Vladimir Nabokov Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Has the experience of exile figured significantly in Vladimir Nabokov’s work other than in his autobiographical writings?

Identify some of Nabokov’s unreliable narrators and demonstrate their unreliability.

Does Nabokov’s habit of playing games with the reader ever serve a serious purpose?

What is a “false bottom,” and what works of Nabokov’s contain them?

Of the literary allusions in Lolita, which seem most effective?

Discuss Lolita as a “remorseless satire of middle-class, immature America.”

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201257-Nabokov.jpg Vladimir Nabokov. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Vladimir Nabokov’s fifty-year career as a writer includes—besides his short stories—novels, poetry, drama, memoirs, translations, reviews, letters, critical essays, literary criticism, and the screenplay of his most famous novel, Lolita (1955). After his death, three volumes of lectures on literature that he had delivered to students at Wellesley, Stanford, and Cornell were scrupulously edited by Fredson Bowers and published as Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), and Lectures on Don Quixote (1983).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Vladimir Nabokov 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 English the fiction that he had composed in his native language, sometimes with the collaboration of his son, Dmitri. Reversing his linguistic field, he translated his Lolita into Russian.

Nabokov’s work has received considerable critical acclaim; a modern master, he has influenced such diverse literary figures as Anthony Burgess, John Barth, William H. Gass, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Milan Kundera. Nabokov’s fiction is never intentionally didactic or sociological; he detested moralistic, message-ridden writing. Instead, he delighted in playing self-consciously with the reader’s credulity, regarding himself as a fantasist, a Prospero of artifice. He manipulates his characters as so many pieces on a chessboard, devising problems for absorbing, intricate games of which he and Jorge Luis Borges are the acknowledged modern masters. His precision of language, lexical command of multilingual allusions, and startling imagery have awed, delighted, but also sometimes irritated critics and readers. Few writers have practiced art for the sake of art with such talent and discipline. Nabokov’s advice to students suggests the best approach to his own fiction:In reading, one should notice and fondle details. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Vladimir Nabokov (nah-BO-kof) began, as many novelists do, as a poet. As a youth, he published privately what now would be called a chapbook and a full book of poetry before emigrating from Russia. Throughout his life, he continued to publish poetry in periodicals and several book-length collections, including Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951 (1952), Poems (1959), and Poems and Problems (1970). Some critics even consider the long poem “Pale Fire” (an integral part of the novel Pale Fire) a worthy neo-Romantic poem in itself. Nabokov also published a good deal of short fiction, first in a variety of short-lived émigré publications such as Rul’, Sovremennye Zapiski, and Russkoe ekho, and later in such prominent magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, and Tri-Quarterly. His stories were collected in Vozrashchenie Chorba (1930; the return of Chorb), which also included twenty-four poems, Soglyadatay (1938; the eye), Nine Stories (1947), and Nabokov’s Dozen (1958), among others. His plays include Smert’ (pb. 1923; death), Tragediya gospodina Morna (pb. 1924; the tragedy of Mister Morn), Chelovek iz SSSR (pb. 1927; the man from the USSR), Sobytiye (pr., pb. 1938; the event), and Izobretenie Val’sa (pb. 1938; The Waltz Invention, 1966). He also worked on a screenplay for the film version of Lolita (1962). In addition to translating his own works from Russian to English (and vice versa, as well as occasionally from French to Russian to English), he often translated the works of other writers, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and poetry of Rupert Brooke, Alexander Pushkin, Arthur Rimbaud, William Shakespeare, and Alfred de Musset. In nonfiction prose, Nabokov’s fascinating life is recalled in three volumes of memoirs, Conclusive Evidence (1951), Drugie Berega (1954; other shores), and Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966, a revision and expansion of the earlier works). Throughout his life, his often idiosyncratic criticism was widely published, and the publication after his death of several volumes of his lectures on world literature provoked much discussion among literary scholars. As a lepidopterist, Nabokov published a number of scholarly articles in such journals as The Entomologist, Journal of the New York Entomological Society, Psyche, and The Lepidopterists’ News.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Vladimir Nabokov’s strength as a writer lay in his control and mastery of style. Writers are sometimes successful in a language other than their native language, but only a select few are capable of writing equally well in two languages, and Nabokov may be alone in his ability to master the insinuations of two such extraordinarily different and subtle languages as Russian and English. Under the pen name “V. Sirin,” Nabokov was recognized as a noteworthy émigré novelist and poet in Berlin and Paris. After fleeing the rise of Nazism and settling in the United States, he became recognized as a major English-language author with the publication of Lolita in 1955. As was the case with Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, all of whose international sales were aided by the controversies surrounding their works, Nabokov received worldwide attention as critics debated the morality of Lolita, prompting the republication and translation of many of his earlier works. Few writers with such an uncompromising style achieve such popularity. Nabokov was often in financial difficulty before Lolita, yet he always remained the consummate craftsman. He has come to be regarded as one of the literary giants of his generation.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What is Vladimr Nabokov’s attitude toward memory?

How does Nabokov treat moral concerns in his works?

How does Nabokov suggest the possibility of an afterlife?

How does Nabokov utilize the game of chess in his works?

What are the characteristics of Nabokov’s style?

Many of Nabokov’s narrators are unreliable. How can readers determine the validity of what they have to say?


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Alexandrov argues that “The central fact of both Nabokov’s life and his art was something that could be described as an intuition about a transcendent realm of being.” Showing how an awareness of this “otherworld” informs Nabokov’s works, Alexandrov focuses on Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited and on six of Nabokov’s novels, but his study illumines Nabokov’s short fiction as well, correcting the widely accepted view of Nabokov as an aloof gamesman preoccupied with verbal artifice for its own sake. Includes notes, a secondary...

(The entire section is 941 words.)