Vladimir Nabokov Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201257-Nabokov.jpg Vladimir Nabokov. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Born to an aristocratic Russian family in St. Petersburg in 1899, Nabokov was raised in an environment of worldly achievement and educated...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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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Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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.

Nabokov’s life divides neatly into four phases, each lasting...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia to an upper-class family. As a child, he and his brother...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov (1870–1922),...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Novels for Students)
Vladimir Nabokov Published by Gale Cengage

Vladimir Nabokov was bom on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Twenty years later, during the Bolshevik Revolution, he and his...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 adored their firstborn child and raised him with enormous love and care. Nabokov eloquently evoked his...

(The entire section is 690 words.)