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|Born||Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
22 April [O.S. 10 April] 1899
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Died||2 July 1977 (aged 78)
|Occupation||novelist, lepidopterist, professor|
|Literary movement||Modernism, Postmodernism|
|Notable work(s)||The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
Pale Fire (1962)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков, Russian pronunciation: [vlɐˈdʲimʲɪr nɐˈbokəf]) (23 April [O.S. 10 April] 1899, Saint Petersburg – 2 July 1977, Montreux) was a multilingual Russian-American novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made contributions to entomology and had an interest in chess problems.
Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as amongst his most important novels, and is his most widely known, exhibiting the love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail that characterized all his works. The novel was ranked at #4 in the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library.
Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899 (10 April 1899 Old-Style).  The eldest of five children of liberal lawyer, politician and journalist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, he was born to a wealthy and prominent family of the untitled nobility of Saint Petersburg. He spent his childhood and youth there and at the country estate Vyra near Siverskaya, south of the city.
Nabokov's childhood, which he called "perfect", was remarkable in several ways. The family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, much to his father's patriotic chagrin, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian. In Speak, Memory Nabokov recalls numerous details of his privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past was a boon to him during his permanent exile, as well as providing a theme which echoes from his first book, Mary, all the way to later works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. While the family was nominally Orthodox, they felt no religious fervor and little Volodya was not forced to attend church after he lost interest. In 1916 Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhdestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov ("Uncle Ruka" in Speak, Memory), but lost it in the revolution one year later; this was the only house he would ever own.
After the 1917 February Revolution, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov became a secretary of the Russian Provisional government and the family was forced to flee the city after the Bolshevik Revolution for Crimea, not expecting to be away for very long. They lived at a friend's estate and in September 1918, they moved to Livadiya; Nabokov's father was a minister of justice of the Crimean provisional government. After the withdrawal of the German Army (November 1918) and the defeat of the White Army in early 1919, the Nabokovs left for exile in western Europe. On 2 April 1919, the family left Sevastopol on the last ship. They settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge and studied Slavic and Romance languages. He later drew on his Cambridge experiences to write the novel Glory. In 1920, his family moved to Berlin, where his father set up the émigré newspaper Rul' (Rudder). Nabokov would follow to Berlin after his studies at Cambridge two years later.
In March 1922, Nabokov's father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists as he was fighting to protect their real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. This mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in Nabokov's fiction, where characters would meet their deaths under mistaken terms. In Pale Fire, for example, one interpretation of the novel has a communist assassin murder the poet John Shade while attempting to kill a displaced monarch that has escaped from his home country. Shortly after his father's death, his mother and sister moved to Prague. Nabokov stayed in Berlin where he had become a recognized poet and writer within the émigré community and published under the pen name V. Sirin - perhaps signifying an owl or a mythological bird. To supplement his scant writing income, he taught languages and gave tennis and boxing lessons.
In 1922 Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert; the engagement was broken off by her family in early 1923 because he had no steady job. In May 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim at a charity ball in Berlin and married her in April 1925. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934.
In 1936, Vera lost her job due to the increasingly antisemitic environment and the assassin of his father was appointed second-in-command of the Russian émigré group. In the same year Nabokov began seeking a job in the English-speaking world. In 1937 he left Germany for France, where he had a short affair with Russian émigré Irina Guadanini; his family followed, making their last visit to Prague en route. They settled in Paris, but also spent time in Cannes, Menton, Cap d'Antibes, and Frejus. In May 1940 the Nabokov family fled from the advancing German troops to the United States on board the Champlain.
The Nabokovs settled down in Manhattan and Nabokov started a job at the American Museum of Natural History. In October he met Edmund Wilson, who became his close friend until the falling out two decades later and introduced Nabokov's work to American editors.
Nabokov came to Wellesley College in 1941 as resident lecturer in comparative literature. The position, created specifically for him, provided an income and free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. Nabokov is remembered as the founder of Wellesley's Russian Department. His lecture series on major nineteenth-century Russian writers was hailed as "funny", "learned", and "brilliantly satirical." The Nabokovs resided in Wellesley, Massachusetts during the 1941-42 academic year; they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 1942 and lived there until June 1948. Following a lecture tour through the United States, Nabokov returned to Wellesley for the 1944–45 academic year as a lecturer in Russian. He served through the 1947-48 term as Wellesley's one-man Russian Department, offering courses in Russian language and literature. His classes were popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. At the same time he was curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. After being encouraged by Morris Bishop, Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to teach Russian and European literature at Cornell University. In 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Nabokov wrote Lolita while traveling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States which he undertook every summer. (Nabokov never learned to drive, Vera acted as chauffeur; when Nabokov attempted to burn unfinished drafts of Lolita, it was Vera who stopped him. He called her the best-humored woman he had ever known.) In June 1953 he and his family came to Ashland, Oregon, renting a house on Meade Street from Professor Taylor, head of the Southern Oregon College Department of Social Science. There he finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin. He roamed the nearby mountains looking for butterflies, and wrote a poem called Lines Written in Oregon. On 1 October 1953, he and his family left for Ithaca, New York.
After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to return to Europe and devote himself exclusively to writing. Also his son had gotten a position as an operatic bass at Reggio Emilia. On 1 October 1961, he and Véra moved to the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland; he stayed there until the end of his life. From his sixth-floor quarters he conducted his business and took tours to the Alps, Corsica, and Sicily to hunt butterflies. In 1976 he was hospitalized with an undiagnosed fever; rehospitalized in Lausanne in 1977, he suffered from severe bronchial congestion, and died on 2 July. His remains were cremated and are buried at the Clarens cemetery in Montreux.
At the time of his death, he was working on a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Vera and son Dmitri were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, and though he asked them to burn the manuscript, they were unable to destroy his final work. The incomplete manuscript, around 125 handwritten index cards, has remained in a Swiss bank vault where only two people, Dmitri Nabokov and an unknown person, have access. Portions of the manuscript have been shown to Nabokov scholars. In April, 2008, Dmitri announced that he would publish the novel.
Several short excerpts of The Original of Laura have been made public, most recently by German weekly Die Zeit, which in its 14 August 2008 issue for the first time reproduced some of Nabokov's original index cards obtained by its reporter Malte Herwig. In the accompanying article, Herwig concludes that "Laura", although fragmentary, is "vintage Nabokov".
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Nabokov's first writings were in Russian, but he came to his greatest distinction in the English language. For this achievement, he has been compared with Joseph Conrad; yet Nabokov viewed this as a dubious comparison, as Conrad composed only in English, never in his native Polish. (Nabokov disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson, "I am too old to change Conradically" — which John Updike later called, "itself a jest of genius." Nabokov translated many of his own early works into English, sometimes in cooperation with his son Dmitri. His trilingual upbringing had a profound influence on his artistry. He has metaphorically described the transition from one language to another as the slow journey at night from one village to the next with only a candle for illumination. Nabokov himself translated two books into Russian that he had originally written in English, Conclusive Evidence, and Lolita, respectively. The first "translation" was made because of Nabokov's feeling of imperfection in the English version. Writing the book, he noted that he needed to translate his own memories into English, and to spend a lot of time explaining things which are well-known in Russia; then he decided to re-write the book once again, in his first native language, and after that he made the final version, Speak, Memory (Nabokov first wanted to name it "Speak, Mnemosyne"). Nabokov was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression, such as totalitarianism in its various forms as well as Freud's psychoanalysis.Poshlost, or as he transcribed it, poshlust, is disdained and frequently mocked in his works.
Nabokov published under the pseudonym "Vladimir Sirin" in the 1920s to 1940s, occasionally to mask his identity from critics. He also makes cameo appearances in some of his novels, such as the character "Vivian Darkbloom" (an anagram of "Vladimir Nabokov") in Lolita.
Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, and use of alliteration. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man's devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov's fiction is characterized by its linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave.
Nabokov's stature as a literary critic is founded largely on his four-volume translation of and commentary on Aleksandr Pushkin's epic of the Russian soul, Eugene Onegin, published in 1964. That commentary ended with an appendix titled Notes on Prosody which has developed a reputation of its own. It stemmed from his observation that while Pushkin's iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short two centuries, they were clearly understood by the Russian prosodists. On the other hand, he viewed the much older English iambic tetrameters as muddled and poorly documented. In his own words:
- I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little—in comparison to the forced preliminaries — namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.
Nabokov's translation was the focus of a bitter polemic with Edmund Wilson and others; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse to (by his own admission) stumbling, non-rhymed prose. He argued that all verse translations of Onegin fatally betrayed the author's use of language; critics replied that failure to make the translation as beautifully styled as the original was a much greater betrayal.
Nabokov's Lectures on Literature at Cornell University where he was appointed an instructor in 1948, reveals his controversial ideas concerning art. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not merely empathise with characters but that a 'higher' aesthetic enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to details of style and structure. He detested what he saw as 'general ideas' in novels, and so when teaching Ulysses, for example, he would insist students keep an eye on where the characters were in Dublin (with the aid of a map) rather than teaching the complex Irish history that many critics see as being essential to an understanding of the novel.
Nabokov's detractors fault him for being an aesthete and for his over-attention to language and detail rather than character development. In his essay "Nabokov, or Nostalgia", Danilo Kiš wrote that Nabokov's is "a magnificent, complex, and sterile art." Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov's prose.