He had a heart for butterflies, chess and literature but stood aside from other people and sighed for Russia. He left his homeland when he was young and firmly settled on the other side of the ocean. He is known as a classic of Russian literature, though he wrote books in English for half his life. He was nominated eight times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, yet he did not get it. We are talking about Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.
Childhood and Youth of Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, in an ancient large aristocratic family. Though he was born on April 10 (22), 1899, later on, he celebrated his birthday on April 23. The boy was the first child of Vladimir Dmitriyevich Nabokov (1869–1922), a famous lawyer and one of the dignitaries of the Cadet Party, and Elena Ivanovna Nabokova (nee Rukavishnikova) (1876–1939), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Vladimir had four brothers and sisters — Sergei, Kirill, Olga and Elena.
The Nabokovs were true anglophiles, and the writer claimed that he had learned to speak, read and write in English earlier than in Russian. In its house, the family had a lot of elegant and beautiful things from the English store located in St. Petersburg, so the boy reckoned Great Britain to be a dreamland. Nabokov's childhood was serene and happy. Later he remembered he had been a stubborn and extremely spoiled child. Eventually, these memories helped Vladimir overcome difficulties in the foreign country.
All children of the Nabokovs received a versatile home education. At the age of 11, Vladimir was enrolled in the Tenishev School known at that time as an advanced institution with excellent teachers who practised non-standard approaches to teaching. Nevertheless, in his memoirs, the writer was lukewarm about his Alma Mater and considered his studies an annoying obstacle to his love of books and butterflies. Vladimir was passionate about collecting these delicate creatures from the age of 7 till the end of his life: “Everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.”
At the age of 14, Nabokov wrote his first poems. The first love, later described by him in his novel “Mary” and fictionalized autobiography “Other Shores”, gave impetus to more poems. Vladimir even spent his money to publish a book of poetry but later thought back of those poems to be “exceptionally bad”.
Life of Vladimir Nabokov
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Nabokov family moved to Crimea. There Vladimir continued to write poems. In early 1918, he published another book of poetry, written in collaboration with his former classmate Andrei Balashov. In Crimea, Nabokov got acquainted with Maximilian Voloshin, who had a great influence on Vladimir. In general, the young man did not like Crimea as everything was unfamiliar there. In April 1919, the Nabokovs left Russia for good and all on the Greek ship named Hope.
The family stayed in Greece for a few weeks because the country did not make an impression on Vladimir but only entomological interest: “In Greece, during two spring months, braving the constant resentment of intolerant shepherd dogs, I searched in vain for Gruner’s Orange-tip, Heldreich’s Sulphur, Krueper’s White: I was in the wrong part of the country.” By that time, the Nabokovs had no money left, so they had to sell jewellery they managed to take out of Russia.
In May 1919, the family moved to England, the dreamland of Vladimir Nabokov's childhood. But the reality was disappointing and even harsh for the young student at Trinity College, Cambridge. The writer remembered constantly feeling cold and falling ill. First Vladimir studied at the Biology Department, then transferred to the Philology Department. Meanwhile, the rest of the family had moved to Berlin.
Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov was killed in March 1922 as he shielded Pavel Milyukov, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Interim Government, during an assassination attempt. Vladimir, who loved his father very much, surrendered himself to despair. After passing his final exams at Cambridge and receiving a bachelor's degree, he went to his mother in Germany.
During the 1920s, Berlin became one of the centres of Russian emigration where many Russian writers moved to. Nabokov joined "Vereteno" Writers' Association and organized a literary circle named "The Round Table Fellowship" with his friend Gleb Struve. However, he claimed later that he never understood why people joined parties and united in communities. It seems the young writer wanted to avoid being alone in a foreign country more than ever.
In those years, Vladimir Nabokov earned his livelihood by teaching English and French and giving tennis lessons. He also undertook translation work. In 1922–1923, he translated Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland into Russian. Having preserved the original English humour, Nabokov added Russian household features and turns of speech to the translation. So the translation became an independent work called "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by him. At the same time, Nabokov published his books of poetry "A Cluster" and "The Empyrean Path", and also his translation of Romain Rolland's novel "Cola Breugnon" under the title "Nikolka Persik". Nabokov used the pseudonyms Vladimir Sirin and Vasily Shishkov to publish his works.
Vladimir Nabokov's Family and Private Life
In early 1922, Vladimir Nabokov got acquainted with the cousin of his Cambridge friend, Svetlana Romanovna Siewert, and proposed to her trying to escape from loneliness and depression. They had a betrothal which had to be broken off in the spring of 1923 at the initiative of the bride's parents who thought the groom was too poor and rootless.
In the spring of 1925, Vladimir Nabokov got married to Vera Evseyevna Slonim (1902–1991) with whom he got acquainted at a charity emigrant dance party. Later, Vera became the prototype of Zina Merz, the main character of “The Gift” novel which is one of the best works of Nabokov written in Russian. For Vladimir Nabokov, Vera Evseyevna was not just a wife but also a friend, a like-minded person who supported the writer in everything. Vladimir Nabokov considered his marriage perfect. The couple had a son, Dmitry (1934–2012), a future opera singer, translator of his father's works from Russian into English, and also a publisher.
Oeuvre of Vladimir Nabokov
In 1926, “Slovo” (Word) publishing house released Nabokov's first novel, “Mary”. Subsequently, the author spoke of it as unsuccessful though the novel brought Nabokov some fame. "Mary" was followed by a novel about a brilliant chess player, The Luzhin Defense. In 1933, Nabokov wrote The Invitation to a Beheading. This sophisticated, ironic and brutal novel became a response to the latest developments, i.e. Hitler came to power in Germany.
With the seizure of power by the Nazis, anti-Semitic sentiment in the country grew steadily. So, in 1936, Vera Nabokova was fired from her job. At the beginning of 1937, the Nabokovs were forced to leave Germany and move to France through Czechoslovakia in the summer of that year. Here Nabokov finished his work on the novel “The Gift”. At first, the writer's family lived for three years on the Côte d'Azur and afterwards in Paris. Then, in May 1940, as the German soldiers approached, they left Europe and sailed to the United States. So, it seemed the whole biography of Vladimir Nabokov was about moving from one place to another.
Living overseas, the Nabokovs changed several cities in search of work and accommodation. In the United States, Vladimir Vladimirovich began to write in English: “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English”.
The first English novel was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which he began to write in Europe, followed by the novel "Bend Sinister". Both of these works were not commercially successful. So, Nabokov earned his living by lecturing on Russian and world literature at colleges and Cornell University, and also by working at the Museum of Zoology at Harvard.
In 1954, Nabokov completed his most famous novel, Lolita, which he had been writing since the late 1940s. The story of an adult man's love for a minor girl turned out to be so scandalous that, at first, American publishing houses refused to print the novel, and it was first published in 1955 in France. In the United States, the novel was published in 1958. There he was persecuted for a long time — the printed copies were subject to seizure, with court proceedings held in the meantime, but the fame of Vladimir Nabokov already spread throughout the world. Along with fame came financial well-being.
The Nabokovs, having become rich, returned to Europe in 1960 and settled in the Swiss resort town of Montreux. At the new place, Vladimir Vladimirovich translated "Eugene Onegin", "A Hero of Our Time" and "The Song of Igor's Campaign" into English. There, in 1962, he published “Pale Fire”, a puzzle novel where two different heroes drove the narrative.
Death and Funeral
In 1977, Nabokov, carried away by catching butterflies on a mountain slope, fell and received serious injuries which resulted in a general deterioration in health. In the hospital, the writer continued working on his last novel, The Original of Laura, which remained unfinished. Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, from a lung infection.
The writer is buried in a cemetery in the village of Clarens near Montreux, on the shore of the Lake Geneva. In his will, he asked his wife to burn the manuscript of the unfinished novel, but neither Vera Evseyevna nor his son Dmitry did it. The Original of Laura was published in English and Russian in 2009.
The bibliography of Vladimir Nabokov is huge, so we list only his main works.
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
Pale Fire (1962)
Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
The Gift (1938)
The Luzhin Defense (1930)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
Camera Obscura (1933)
The King, Queen, Knave (1928)
The Original of Laura (1977)
Bend Sinister (1947)
Invitation to a Beheading (1936)
Transparent Things (1972)
Laughter in the Dark (1938)
The Enchanter (1939)
The Eye (1930)
The Waltz Invention: A Play in Three Acts (1938)
The Pole (1924)
The Mermaid (1942)
The Wanderers (1923)
The Death (1923)
The Event (1938)
Autobiography (trilogy of stories) (1936–1954)
Terra Incognita (1931)
The Admiralty Spire (1933)
Vasily Shishkov (1939)
Spring in Fialta (1936)
The Return of Chorb (1925)
The Meeting (1932)
The Thunderstorm (1924)
Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster (1958)
The Fight (1925)
Conversation Piece, 1945 (1945)
A Forgotten Poet (1944)
A Busy Man (1931)
The Doorbell (1927)
Signs and Symbols (1948)
Tyrants Destroyed (1938)
That in Aleppo Once... (1943)
The Potato Elf (1924)
Details of a Sunset (1924)
The Leonardo (1933)
A Russian Beauty (1934)
The Circle (1934)
The Undead (1921)
A Bad Day (1931)
Cloud, Castle, Lake (1937)
In Memory of L. I. Shigaev (1934)
The Passenger (1927)
Easter Rain (1925)
First Love (1948)
First Poem (1949)
The Pilgrim (1930)
A Letter that Never Reached Russia (1925)
The Scoundrel (1930)
The Assistant Producer (1943)
The Seaport (1924)
The Visit to the Museum (1939)
Time and Ebb (1945)
A Guide to Berlin (1925)
The Christmas Story (1928)
The Vane Sisters (1959)
A Nursery Tale (1926)
The Word (1923)
A Slice of Life (1935)
A Matter of Chance (1924)
Torpid Smoke (1935)
Lips to Lips (1956)
The Dashing Fellow (1932)
The Berlin Spring (1925)
Drops of Paint (1923)
About Angels (1924)
Autumn Leaves (1921)
Petersburg: Three Sonnets (1924)
Seven Poems (1956)
Three Chessical Sonnets (1924)