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Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir NabokovAKA Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Born: 23-Apr-1899
Birthplace: St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: 2-Jul-1977
Location of death: Montreux, Switzerland
Cause of death: Pneumonia
Remains: Cremated, Cimitière de Clarens, Clarens, Switzerland

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Novelist, Zoologist

Nationality: Russia
Executive summary: Lolita

Novelist Vladimir Nabokov was born into a wealthy, upper-class family in St. Petersburg. Financial security assured an idyllic upbringing -- foreign nannies taught him English and French, chauffeurs carried him to the best schools, butterflies flew into his net begging for the pin. His father, a politician in what passed for a parliament under the Tsars, was long able to shield his family in politically uncertain times. But with the proletarian revolution in 1917 and subsequent overthrow of the ancien régime, the Nabokov family fled Russia, heading first to the Crimea and thence to England. There Nabokov attended Cambridge University, studying French and Russian literature, and upon graduation relocated with his family to Berlin.

It was as a first-wave Russian emigrant in Weimar Germany that Nabokov began to make his name in letters. After giving up his unremarkable poetry, he soon found his niche as a composer of Russian prose. His novels were serialized in émigré journals; successes came with The Luzhin Defense (1930), about a chess prodigy slowly losing his mind, and exile postcard The Gift (1938). Also of note is Invitation to a Beheading (1938), an experimental prose poem about a prisoner facing execution. Dashed off during a four-week fugue, the story is a quasi-Gnostic parable about the strife of the soul in a heartless world, reflecting a disgust with looming totalitarianism that brings to mind Koestler and Orwell. Nabokov later claimed that his characters did not have any power in his novels and were instead his "galley slaves"[1], but Invitation's protagonist is somehow able to slip his chains. For all its strangeness, it is the most rewarding of his works in translation.

Nabokov's own European period was not without its tragedies. Soon after he finished at Cambridge, his father, an active émigré politician, was shot dead interrupting an assassination attempt. His brother Sergei was arrested by the Nazis; a homosexual, he died in a concentration camp. With the rise of the Third Reich, Nabokov once again fled, this time with his wife and young son in tow, to Paris briefly and then onward to the United States. There Nabokov taught literature, at Wellesley and later Cornell, and continued his parallel study of butterflies at Harvard. Throughout his life, Nabokov remained engrossed by the insects. He was a published scholar on the subject, classifying several new species, and making quiet contributions to a field distinct from his literary career. Much of his ethnographic research on American postwar culture was conducted on endless road trips and cross-country bug-hunting expeditions, and put to use in the travelogue portion of Lolita (1955).

Issued by French avant-porn publishing house Olympia Press -- other first editions include Naked Lunch and The Story of O -- Lolita brought Nabokov the condemnation of moralists and provided his ticket out of academia. While the professorial lifestyle sustained him and drove the creation of his masterpiece, he savaged the university in his prose, through the precious lecturer-poet in Pale Fire (1962), and the storybook about bumbling Professor Pnin (1957) -- the latter modeled viciously after a colleague at Ithaca[2]. Both are pursued by a sociopathic narrator with murderous intent. The professionals responded in kind. After the success of Lolita, Nabokov applied for a position at Harvard, but was rebuffed. In rejecting him, the linguist Roman Jakobson wrote: "Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?‎"

Selling the film rights for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) allowed Nabokov to retire to Switzerland, where he lived out the rest of his life in the penthouse of the Montreux Hotel. He oversaw translations of his Russian works, some of them drafted by his son, Nabokov's literary executor. He spent a decade crafting a word-for-word translation and commentary on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The fiction continued, but his works post-Lolita do not attract much interest. Sound-minded Nabokovians tend to avoid the ponderous Tolstoyan send-up Ada or Ardor (1969), or confront it only out of desperation. A crowd of tweedy Pninoids sustain Nabokov's legacy now, making careers deciphering his puzzles[3] and interpreting the optical illusions hidden in his prose.


[1] Interviewed by Herbert Gold in Montreux, September 1966, for The Paris Review, published October 1967. Reprinted in Strong Opinions, McGraw-Hill, 1973, p. 95.

[2] Galya Diment, Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel, University of Washington Press, 1997.

[3] A classic example is Brian Boyd, author of a thorough if oft-remaindered two-volume biography of Nabokov, as well as the worthy Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Princeton University Press, 1999.

Father: Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov (politician, d. 1922 murder)
Mother: Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikov (d. 1939)
Brother: Sergei Vladimirovich Nabokov (b. 12-Mar-1900, d. 9-Jan-1945 dysentery)
Sister: Olga (b. 5-Jan-1903)
Sister: Elena (b. 31-Mar-1906)
Brother: Kiril Vladimirovich Nabokov (b. 1911, d. 1964)
Wife: Véra Slonim (b. 1902, m. 15-Apr-1925, d. 7-Apr-1991)
Son: Dmitri Vladimirovich Nabokov (opera singer/race car driver, b. 10-May-1934, d. 22-Feb-2012)

    University: BA French and Russian Literature, Trinity College, Cambridge University (1922)
    Professor: European and Russian Literature, Wellesley College (1941-48)
    Scholar: Lepidopterist, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University (1941-48)
    Professor: European and Russian Literature, Cornell University (1948-58)

    Guggenheim Fellowship 1943
    Guggenheim Fellowship 1952
    Naturalized US Citizen 1945
    Risk Factors: Psoriasis, Synaesthesia, Insomnia, Smoking

Author of books:
Mashenka (1925, novel, trans. Mary, 1970)
Korol', Dama, Valet (1928, novel, trans. King, Queen, Knave, 1968)
Zashchita Luzhina (1930, novel, trans. The Defense, 1964)
Soglyadatay (1930, novel, trans. The Eye, 1965)
Podvig (1932, novel, trans. Glory, 1971)
Kamera obscura (1933, novel, trans. Laughter in the Dark, 1938)
Otchayanie (1936, novel, trans. Despair, 1966)
Priglashenie na Kazn' (1938, novel, trans. Invitation to a Beheading, 1959)
Dar (1937-38, novel, originally serialized; collected 1952, trans. The Gift, 1963)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941, novel, first English novel)
Nikolai Gogol (1944, pseudo-biography of Gogol)
Bend Sinister (1947, novel)
Conclusive Evidence (1951, memoir, later reworked into Speak, Memory)
Lolita (1955, in France, 1958 in America)
Pnin (1957, novel)
Pale Fire (1962, novel)
Eugene Onegin (1964, translation and criticism of the Pushkin poem, 4 vols.)
Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967)
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969, novel)
Transparent Things (1972, novel)
Strong Opinions (1973, interviews)
Look at the Harlequins! (1974, novel)
Lectures on Literature (1980, lectures, ed. Fredson Bowers)
Lectures on Russian Literature (1981, lectures, ed. Fredson Bowers)
Lectures on Don Quixote (1983, lectures, ed. Fredson Bowers)
The Enchanter (1986, novella, proto-Lolita)
The Original of Laura (2009, unfinished novel, published as a gimmick)



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