Biography of Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-American Novelist

Vladimir Nabokov
Author Vladimir Nabokov circa 1965.

Gilles / Getty Images

Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899—July 2, 1977) was a prolific, trilingual Russian-American novelist, poet, professor, translator and entomologist. His name is nearly synonymous with the novel Lolita (1955), which centers on the shocking conceit of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young girl. It became a record-breaking best-seller and brought him international fame. Paired with his critically acclaimed Pale Fire (1962), Nabokov is consistently regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, known for his maximalist, poetic style and intricately structured plots.

Fast Facts: Vladimir Nabokov

  • Full Name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
  • Also Known As: Vladimir Sirin (pen name)
  • Known For: Celebrated literary giant of the 20th century, novels gained commercial and critical acclaim
  • Born: April 22, 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Parents: Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and Yelena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova
  • Died: July 2, 1977 in Montreux, Switzerland
  • Education: University of Cambridge
  • Selected Works: Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1936-1966), Ada (1969)
  • Awards and Honors: Nominated for the National Book Award seven times
  • Spouse: Véra Nabokov
  • Children: Dmitri Nabokov
  • Notable quote: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both truth and art.”

Early Life and Education

Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the eldest of five children. Out of his younger siblings, Sergey, Olga, Elena, and Kirill, Vladimir was the clear favorite and was idolized by his parents. His father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, was a progressive politician and journalist. Nabokov’s mother, Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikov, was a wealthy heiress and granddaughter of a gold mine millionaire.

Young Nabokov had an idyllic childhood despite the political turmoil brewing around him. He grew up in a wealthy, aristocratic, and loving household, speaking three languages (Russian, English, and French), which would later prove fruitful as he worked as a tutor to support his writing. The family spent their summers in the countryside. Nabokov would remember Vyra, one of their three manors, as an idyllic, magical and revelatory respite, long after it had been destroyed. It was there that his love for butterflies was born.

In his younger years, Nabokov was taught by governesses and tutors, as was the custom for children of the upper class. In January 1911, Nabokov was sent to the Tenishev School with his brother Sergey. Tenishev was one of the best of its kind—a liberal secondary school situated in Saint Petersburg. It was there that young Nabokov grew his appetite for poetry and began writing in verse. Between the months of August 1915 and May 1916, he wrote his first book of poems, 68 in total, which he titled Stikhi (“Poems”) and dedicated to his first love, Valentina Shulgin (she would later be the inspiration for his 1926 debut novel Mary). He self-published 500 copies at the printer who produced his father’s work. His debut, however, was not quite a success: he faced ridicule from his classmates, and one famous poet, Zinaida Gippius, told the elder Nabokov at a party that his son would never be a writer.

Elena Ivanovna Nabokova With Children Sergei, Olga, Elena And Vladimir
Elena Ivanovna Nabokova with children Sergei, Olga, Elena and Vladimir. Heritage Images / Getty Images

With the October Revolution of 1917, the country was truly no longer safe for the Nabokov family. They moved around Europe and settled in Berlin in 1920. They were not alone in their flight—by 1921, a million Russian refugees had left their homes. Elena’s jewels paid rent for the family and two years of Nabokov’s upper education—he had begun studying at Trinity at Oxford University in October of 1919. There, Nabokov studied first zoology, and then Russian and French literature, as enamored with poetry as ever. By the time he left school he had an impressive catalogue of work: an entomological article, English poetry, critical essays, translations, a story in Russian, and volumes of verse in press. At the time, his father was editing Rul, a political newspaper in Berlin, championing the democratic ideas of the White Russians. Nabokov was consistently writing poems for that publication as well.

Nabokov’s father was killed right before he graduated university. V.D. Nabokov was embroiled in the oft-violent politics of the times, as a defender of Jewish rights and staunch opponent to the death penalty. In March 1922, at a conference in Berlin, two extreme rightists tried to assassinate the liberal politician and publisher Pavel Milyukov. V.D. Nabokov leapt to disarm the first gunman, Peter Shabelsky-Bork, and the second gunman, Sergey Taboritsky, shot and killed V.D. on the spot. Accidental death would be a resurfacing theme throughout much of Nabokov’s fiction, indicating the lasting impact that this trauma had on his life.

Early Work: Berlin

Novels and Novellas

  • Mashen'ka (Машенька) (1926); English translation: Mary (1970)
  • Korol', dama, valet (Король, дама, валет) (1928); English translation: King, Queen, Knave (1968)
  • Zashchita Luzhina (Защита Лужина) (1930); English translation: The Luzhin Defense (1964)
  • Sogliadatay (Соглядатай (The Voyeur)) (1930), novella; first publication as a book 1938; English translation: The Eye (1965)
  • Podvig (Подвиг (Deed)) (1932); English translation: Glory (1971)
  • Kamera Obskura (Камера Обскура) (1933); English translations: Camera Obscura (1936), Laughter in the Dark (1938)
  • Otchayanie (Отчаяние) (1934); English translation: Despair (1937, 1965)
  • Priglashenie na kazn' (Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to an execution)) (1936); English translation: Invitation to a Beheading (1959)
  • Dar (Дар) (1938); English translation: The Gift (1963)

Short Story Collections

  • Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb") (1930)
  • Sogliadatai ("The Eye") (1938) 

Drama

  • The Tragedy of Mister Morn (1924-2012): English translation of a Russian-language play written 1923–24, publicly read 1924, published in a journal 1997, independently published 2008
  • Izobretenie Val'sa (The Waltz Invention) (1938); English translation The Waltz Invention: A Play in Three Acts (1966)

Poetry

  • Grozd ("The Cluster") (1922)
  • Gornii Put' ("The Empyrean Path") (1923)
  • Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb") (1929)

Translations

  • Nikolka Persik (1922)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (as Аня в стране чудес) (1923)

Nabokov continued to live in Berlin after Trinity. He lasted only three hours at a bank job before leaving. He would continue to support himself by tutoring French and English and giving tennis and boxing lessons as he wrote. He was incredibly involved within the literary community of Russian Berlin, and wrote and published a slew of poetry, prose, drama and translations during the years he called Germany home.

This was also the time period in which he met and wed his wife Véra, who would go on to influence and support his work substantially. Nabokov had been engaged previously to a woman named Svetlana Siewert in 1922. However Svetlana’s father, a mining engineer, did not trust that Nabokov would be able to support his daughter with his ambitions to be a writer. Months after they broke off their engagement in 1923, Nabokov met Véra Evseyevna Slonim at a ball and was immediately enthralled with her. They were married on April 15, 1925, in the Berlin town hall. The couple had much in common—Véra was also a Russian emigrant and was extremely intelligent—she spoke French and English, wrote poetry herself, and was going to attend the Tehcnische Hoschule in Berlin (a European equivalent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) if not for her poor health. They had one child, a boy named Dmitri, born on May 10, 1934.

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Russian writer, circa 1945. adoc-photos / Getty Images

At this period in his life, Nabokov took on the pseudonym “V. Sirin,” a reference to the mythological creature of Russian lore, modeled after the Greek sirens. Under this title he published his first works: A Russian translation of the French novel Colas Breugnon (1922), two works of poetry (Grozd, or “The Cluster,” 1922 and Gornii Put’ or “The Empyrean Path,” 1923), and a Russian translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1923). His first published novel, Mary, came in 1926. By 1934, his income came solely from his writing. In the interim, he had taken on many occupations and projects for money, still teaching and tutoring, spending a summer working on a farm in Domaine de Beaulieu, and writing pantomimes for the Bluebird Cabaret with collaborator Ivan Lukash.

By the late 1930s, Europe was growing increasingly dangerous for the family, especially as Véra was Jewish. In 1937, Nabokov left Berlin for a reading tour through Brussels, Paris, and London. He set off to find work abroad so that he could regain some financial stability and leave the country with his family. He wished to settle in France, and while there, had a brief affair with a woman named Irina Guadanini. His family met him there as he searched for opportunities in the U.S., and by April 1940, he had a passport for himself, Véra, and Dmitri to leave Europe. 

The American Years

Novels

  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
  • Bend Sinister (1947) 
  • Lolita (1955), self-translated into Russian (1965)
  • Pnin (1957)

Short Story Collections

  • Nine Stories (1947) 

Poetry

  • Stikhotvoreniia 1929–1951 ("Poems 1929–1951") (1952)

Nabokov and his family moved first to New York, where he once again tutored Russian and taught while looking for a more satisfying job opportunity—he would not become a naturalized citizen of the United States until 1945. Nabokov began as a lecturer on Russian Literature at Wellesley College, just outside of Boston, and in 1941 he was given the position of Resident Lecturer in Comparative Literature. Also in that year he had his first English novel published, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The novel is a work of metafiction and an early display of postmodernism, in which the narrator V. realizes at the conclusion of the novel that he himself is but a fictive character. Written quickly in Paris at the end of 1938, it is Nabokov’s first novel sold under his real name. He published his second English novel Bend Sinister in 1947, a dystopian piece of fiction conceived during the turbulence of World War II. It received mixed reviews at the time, but has been revisited and praised in contemporary criticism.

In 1948, Nabokov was offered a position at Cornell University. He moved with his family to Ithaca, New York, to teach Russian and European Literature until 1959. Nabokov had a notable presence on campus; he was never alienated from his colleagues, but he never attended a faculty meeting during his whole career. Véra acted essentially as his teaching assistant, driving him to campus, sitting in on his classes, typing his letters and managing his correspondence. Véra also would type up all of Nabokov’s stories throughout his life, starting with the play The Tragedy of Mr. Morn in 1923.

The Nabakovs At Work
Russian-born American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977) dictates from notecards while his wife Vera (nee Slonim, 1902 - 1991 types on a manual typewriter, Ithaca, New York, 1958. Carl Mydans / Getty Images

By the end of his teaching career, Nabokov’s European Fiction course was the second most popular class on campus. He was remembered as a funny teacher, with an actorly presence and a sense of unabashed freedom, as he would never shy away from dismissing major writers. He encouraged his students to lean into the enchantment of the novel, to enjoy a work for its details before trying to make sense of its generalizations or social mores.

While at Cornell, he published most of his famed work; what could be argued as the pinnacle of his career. The first version of Speak, Memory was published in 1951, originally under the title Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir. In it, his lucid style and philosophical interrogations are realized in an artistic rendering of his life, an opus to aesthetic passions and what memory is in relation to the self. It would go on to be recognized as a literary masterpiece. Also during his time at Cornell, he wrote and published two more novels, which would go on to seal his fate as a major writer: Lolita, published in 1955, and Pnin, published in 1957. 

Lolita and After

Short Story Collections

  • Vesna v Fial'te i drugie rasskazy ("Spring in Fialta and other stories") (1956)
  • Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories (1958)
  • Nabokov's Quartet (1966)
  • Nabokov's Congeries (1968); reprinted as The Portable Nabokov (1971)
  • A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973) 
  • Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975) 
  • Details of a Sunset and Other Stories (1976)
  • The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (alternative title The Collected Stories) (1995)

Novels

  • Pnin (1957) 
  • Pale Fire (1962)
  • Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) 
  • Transparent Things (1972) 
  • Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
  • The Original of Laura (2009) 

Poetry

  • Poems and Problems (1969)
  • Stikhi ("Poems") (1979)

Lolita, perhaps Nabokov’s most notable and notorious work, tells the story of Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator with an insatiable lust for a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, whom he nicknames the eponymous “Lolita.” The two spend much of the novel on a cross-country trip, driving throughout the day and staying at a string of motels at night.

Cover of French edition of Lolita banned
Cover of French edition of Lolita banned for indecency.  (Photo by Walter Daran/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

In the summer between academic years, Nabokov would travel west in search of butterflies. These cross-country road trips, usually to the Rockies (which he preferred for its similarity to old Russia and also for the higher altitude—which brought a wider variety of butterfly species), gave him a personal experience of America. He distilled his trips spent at motels and lodges and roadside inns into the geographical backdrop of Lolita, assuring its place within the American novel cannon.

Nabokov finished the novel in December 1953 and had difficulty getting it published. Eventually, it was picked up in France and the first copies were printed in 1955—where it proceeded to become banned for two years. The first American edition came out in 1958, by publishers G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and was an instant bestseller. It was the first novel since Gone With the Wind—published over 20 years earlier—to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. The novel was the subject of much controversy due to its depiction of child abuse, and Orville Prescott, famed critic at the Times, wrote it off as repulsive pornography.

Since then, it has appeared on many lists of best books including Time’s, Le Monde, Modern Library, and more. Nabokov went on to write the screenplay to adapt the book into a film with director Stanley Kubrick, out in 1962 (and it was later remade in 1997 by director Adrian Lyne). Lolita was so successful that Nabokov was no longer beholden to teaching for financial support. He moved back to Europe to focus solely on writing and published two more substantial novels—Pale Fire in 1962 (a work of fictional criticism) and Ada in 1969. Ada was Nabokov’s longest novel—a family chronicle about an incestuous relationship. Pale Fire, in particular, garnered him critical attention and prestige, as it has been deemed one of the novels that precipitated the postmodernism movement. 

Literary Style and Themes

Nabokov always viewed literature as invention, and maintained that writing is an imitation of nature and nature’s penchant for deception and illusion. Art to him was a game. He cared about linguistics and the aesthetics of language more than moral meaning. Since he was a professor, many of his ideas on literature have been preserved through his lectures. His teachings reveal his idea of the writer being of three bodies: a storyteller, a teacher, and above all, an enchanter. The illusion is the magic of great writing, and it is the enchanter role of this triptych that makes one a leap beyond others.

Vladimir Nabokov's File Cards
File cards containing author Vladimir Nabokov's research materials for his book 'Lolita'. Carl Mydans / Getty Images

Nabokov’s style, then, in reference to his views on linguistic aesthetics, is quite maximalist; cerebral, romantic, and sensual. Nabokov also had synesthesia—which is a perceptual phenomenon in which one sensory perception is linked to another, such as having an involuntary association between a letter like A, for instance, and a color like red. People with synesthesia may see colors when they hear certain sounds or songs, or numbers in relation to sounds—it is effectively the interconnecting of different senses. This blended hypersensitivity is apparent in Nabokov’s lavish approach to inventing his fictive worlds, which are always highly textured with sound and sight and touch.

Nabokov’s books allow readers to experience enlightenment—both aesthetic and perceptual—through training the reader to experience the beauty in the banal. He found the surprise in everything that was mundane, and this was his secret in creating such a sumptuous style. Nothing was boring, or plain, or ugly to him; even the ugly parts of human nature were to be explored with his artistic hand. His writing would go on to influence many famous, succeeding authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Michael Chabon.

Butterflies and Chess

Vladimir and Vera Nabokov
Author Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera chasing butterflies.  (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

In addition to his fiction and literary criticism, Nabokov was a serious lepidopterist. He posited an evolutionary hypothesis, which would be substantiated 34 years after he died, though it was largely ignored when initially published. His preoccupation with entomology and science greatly informed his work—both through the mechanical level of language and observation, and also through subject matter; his travels across the country searching for butterflies became the contextual landscape that would inform his novel Lolita.

His childhood manor of Vyra was where his love for butterflies began. Nabokov remembers his first capture at the age of 7, and Vyra was where his father taught him how to net a butterfly, and where his mother taught him how to preserve them. Never forsaking this interest, Nabokov would go on to publish 18 science papers in lepidoptery. While living in Cambridge, he was able to fully delve into his scientific passions. Before he taught at Wellesley, he was the de facto curator of lepidoptery at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. He would spend hours at the museum studying, preoccupied with the anatomy of the sub-species Polyommatus. He identified seven new species and rearranged the taxonomy of the group during his stint holding that position. His paper “Notes on Neotropical Plebihinae” was published in 1945 in the entomological journal Psyche.

Nabokov is also noted for his composition of chess problems. He spent quite some time in exile composing them, and one is included in his autobiography Speak, Memory. He also published 18 chess problems in 1970 in his collection Poems and Problems. Nabokov likened the process to that of any art form composition, in its need for invention and harmony and complexity.

Death

Nabokov spent the last years of his life in Europe with his wife Véra. Following the success of Lolita, he left America and moved to Switzerland in 1961, to the Montreux Palace Hotel. He had stated in interviews that he would come back to America, but he never did—he remained in Europe where he was close to his son, Dmitri, who was living in Italy. Nabokov hunted butterflies throughout the Alps and dedicated his time to writing. He was hospitalized in Lausanne in 1977 due to bronchitis and succumbed to an unidentified viral sickness in Montreux on July 2nd of that year, with his family around him.

Nabokov left 138 index cards of his latest novel in a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank. He did not want any of his work to be posthumously published, but his wishes were disregarded. In 2009, the beginnings of his novel were published in their unfinished form as The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments. His lectures were also published after his death, on topics ranging from generalized Literature to Russian Literature to Don Quixote.

Legacy

The Nabokovs
May 1961: Dimitri (centre) and his father Vladimir Nabokov dining out after Dimitri's debut as an opera singer at the Communale Theatre, Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. Keystone / Getty Images

Nabokov is remembered as a literary giant, celebrated among his field for his intense intelligence, his relishing of the phonetic complexity of language, and his intricate, shocking plots. His expansive catalogue of work—novels and novellas, short story collections, plays, poetry, translations, autobiographical work and criticism—not to mention his catalogue’s expanse over three languages—includes some of the most commercially and critically successful pieces of literature in the 20th century. Lolita remains as widely read and pertinent today as it was when originally published in the 1950s. Not only a writer, however, Nabokov also marks his lasting legacy as a laudatory scientist, and his attention to detail and enthusiasm for deduction and observation is evident in both his inventive fiction and his work with butterflies.

To date, there has been much scholarship on Nabokov, including a two-part biography by Bryan Boyd: Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. A 2003 bestselling memoir titled Reading Lolita in Tehran examines the author’s experiences living in Iran through the revolution and afterwards, using the book as a discussion point for examining oppression. Véra has also been a subject of enduring fascination, and the subject of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning biography Vera by Stacey Schiff. Their marriage was also the source of inspiration for the 2018 novel Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt.

On the cusp of postmodernism, the meta-fictional threads throughout Nabokov’s work helped push the literary world into a new phase of examining what fiction really is and what fiction really does for the human mind and soul. Pale Fire, his annotated poem about mortality, was a primary example of what would later evolve into the theme of literary criticism as fiction. Nabokov would be named a major influence for many writers who came after him, and majorly influenced the shape of 20th century literature conventions and thematics.

Sources

  • Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov - the Russian Years. Vintage, 1993.
  • Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years. Vintage, 1993.
  • Colapinto, John. “Nabokov's America.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 6 July 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/nabokovs-america.
  • Hannibal, Ellen. “Speak, Butterfly.” Nautilus, Nautilus, 19 Dec. 2013, http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/speak-butterfly.
  • McCrum, Robert. “The Final Twist in Nabokov's Untold Story.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Oct. 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/25/nabokov-original-of-laura-mccrum.
  • Popkey, Miranda. “The Enduring Enigma of Véra Nabokov.” Literary Hub, 3 Apr. 2019, https://lithub.com/the-enduring-enigma-of-vera-nabokov/.
  • Stonehill, Brian. “Nabokov, Vladimir.” American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 27 Sept. 2018, https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1601187.