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Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) - pen name Vladimir Sirin

 

Russian-born American novelist, critic, and acknowledged lepidopterist. Nabokov wrote both in Russian and English. His best-known novel, Lolita (1955), shocked many people but its humor and literary style were praised by critics. The first version of the story, Volshebnik (The Enchanter), was written in 1939 in Paris. The Enchanter centered on a middle-aged man, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her sick, widowed mother to satisfy his erotic desires. He molests the girl in a Riviera hotel while she's asleep, she wakens and he runs into the traffic and dies.

"Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their nature, which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose designate as "nymphets." (from Lolita)

Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, was a liberal politician, lawyer, and journalist. The household was Anglophile – Nabokov spoke Russian and English, and at the age of five he learned French. His father taught him to collect butterflies.

Nabokov received his education at the Tenishev, St. Petersburg's most innovative school. At 16 he inherited a large estate from his father's brother, but he did not have much time to enjoy his wealth. During the Russian Revolution his father was briefly arrested. Nabokov brought a butterfly to his cell as a present. The family emigrated to Berlin and Nabokov entered Trinity College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in 1923. Vladimir Dimitrievich was murdered in Berlin in 1922 by a Russian monarchist.

Nabokov spent 15 years in Berlin, where he worked as a translator, tutor, and tennis coach. From 1932-37 he lived with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22 in Wilmersdorf. He won acceptance as the leading young writer in the Russian community. Berlin was for him a city " "swarming with ragamuffins", as he said in the short novel Otchayanie (1936; Despair, 1937). Most of his readers were Russian émigrés – in the Soviet Russia his books were banned or ignored. In his early works Nabokov dealt with the death, the flow of time and sense of loss. Already using complex metaphors, his themes became later more ambiguous puzzles – he was a remarkable chess player – that challenge the reader to involve in the game. ''Readers are not sheep," he once wrote to a publisher, "and not every pen (pun) tempts them." In Lectures on Literature (1980) Nabokov wrote that to be a good reader one does not have to lean heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle, or belong to a book club. "The good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense – which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance."

In Zashchita Luzhina (1930, The Defense) Nabokov took the role of a grandmaster and played with the expectations of his readers. The protagonist, Aleksandr Luzhin, is a chess phenomenon, who becomes a character on a giant chessboard. Luzhin finds it increasingly difficult to make the transition from the world of the game to everyday reality. After suffering a mental breakdown, he recuperates slowly with the help of a young woman. Luzhin starts to believe that a cunning opponent is trying to manipulate the moves he makes in his life. He decides to throw himself out of a window and notices that the courtyard below seems to look like a giant chessboard. Luzhin is right: there is an opponent and he is Nabokov himself, who makes the point that the story is an artistic creation.

As a writer Nabokov gained his first literary success with his translations of some of Heine's songs. Nabokov's first novel, Mashenka (1926), was written in Russia. In 1924 Nabokov married Véra Evseevna Slonim, who came from a Jewish family; they had one son, Dmitri. Nabokov's early nine novels were published under the pen name Vladimir Sirin. These works included The Gift (1937-38), a novel and an intellectual history of 19th-century Russia, and Invitation to a Beheading (1938), a political fantasy, in which the remaining days in the life the central character correspond to the length of his pencil. Nabokov himself wrote everything in longhand. "I cannot type," he confessed in an interview in 1962.

When Hitler released the killer of his father, Nabokov moved to Paris in 1937. There he met the Irish novelist James Joyce. With a loan he received from the composer Rachmaninov, Nabokov moved three years later with his wife and son to the United States – he crossed the ocean on the Champlain, where he had a first-class cabin. He left behind in his Paris apartment a set of European butterflies.

Nabokov taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University, delivering highly acclaimed lectures on Flaubert, Joyce, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and others. Among his major critical works are his study of Nikolay Gogol (1944), and translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's masterpiece Eugene Onegin (1964), with commentary. The ten-year-long work was first brought out by Bollingen Foundation in four volumes. Nabokov cautioned against translating rhyme by rhyme: "Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with a retention of its rhymes. The answer is, of course, no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible."

In the United States Nabokov continued his extensive researches in entomology, becoming a recognized authority on butterflies. He also held a modest but official position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. The job lasted until 1948. "My pleasures are the most intense known to a man," he once wrote, "writing and butterfly hunting."

As a lepidopterist Nabokov was self-taught, but his attitude to scientific work was serious, not dilettantish. Especially he was interested in Blues, the tribe Polyommatini, found all over the world. Later Nabokov estimated that between the years 1949 and 1959 he traveled more than 150,000 miles on butterfly trips. His wife Vera drove their car; Nabokov didn't have a driving licence. Once he had collected his specimens he studied their genitalia. It was one of the best ways of telling  one species apart from another. Over 20 butterflies have been named in his honour.

His years at the museum Nabokov described as "the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life." In his boyhood Nabokov had already made notes on butterflies and in 1920 The Entomologist had published his article 'A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera'. "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting," Nabokov once said. Nabokov's first publication in English was an article titled 'A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera'. Changing languages was not easy – ''What agony it was, in the early 'forties, to switch from Russian to English,'' he wrote in a letter in 1954.

Nabokov's first novels in English were The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947). The Atlantic and the New Yorker started to publish Nabokov's short stories in the early 1940s. In America, apart from collecting his shorter prose of the 1930s into one book, Vesna v Fial'te, Nabokov published only memoirs and verse in Russian. Conclusive Evidence (1951) was an autobiography, which was later revived as Speak, Memory (1966), set mainly in pre-revolutionary Russia. When the Australian critic and writer Andrew Field planned to write a biography on Nabokov, the answer was: "I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting."

It took six years before Nabokov finished Lolita, a literary bomb. The English writer Graham Greene cited it among the best books of 1955. Edmund Wilson, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster did not share his view. With Lolita Nabokov gained a huge success, although it was banned in Paris in 1956-58 and not published in full in America and the U.K. until 1958.

Lolita is one of the most controversial novels of the 20th-century, in which the rhetoric of the protagonist both captivates and repels. The story deals with the desire of a middle-aged pedophile Humbert Humbert, the narrator, for a 12-year-old girl. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins," he starts his story. Humbert is said to be a metaphor for the writer and his art, and for the old world – Humbert is an European expatriate – encountering the new, represented by an American teenage girl, in all its vulgarity. Humbert keeps a prison-diary of his lifelong fascination with pubescent "nymphets". The first is Annabel Leigh, who dies of typhus, but then he finds Dolores Haze, his Lolita, in a New England town. She reminds him of the little girl he loved as a boy. During the course of the story, Humbert loses her to Clare Quilty, a playwright and pornographic filmmaker. Humbert kills him and dies in a prison of a heart attack. Lolita dies in childbirth as delivering a stillborn daughter.

Stanley Kubrick's film version of the book was based on Nabokov's screenplay. "I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would," Nabokov said, "and I also knew that at best the end product is such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretations."

Lolita allowed Nabokov to abandon teaching and devote himself entirely to writing. In 1957 Nabokov published Pnin, a story of a hapless Russian professor of literature on an American college campus. Pale Fire (1962) was an ambitious mixture of literary forms, partly a one-thousand-line poem in heroic couplets by John Shade, partly a commentary on them by a mad exiled king, Kinbote. "I can do what only a true artist can do," describes the mad Kinbote himself, "pounce upon the forgotten butterfly or revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things..."

From 1959 Nabokov lived in Switzerland, where his permanent home was at the Montreux Palace Hotel. He continued to collect butterflies, which after his death were stored at the Cantonal Museum of Zoology of Lausanne. Nabokov's later works include Ada (1969), a love story set on the planet of Antiterra, a mixture of Russia and America, Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1975), in which Nabokov's own life coincides occasionally with the protagonist's, also a writer.

The writer's son Dmitri has undertook the translation of several of Nabokov's books from these later years. Nabokov himself wanted to be valued more as an American writer than a Russian one. In the Soviet Union he perhaps enjoyed greater fame than in the West. Nabokov died in Lausanne on July 2, 1977. 

For further reading: The Annotated Lolita by A. Apper Jr. (1970); Nabokov's Garden by B.A. Mason (1974); Vladimir Nabokov by L.L. Lee (1976); Nabokov Translated by J. Grayson (1977); VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov by A. Field (1986); Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by H. Bloom (1987); Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by B. Boyd (1990); Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by B. Boyd (1991); Vladimir Nabokov by T. Sharpe (1991); Small Alpine Form by C. Nicol and G. Barabtarlo (1993); The Magician's Doubts by Michael Wood (1994); The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by Vladimir E. Alexandrov (1995); Lolita: A Janus Text by Lance Olsen (1995); Pniniad by Galya Diment (1997); Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery by Brian Boyd (2000); Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius by Kurt Johnson et al. (2001); Nabokov's World: Reading Nabokov by Jane Grayson (2002); Vladimir Nabokov by Jane Grayson (2003); Vladimir Nabokov: His Life and Works by Stanley P. Baldwin (2004); 'Vladimir Nabokov's Butterfly Genitalia Cabinet,' in The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield (2013) - See other writers who combine fantastical elements, fabulations, with realistic narrative: Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco. See also: Magic Realism.

Selected works:

  • Stikhi, 1916
  • Grozd', 1922
  • Gorniĭ putʹ, 1923
  • Mashen'ka, 1926
    - Mary (translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author, 1970)
  • Korol' Dama Valet, 1928
    - King, Queen, Knave (translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author, 1968)
    - Kuningas, rouva, sotamies (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1969)
  • Vozvrashchenie Chorba; Razskazy i stikhi, 1930
  • Soglyadatay, 1930
    - The Eye (translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author, 1965)
    - Silmä (suom. engl.laitoksesta Juhani Jaskari, 1968)
  • Zashchita Luzhina, 1930
    - The Defense (translated by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the author, 1964)
    - Lužinin puolustus (suom. engl. laitoksesta Juhani Jaskari, 1965)
    - film 2000, dir. by Marleen Gorris, starring Emily Watson, Joh Turtutto, Geraldine James, screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov and Peter Berry
  • Camera Obscura, 1933
    - Camera Obscura (translated by W. Roy, 1936) / Laughter in the Dark (rev. and tr. by V.N., 1938)
    - Naurua pimeässä (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Juhani Jaskari, 1962)
  • Podvig', 1933
    - Glory (translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author, 1971)
  • Otchayanie, 1936
    - Despair (translated by V.N., 1937/1965)
  • Dar, 1937-38
    - The Gift (translated by Michael Scammell in collaboration with the author, 1936)
    - Lahja: romaani (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1965)
  •  Priglasheniye na kazn', 1938
    - Invitation to a Beheading (translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author, 1959)
  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941
    - Sebastian Knightin todellinen elämä (suom. Eila Pennanen, Juhani Jaskari, 1960)
  • Thee Russian Poets: Selection from Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, 1944 (translator)
  • Nikolai Gogol, 1944
    - Nikolai Gogol (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Juhani Jaskari, 1963)
  • Bend Sinister, 1947
  • Nine Stories, 1947
  • The Nearctic members of the genus Lycaeides Hübner (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera), 1949 (in Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; Feb. 1949)
  • Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir, 1951 (revised and extended edition, 1967; UK title: Speak, Memory: A Memoir)
    -  Nabokov Nabokovista (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1968) / Puhu, muisti (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1989)
  • Stikhotvoreniia 1929–1951, 1952
  • Lolita, 1955
    - Lolita (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Juhani Jaskari, 1959)
    - film: Lolita, 1962, dir. by Stanley Kubrick, starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters. "I'd have given the Humbert role to Peter Sellers, with perhaps Rod Steiger playing the unspeakable Quilty. That way, the central machinery of the picture might have looked less like the motel adventures of a second-hand car salesman and a quick-lunch cashier. The sex in Lolita is no longer perverse; it is now merely sordid." (Robert Hatch in the Nation, June 23, 1962) - Also filmed in 1998, dir. by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain. Both version made Lolita appear older than in the novel but still ran into serious trouble. "One could argue that this Humbert is no pedophile at all. He is attracted only to Lolita, and it is made quite clear that that is due more to her resemblance to the lost Annabel than to anything pertaining to her age. At no time, for example, does he pay the slightest attention to the many other little girls that scamper about the edges of the story. It is the malevolent Clare Quilty who, by contrast, is the genuine pedophile." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1997)
  • Pnin, 1957
    - Pnin (suom. Vappu Roos, 1959)
  • A Hero of Our Time / Mikhail Lermontov, 1958 (translator with Dmitri Nabokov)
  • Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories, 1958 (Vesna v Fial'te)
    - Nabokovin tusina (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Juhani Jaskari, 1961)
  • Poems, 1959
  • A Song of Igor's Campaign, 1960 (translator)
  • Lolita: A Screenplay, 1961
  • Pale Fire, 1962
  • Eugene Onegin / Alexandr Pushkin,1964 (4 vols., commentary and translation)
  • Nabokov's Quartet, 1966
  • The Waltz Invention, 1966 (Izobretenie Val'sa; translated by Dmitri Nabokov)
  • Nabokov's Congeries, 1968 (selected by Page Stegner)
  • Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969
    - Ada: sukutarina (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1971)
  • Poems and Problems, 1970
  • Transparent Things: A Novel, 1972
    - Läpinäkyväisiä (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1974)
  • A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, 1973 (translated by Dmitri Nabokov and Simon Karlinsky in collaboration with the author)
  • Look at the Harlequins!, 1974
  • Strong Opinions, 1974
  • The Nabokov–Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971, 1979 (edited, annotated and with an introductory essay by Simon Karlinsky)
  • Tyrants Destroyed, and Other Stories, 1976
  • Details of a Sunset and Other Stories, 1976
  • Ani︠a︡ v strani︠e︡ chudes = Anya v stranye chudes / Lewis Carroll, 1976 (translated from the English by "V. SIrin" (Vladimir Nabokov); with drawings by S. Zalshupin)
  • Stikhi, 1979
  • Five Novels, 1979 (with an introduction by Peter Quennell)
  • Lectures on Literature, 1980
  • Lectures on Ulysses, 1980 (facsimile of the manuscript; with a foreword by A. Walton Litz)
  • Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981 (edited by Fredson Bowers)
  • Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983 (edited by Fredson Bowers)
  • Perepiska s Sestroi, 1984
  • The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, 1984 (translations by Dmitri Nabokov)
  • Volshebnik, 1987
    - The Enchanter (early version of Lolita; translated by Dmitri Nabokov, 1985)
    - Lumooja (suom. Margit Salmenoja, 1988)
  • Rasskazy, 1989
  • Istreblenie tiranov: izbrannai͡a proza, 1989
  • Selected Letters, 1940-77, 1989
  • Krug, 1990
  • P'esy, 1990
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1990, 1992, 1995 (4 vols.)
  • The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, 1995 (edited by Dmitri Nabokov)
  • Nabokov's Butterflies. Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, 2000 (ed. and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, translated by Dmitri Nabokov)
  • Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov–Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, A revised and augmented edition, 2001 (edited by Simon Karlinsky)
  • Vintage Nabokov, 2004
  • Alphabet in Color, 2005 (foreword by Brian Boyd)
  • Tragedii︠a︡ gospodina Morna: pʹesy, lekt︠s︡ii o drame, 2008
    - The Tragedy of Mr. Morn (with an introduction by Thomas Karshan; translation by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan, 2013)
  • The Original of Laura, 2009 (edited by Dmitri Nabokov; Laura i ee original: fragmenty romana)
  • Selected Poems, 2012 (edited and with an introduction by Thomas Karshan; new translations by Dmitri Nabokov)


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