twenty-nine of Nabokov’s books hit the market in fourteen years, too many for readers and critics to absorb. By the 1990’s, however, the quality of his body of work was again becoming apparent, and Nabokov was recognized as one of the greatest writers of modern times.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. In this excellent biography, Boyd traces Nabokov’s idyllic childhood and follows him into exile, first from the Bolsheviks and then from the Nazis. It ends in 1940 with his flight to the United States.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Boyd worked closely with Vera and Dmitri Nabokov and was able to use sources unavailable to most researchers. He intersperses his biographical chapters with brilliant chapters of analysis of each of Nabokov’s novels.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. Considered one of Nabokov’s masterpieces, this autobiography described, in unforgettable vignettes, his life in Russia and in European exile.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. This book contains some of Nabokov’s letters and essays but is especially valuable for its inclusion of over two hundred pages of transcripts of interviews with him.
Wood, Michael. The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Wood’s close reading of the Nabokovian texts shows the power and beauty of his language and the subtly of his art, and it uncovers an ethical and moral foundation of his work that Nabokov denied existed.