Nabokov was an expert lepidopterist and composer of chess problems.
Nabokov was born on 22 April 1899 (10 April 1899 Old Style), in Saint Petersburg,b to a wealthy and prominent family of the Russian nobility, which traced its roots back to a fourteenth-century Tatar prince, Nabok Murza, who entered into the service of the Tsars, and from which the family name is derived. His father was the liberal lawyer, statesman, and journalist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov (1870–1922) and his mother was the heiress Yelena Ivanovna née Rukavishnikova, the granddaughter of a millionaire gold-mine owner. His father was a leader of the pre-Revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party and authored numerous books and articles about criminal law and politics. His cousins included the composer Nicolas Nabokov. His paternal grandfather, Dmitry Nabokov (1827–1904), had been Russia's Justice Minister in the reign of Alexander II. His paternal grandmother was the Baltic German Baroness Maria von Korff (1842–1926). Through his father's German ancestry, he was also related to the music composer Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759).
Vladimir was the family's eldest and favorite child, with four younger siblings: Sergey (1900–45); Olga (1903–78); Elena (1906–2000) and Kiril (1912–64). Sergey would be killed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, after he spoke out publicly denouncing Hitler's regime. Olga is recalled by Ayn Rand (her close friend at Stoiunina Gymnasium) as having been a supporter of constitutional monarchy who had first awakened Rand's interest in politics. The youngest daughter Elena, who would in later years become Vladimir's favourite sibling, published her correspondence with her brother in 1985 and would become an important living source for later biographers of Nabokov.
Nabokov spent his childhood and youth in Saint Petersburg and at the country estate Vyra near Siverskaya, to the south of the city. His childhood, which he had called "perfect" and "cosmopolitan", was remarkable in several ways. The family spoke Russian, English, and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. He relates that the first English book his mother read to him was Misunderstood (1869) by Florence Montgomery. In fact, much to his patriotic father's chagrin, Nabokov could read and write in English before he could in Russian. In Speak, Memory Nabokov recalls numerous details of his privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past was a boon to him during his permanent exile, and it provided a theme that echoes from his first book Mary to later works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. While the family was nominally Orthodox, they felt no religious fervor, and Vladimir was not forced to attend church after he lost interest. In 1916, Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhdestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle Vasily Ivanovich Rukavishnikov ("Uncle Ruka" in Speak, Memory), but lost it in the October Revolution one year later; this was the only house he ever owned.
Nabokov's adolescence was also the period in which his first serious literary endeavors were made. In 1916, Nabokov had his first collection of poetry published, Stikhi ("Poems"), a collection of 68 Russian poems. At the time, Nabokov was attending Tenishev school in Saint Petersburg, where his literature teacher Vladimir Vasilievich Gippius had been critical toward his literary accomplishments. Some time after the publication of Stikhi, Zinaida Gippius, renowned poet and first cousin of Vladimir Gippius, told Nabokov's father at a social event, "Please tell your son that he will never be a writer."
After the 1917 February Revolution, Nabokov's father became a secretary of the Russian Provisional Government and, after the October Revolution, the family was forced to flee the city for Crimea, not expecting to be away for very long. They lived at a friend's estate and in September 1918 moved to Livadiya, at the time part of the Ukrainian Republic; Nabokov's father became a minister of justice in the Crimean Regional Government.
After the withdrawal of the German Army in November 1918 and the defeat of the White Army (early 1919), the Nabokovs sought exile in western Europe. They settled briefly in England and Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, first studying zoology, then Slavic and Romance languages. His examination results on the first part of the Tripos, taken at the end of second year, were a starred first. He sat the second part of the exam in his third year, just after his father's death. Nabokov feared that he might fail the exam, but his script was marked second-class. His final examination result was second-class, and his BA conferred in 1922. Nabokov later drew on his Cambridge experiences to write several works, including the novels Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
In 1920, Nabokov's family moved to Berlin, where his father set up the émigré newspaper Rul' ("Rudder"). Nabokov followed them to Berlin two years later, after completing his studies at Cambridge.
In March 1922, Nabokov's father was fatally shot in Berlin by the Russian monarchist Piotr Shabelsky-Bork as he was trying to shield the real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. This mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in Nabokov's fiction, where characters would meet their deaths under accidental terms. (In Pale Fire, for example, one interpretation of the novel has an assassin mistakenly kill the poet John Shade, when his actual target is a fugitive European monarch.) Shortly after his father's death, Nabokov's mother and sister moved to Prague.
Nabokov stayed in Berlin, where he had become a recognised poet and writer within the émigré community and published under the nom de plume V. Sirin (a reference to the fabulous bird of Russian folklore). To supplement his scant writing income, he taught languages and gave tennis and boxing lessons. Of his fifteen Berlin years, Dieter E. Zimmer wrote: "He never became fond of Berlin, and at the end intensely disliked it. He lived within the lively Russian community of Berlin that was more or less self-sufficient, staying on after it had disintegrated because he had nowhere else to go to. He knew little German. He knew few Germans except for landladies, shopkeepers, the petty immigration officials at the police headquarters."
In 1922, Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert; she broke off the engagement in early 1923, her parents worrying that he could not provide for her. In May 1923, he met a Russian-Jewish woman, Véra Evseyevna Slonim, at a charity ball in Berlin and married her in April 1925. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934.
In 1936, Véra lost her job because of the increasingly anti-Semitic environment; also in that year the assassin of Nabokov's father was appointed second-in-command of the Russian émigré group. In the same year, Nabokov began seeking a job in the English-speaking world. In 1937, he left Germany for France, where he had a short affair with Russian émigrée Irina Guadanini; his family followed, making their last visit to Prague en route. They settled in Paris, but also spent time in Cannes, Menton, Cap d'Antibes, and Fréjus. In May 1940, the Nabokov family fled from the advancing German troops to the United States on board the SS Champlain, with the exception of Nabokov's brother Sergei, who died at the Neuengamme concentration camp on 9 January 1945.
The Nabokovs settled in Manhattan and Vladimir began volunteer work as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Nabokov joined the staff of Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley's Russian Department. The Nabokovs resided in Wellesley, Massachusetts, during the 1941–42 academic year. In September 1942 they moved to Cambridge where they lived until June 1948. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944–45 academic year as a lecturer in Russian. In 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He served through the 1947–48 term as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University, where he taught until 1959. Among his students at Cornell was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later identified Nabokov as a major influence on her development as a writer.
Nabokov wrote Lolita while travelling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States that he undertook every summer. Véra acted as "secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy"; when Nabokov attempted to burn unfinished drafts of Lolita, it was Véra who stopped him. He called her the best-humored woman he had ever known.
In June 1953 Nabokov and his family went to Ashland, Oregon. There he finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin. He roamed the nearby mountains looking for butterflies, and wrote a poem called Lines Written in Oregon. On 1 October 1953, he and his family returned to Ithaca, New York, where he would later teach the young writer Thomas Pynchon.
After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to return to Europe and devote himself exclusively to writing. His son had obtained a position as an operatic bass at Reggio Emilia. On 1 October 1961, he and Véra moved to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland; he stayed there until the end of his life. From his sixth-floor quarters he conducted his business and took tours to the Alps, Corsica, and Sicily to hunt butterflies. In 1976 he was hospitalised with a fever doctors were unable to diagnose. He was rehospitalised in Lausanne in 1977 suffering from severe bronchial congestion. He died on 2 July in Montreux surrounded by his family and, according to his son, Dmitri, "with a triple moan of descending pitch". His remains were cremated and are buried at the Clarens cemetery in Montreux.
At the time of his death, he was working on a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Véra and son Dmitri were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, and though he asked them to burn the manuscript, they chose not to destroy his final work. The incomplete manuscript, around 125 handwritten index cards long, remained in a Swiss bank vault where only two people, Dmitri Nabokov and an unknown person, had access. Portions of the manuscript were shown to Nabokov scholars. In April 2008, Dmitri announced that he would publish the novel.
Prior to the incomplete novel's publication, several short excerpts of The Original of Laura were made public: German weekly Die Zeit, reproduced some of Nabokov's original index cards obtained by its reporter Malte Herwig in its 14 August 2008 issue. In the accompanying article Herwig concludes that Laura, although fragmentary, is "vintage Nabokov".
In July 2009, Playboy magazine acquired the rights to print a 5,000-word excerpt from The Original of Laura. It was printed in the December issue.
The Original of Laura was published on 17 November 2009.
Nabokov's first writings were in Russian, but he achieved his greatest fame with the novels he wrote in the English language. As a bilingual master, he has been compared to Joseph Conrad; Nabokov, however, disliked both the comparison and Conrad's work. He lamented to the critic Edmund Wilson, "I am too old to change Conradically" – which John Updike later called, "itself a jest of genius". Nabokov translated many of his own early works into English, sometimes in cooperation with his son Dmitri. His trilingual upbringing had a profound influence on his artistry.
Nabokov himself translated into Russian two books that he had originally written in English, Conclusive Evidence and Lolita. The "translation" of Conclusive Evidence was made because of Nabokov's feeling of imperfections in the English version. Writing the book, he noted that he needed to translate his own memories into English, and to spend a lot of time explaining things that are well known in Russia; then he decided to re-write the book once again, in his first native language, and after that he made the final version, Speak, Memory (Nabokov first wanted to name it "Speak, Mnemosyne"). Nabokov was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression, such as totalitarianism in its various forms, as well as Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. Poshlost, or as he transcribed it, poshlust, is disdained and frequently mocked in his works. On translating Lolita, Nabokov writes, "I imagined that in some distant future somebody might produce a Russian version of Lolita. I trained my inner telescope upon that particular point in the distant future and I saw that every paragraph, pock-marked as it is with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases or blunders. So I decided to translate it myself."
Nabokov's creative processes involved writing sections of text on hundreds of index cards, which he expanded into paragraphs and chapters and rearranged to form the structure of his novels, a process that has been adopted by many screenplay writers in subsequent years.
Nabokov published under the pseudonym "Vladimir Sirin" in the 1920s to 1940s, occasionally to mask his identity from critics. He also makes cameo appearances in some of his novels, such as the character "Vivian Darkbloom" (an anagram of "Vladimir Nabokov"), who appears in both Lolita and Ada, or Ardor," and the character Blavdak Vinomori (another anagram of Nabokov's name) in "King, Queen, Knave."
Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, daring metaphors, and prose style capable of both parody and intense lyricism. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man's devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov's fiction is characterized by linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave. In another of his short stories, "Signs and Symbols" (1958), Nabokov creates a character suffering from an imaginary illness called "Referential Mania," in which the afflicted is faced with a world of environmental objects exchanging coded messages.
Nabokov's stature as a literary critic is founded largely on his four-volume translation and commentary for Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, published in 1964. That commentary ended with an appendix titled Notes on Prosody, which has developed a reputation of its own. It stemmed from his observation that while Pushkin's iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short two centuries, they were clearly understood by the Russian prosodists. On the other hand, he viewed the much older English iambic tetrameters as muddled and poorly documented. In his own words:
I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little—in comparison to the forced preliminaries—namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.
Nabokov's lectures at Cornell University, as collected in Lectures on Literature, reveal his controversial ideas concerning art. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not merely empathize with characters but that a 'higher' aesthetic enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to details of style and structure. He detested what he saw as 'general ideas' in novels, and so when teaching Ulysses, for example, he would insist students keep an eye on where the characters were in Dublin (with the aid of a map) rather than teaching the complex Irish history that many critics see as being essential to an understanding of the novel. In 2010, Kitsch magazine, a student publication at Cornell, published a piece that focused on student reflections on his lectures and also explored Nabokov's long relationship with Playboy. Nabokov also wanted his students to describe the details of the novels rather than a narrative of the story and was very strict when it came to grading. As Edward Jay Epstein described his experience in Nabokov's classes that he made it clear from the very first lectures that he had little interest in fraternizing with students, who would be known not by their name but by their seat number.
Nabokov was a self-described synesthete, who at a young age equated the number five with the colour red. Aspects of synesthesia can be found in several of his works. His wife also exhibited synesthesia; like her husband, her mind's eye associated colours with particular letters. They discovered that Dmitri shared the trait, and moreover that the colours he associated with some letters were in some cases blends of his parents' hues—"which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle".
For some synesthetes, letters are not simply associated with certain colors, they are themselves colored. Nabokov frequently endowed his protagonists with a similar gift. In Bend Sinister Krug comments on his perception of the word "loyalty" as being like a golden fork lying out in the sun. In The Defense, Nabokov mentioned briefly how the main character's father, a writer, found he was unable to complete a novel that he planned to write, becoming lost in the fabricated storyline by "starting with colors". Many other subtle references are made in Nabokov's writing that can be traced back to his synesthesia. Many of his characters have a distinct "sensory appetite" reminiscent of synesthesia.
Nabokov's interest in entomology had been inspired by books of Maria Sibylla Merian he had found in the attic of his family's country home in Vyra. Throughout an extensive career of collecting he never learned to drive a car, and he depended on his wife Véra to take him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, as a research fellow in zoology, he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical. This, combined with his specialty in the relatively unspectacular tribe Polyommatini of the family Lycaenidae, has left this facet of his life little explored by most admirers of his literary works. He described the Karner blue. The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of this work, as were a number of butterfly and moth species (e.g. many species in the genera Madeleinea and Pseudolucia bear epithets alluding to Nabokov or names from his novels). In 1967, Nabokov commented: "The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all."
The palaeontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould discussed Nabokov's lepidoptery in his essay, "No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts: The Lepidoptery of Vladimir Nabokov" (reprinted in I Have Landed). Gould notes that Nabokov was occasionally a scientific "stick-in-the-mud". For example, Nabokov never accepted that genetics or the counting of chromosomes could be a valid way to distinguish species of insects, and relied on the traditional (for lepidopterists) microscopic comparison of their genitalia.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History, which now contains the Museum of Comparative Zoology, still possesses Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet", where the author stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. "Nabokov was a serious taxonomist," according to the museum staff writer Nancy Pick, author of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "He actually did quite a good job at distinguishing species that you would not think were different—by looking at their genitalia under a microscope six hours a day, seven days a week, until his eyesight was permanently impaired." The rest of his collection, about 4,300 specimens, was given to the Lausanne's Museum of Zoology in Switzerland.
Though his work was not taken seriously by professional lepidopterists during his life, new genetic research supports Nabokov's hypothesis that a group of butterfly species, called the Polyommatus blues, came to the New World over the Bering Strait in five waves, eventually reaching Chile.
Many of Nabokov's fans have tried to ascribe literary value to his scientific papers, Gould notes. Conversely, others have claimed that his scientific work enriched his literary output. Gould advocates a third view, holding that the other two positions are examples of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Rather than assuming that either side of Nabokov's work caused or stimulated the other, Gould proposes that both stemmed from Nabokov's love of detail, contemplation, and symmetry.
Nabokov spent considerable time during his exile on the composition of chess problems. Such compositions he published in the Russian émigré press, Poems and Problems (18 chess compositions) and Speak, Memory (one problem). He describes the process of composing and constructing in his memoir: "The strain on the mind is formidable; the element of time drops out of one's consciousness". To him, the "originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity" of creating a chess problem was similar to that in any other art.
Nabokov was a classical liberal, in the tradition of his father, a liberal statesman who served in the Provisional Government following the February Revolution of 1917. Nabokov was a self-proclaimed "White Russian", and was, from its inception, a strong opponent of the Soviet government that came to power following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. In a poem he wrote as a teenager in 1917, he described Lenin's Bolsheviks as "grey rag-tag people".
Throughout his life, Nabokov would remain committed to the classical liberal political philosophy of his father, and equally opposed Tsarist autocracy, communism and fascism.
Nabokov's father Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov was the most outspoken defender of Jewish rights in the Russian Empire, continuing in a family tradition that had been led by his own father, Dmitry Nabokov, who as Justice Minister under Tsar Alexander II had successfully blocked anti-semitic measures from being passed by the Interior Minister. That family strain would continue in Vladimir Nabokov, who fiercely denounced anti-semitism in his writings, and in the 1930s Nabokov was able to escape Hitler's Germany only with the help of Russian Jewish émigrés who still had grateful memories of his family's defense of Jews in Tsarist times.
When asked, in 1969, whether he would like to revisit the land he had fled in 1918, now the Soviet Union, he replied: "There's nothing to look at. New tenement houses and old churches do not interest me. The hotels there are terrible. I detest the Soviet theater. Any palace in Italy is superior to the repainted abodes of the Tsars. The village huts in the forbidden hinterland are as dismally poor as ever, and the wretched peasant flogs his wretched cart horse with the same wretched zest. As to my special northern landscape and the haunts of my childhood – well, I would not wish to contaminate their images preserved in my mind."
Later, during his American period, he expressed contempt for student activism, and all collective movements. In both letters and interviews, he reveals a profound contempt for the New Left movements of the 1960s, describing the protestors as "conformists" and "goofy hoodlums". Nabokov supported the Vietnam War effort and voiced admiration for President Richard Nixon. On his religious views, Nabokov was an agnostic.
Despite the fact that Nabokov's wife was his biggest supporter and assisted him throughout his entire lifetime, Nabokov admitted to having a "prejudice" against women writers. He wrote to Edmund Wilson, who had been making suggestions for his lectures: "I dislike Jane Austen, and am prejudiced, in fact against all women writers. They are in another class." However, on rereading Austen's Mansfield Park, he soon changed his mind and taught it in his literature course; he also praised the work of Mary McCarthy. Although his wife Véra Nabokov worked as his personal translator and secretary, he made publicly known that his ideal translator was a male, and particularly not a "Russian-born female". In the first chapter of Glory he attributes the protagonist's similar prejudice to the impressions made by children's writers like Lidiya Charski, and in the short story "The Admiralty Spire" deplores the posturing, snobbery, antisemitism, and cutesiness he considered characteristic of Russian women authors.
The Russian literary critic Yuly Aykhenvald was an early admirer of Nabokov, citing in particular his ability to imbue objects with life: "he saturates trivial things with life, sense and psychology and gives a mind to objects; his refined senses notice colorations and nuances, smells and sounds, and everything acquires an unexpected meaning and truth under his gaze and through his words." The critic James Wood argued that Nabokov's use of descriptive detail proved an "overpowering, and not always very fruitful, influence on two or three generations after him", including authors such as Martin Amis and John Updike. While a student at Cornell in the 1950s, Thomas Pynchon attended several of Nabokov's lectures and went on to make a direct allusion to Lolita in chapter six of his novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) in which Serge, counter-tenor in the band the Paranoids, sings:
What chance has a lonely surfer boy
For the love of a surfer chick,
With all these Humbert Humbert cats
Coming on so big and sick?
For me, my baby was a woman,
For him she's just another nymphet.
It has also been argued that Pynchon's prose style is influenced by Nabokov's preference for actualism over realism. Of the authors who came to prominence during Nabokov's lifetime, John Banville, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Edmund White were all influenced by him.
Several authors who came to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s have also cited Nabokov's work as a literary influence. Aleksandar Hemon, whose high-wire wordplay and sense of the absurd are often compared to Nabokov's, has acknowledged the latter's impact on his writing. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon listed Lolita and Pale Fire among the "books that, I thought, changed my life when I read them," and stated that "Nabokov's English combines aching lyricism with dispassionate precision in a way that seems to render every human emotion in all its intensity but never with an ounce of schmaltz or soggy language". Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides said that "Nabokov has always been and remains one of my favorite writers. He's able to juggle ten balls where most people can juggle three or four." T. Coraghessan Boyle said that "Nabokov's playfulness and the ravishing beauty of his prose are ongoing influences" on his writing, and Jhumpa Lahiri, Marisha Pessl, Maxim D. Shrayer, Zadie Smith, and Ki Longfellow have also acknowledged Nabokov's influence. Nabokov is featured both as an individual character and implicitly in W. G. Sebald's 1993 novel The Emigrants. The song cycle "Sing, Poetry" on the 2011 contemporary classical album Troika comprises settings of Russian and English versions of three of Nabokov's poems by such composers as Jay Greenberg, Michael Schelle and Lev Zhurbin.