Nabokov, Vladimir 1899–1977
Born 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 artists to their 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. Nabokov also wrote under the pseudonym of V. Sirin. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
Donald E. Morton
If one can generalize as far as to say that fiction falls into the two broad categories of realism and romance, Nabokov's work belongs in the latter category. The reader of today is likely to find the romance of Nabokov's art strangely archaic and old-fashioned. In some ways he seems to have stronger affinities with the nineteenth century than with the twentieth. This affinity is not simply an accident of age and environment … but a matter of temperament and conscious choice. (p. 5)
[Nabokov shows an] affinity with the romantic writers of Russian literature…. Nabokov has claimed that there is nothing unusual in his interest in Pushkin, since—as he has said—Pushkin is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English. Nevertheless, the connection is closer and more significant than Nabokov's demur suggests. After surveying the evidence for the influence of the older writer on Nabokov, [Clarence Brown] gave the question this pointed summation: "Pushkin is Nabokov's fate" [see CLC, Vol. 1]. Though extreme, the remark illuminates the center of Nabokov's art. What he achieves in his fiction is a compelling fusion of past and present, fancy and fact, poetry and prose, romance and his own special brand of realism.
Not only does Nabokov's work seem to have closer affinities with the literary traditions of the nineteenth century than with those of the twentieth, but his fiction often seems to have greater affinities with poetry, especially romantic poetry, than with the novel, as it is usually thought of. W. H. Auden's discussion of romanticism is helpful in understanding Nabokov's ties to that movement. (pp. 5-6)
Auden's description of the romantic poet [who held that man's most important faculty is consciousness itself] fits Nabokov with surprising exactness. First, the opening pages of Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, are nothing less than a hymn of praise to the powers of human consciousness. Life, he says there, is a series of "extraordinary visions" between "the two black voids" of those mysterious periods before one's birth and after one's death. (pp. 6-7)
Second, since in Nabokov's view the creative process is a cycle of charging consciousness with highly particularized and personal impressions and then of discharging those impressions into words, he can be only tangentially interested in questions of morality and social realism. On many occasions, Nabokov has affirmed his total lack of interest in literature that aims at teaching a moral lesson. Probably the best-known such occasion is the passage in the postscript to Lolita in which he asserts that he is "neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction." In this connection, one should keep in mind the moral controversy surrounding the publication of Lolita. (p. 7)
As for the question of the need for realism in the novel, Nabokov has dismissed the idea of "everyday reality" as itself a fiction. Since for Nabokov individual perception constitutes reality, there...
(The entire section is 8,884 words.)