VLADIMIR NABOKOV (April 22, 1899 – July 2, 1977)
A Russian-American writer who is regarded as one of the most influential prose writers of the twentieth century.
- Wrote the novels, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962)
- Professor at Cornell, Stanford, Wellesley, and Harvard
- Influenced writers such as Salman Rushdie and Edmund White
Vladimir Nabokov was a poet, novelist, and the foremost among the post-1917 émigré writers. He wrote in Russian for much of his career; however, his English works gained the most acclaim. He employed dramatic imagery and dense metaphors that have left an indelible mark upon modern literature. An aloof, technical, and comical writer, people recognize Nabokov for the intense allegory of love’s fragility in his controversial novel, Lolita.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vladimir Nabokov grew up in a family of wealth and nobility. He was the eldest of five children: Sergey, Olga, Elena, and Kirill. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a lawyer, journalist, and leader of the pre-Revolutionary Constitutional Democratic Party. His mother, Yelena, was the granddaughter of a wealthy gold-mine owner.
His family emigrated from Russia and moved to England in search of refuge from the Russian Revolution. Upon arrival, he elected to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. His initial field of study was zoology before switching to French and Russian Literature. He graduated from Cambridge in 1922 with honors.
In that same year of 1922, Nabokov’s father was shot and killed while defending Pavel Milyukov, a fellow exile of Russia who served in a leadership role within the Constitutional Democratic Party. This violent death suffered by his father would largely influence the deaths of many of his fictional characters.
He started his career at the young age of seventeen, publishing a collection of poems entitled, Poems, in 1916. He later released his second set of verses in 1918, Two Paths.
Upon graduating from his undergraduate program, he remained in England and penned two more poetry collections before moving to Germany. He began publishing prose, with his first story being released in Germany in 1924 under the pseudonym, Sirin.
In 1926, one year after marrying his wife, Vera Yevseyevna Slonim, he published his first novel, Mashenka. The short book follows protagonist Lev Glebovich Ganin in his musings to steal an old flame named Mashenka from her current lover, Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov.
In 1928, Nabokov produced a second novel that solidified his writing style and use of literary devices. In the novel, King, Queen, Knave, the events surrounded a Berlin department store worker, Franz, and his deadly love affair with a married woman named Martha. Nabokov developed his signature use of foreshadowing within this novel, having the three main characters’ eventual fates appear early in the book within a play called “Goldemar.”
Although met with praise, it drew criticism from his émigré contemporaries. However, his next novel, The Defense, gained him a fair amount of notoriety among the émigré authors. Nabokov continued to write and gain fame through his novels. He also tapped into playwriting, penning Sobytiye (1938) and the tragic comedy, The Waltz Invention (1938).
In 1940, Nabokov fled from France and immigrated to the United States. He and his family settled in New York City, then promptly moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, the following year to take a lecturer position in comparative literature at Wellesley College. Nabokov moved onto Cornell University in 1948, where he taught until 1959. His most famous student was the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
During his tenure as a lecturer and professor, he spent much of his free time capturing butterflies and retreating to his room to write. His most prominent English novel, Lolita, was published in 1955. Lolita is a novel about a paedophilic thirty-seven-year-old man named Humbert Humbert. In this story, Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old daughter of his landowner, Dolores “Lolita” Hayes. Humbert marries Mrs. Haze to form a relationship with her daughter, and the story depicts the immoral, lustful lengths Humbert goes to get what he wants.
Although sometimes heavily criticized, Nabokov’s stories were allegorical. He hid meanings behind dense wordplay, comical parody, and tragedy. He believed that novels should have a deeper meaning, one the reader must search for. He is known as the “king over that battered mass society called contemporary fiction.”
DEATH AND LEGACY
Nabokov passed away at the age of seventy-seven on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, Switzerland. Prior to his death, he had informed his wife of an unfinished work titled, The Original of Laura. He left the manuscript within the lines of index cards in his home. He asked his wife to burn it, but she placed it inside a Swiss bank vault instead.
The novel dealt with Nabokov’s view of mortality and followed a married couple, Philip and Flora Wild. One of Flora’s former lovers writes a sordid book that places her as the subject of immoral behavior, while Philip is obsessing over his imminent death. Nabokov’s only son, Dmitri, published the unfinished manuscript in 2009.
Nabokov left behind numerous poems, short stories, and novels. He has influenced writers such as the British-Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, and the American novelist, Edmund White. Of Nabokov, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asserted, “He stood alone … Nabokov, changed the way I read and the way I write.”