Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov books and biography

Vladimir Nabokov


Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Born: April 22 [O.S. April 10] 1899
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died: July 2, 1977 (aged 78)
Montreux, Switzerland
Occupation: novelist, lepidopterist, professor
Literary movement: Modernism, Postmodernism
Influences: Andrei Bely, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mayne Reid[1]
Influenced: Martin Amis, John Banville, Jeffrey Eugenides, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Edmund White

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков, pronounced [vlʌˈdʲimʲɪr nʌ'bokəf]) (April 22 [O.S. April 10] 1899, Saint Petersburg – July 2, 1977, Montreux) was a Russian-American author. Nabokov wrote his first literary works in Russian, but rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist for the novels he composed in the United States. He is also noted for having made significant contributions to lepidoptery and creating a number of chess problems.

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as his most important novel, exhibiting his love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail in his English works.[1]. Nabokov himself regarded his four-volume translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin as his other major achievement. [citation needed]



Nabokov House - the house in Saint Petersburg where Nabokov was born and lived the first 18 years of his life
Nabokov House - the house in Saint Petersburg where Nabokov was born and lived the first 18 years of his life

The eldest son of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his wife Elena, née Elena Ivanovna Rukavishnikova, he was born to a prominent and aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, where he also spent his childhood and youth. 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.

The Nabokov family left Russia in the wake of the 1917 February Revolution for a friend's estate in Crimea, where they remained for 18 months. The family did not expect to be out of Russia for very long, when in fact they would never return. Following the defeat of the White Army in Crimea in 1919, the Nabokovs left Russia for exile in western Europe. The family settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge and studied Slavic and Romance languages. His Cambridge experiences would later help him to write the novel Glory.

In 1922, Nabokov's father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists as he tried to shelter their real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. This episode of mistaken, violent death would echo again and again in the author's fiction, where characters would meet their violent deaths under mistaken terms. In Pale Fire, for example, the poet Shade is mistaken for a judge who resembles him and is murdered.

In 1923, Nabokov graduated from Cambridge and relocated to Berlin, where he gained a reputation within the colony of Russian émigrés as a novelist and poet, writing under the pseudonym Vladimir Sirin. He married Véra Slonim in Berlin in 1925. Their son, Dmitri, was born in 1934.

Nabokov was a synesthete and described aspects of synesthesia in several of his works. In his memoir Speak, Memory, he notes that his wife also exhibited synesthesia; like her husband, her mind's eye associated colors with particular letters. They discovered that Dmitri shared the trait, and moreover that the colors he associated with some letters were in some cases blends of his parents' hues—"which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle".

Nabokov left Germany with his family in 1937 for Paris and in 1940 fled from the advancing German troops to the United States. It was here that he met Edmund Wilson, who introduced Nabokov's work to American editors, eventually leading to his international recognition.

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." During this time, the Nabokovs resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 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's Museum of Comparative Biology. 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.

Also in 1945, Vladimir Nabokov was told by a relative that his homosexual brother, Sergei, who had lived most of his adult life in Paris and Austria, had died in a Nazi concentration camp at Neuengamme, Germany.

Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita while traveling in the western United States. 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 "Lines Written in Oregon". On October 1, 1953, he and his family left for Ithaca, New York. [2]

After the success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to move to Europe and devote himself to writing. From 1960 to the end of his life he lived in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland.

Note on Nabokov's date of birth

His date of birth was April 10, 1899 according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at that time. The Gregorian equivalent is April 22, which is achieved by adding 12 days to the Julian date. Some sources have incorrectly calculated a date of 23 April, by inappropriately using the 13-day difference in the calendars that applied only after 28 February 1900. In Speak, Memory Nabokov explains the cause of the error and confirms the correct date of 22 April.


May 23, 1969 TIME magazine cover
May 23, 1969 TIME magazine cover

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 some view this as a dubious comparison, as Conrad composed only in English, never in his native Polish. (Nabokov himself disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, declaring, "I differ from Joseph Conradically.") 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 another with only a candle for illumination. Nabokov himself translated two books which he wrote in English into Russian, Conclusive Evidence, and Lolita. The first "translation" was made because of Nabokov's feeling of imperfection of 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 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. 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 in (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 also 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."

Nabokov's synesthesia

Vladimir Nabokov's case of synesthesia can be described in more detail than merely the association of colors with particular letters. For a synesthete letters do not merely appear to be certain colors; they are colored. Nabokov frequently endowed his protagonists with a similar gift. In Bend Sinister Krug comments on his perception of the word "loyalty" as being like a golden fork lying out in the sun. In The Defense, Nabokov mentioned briefly how the main character's father, a writer, found he was unable to complete a novel that he planned to write, becoming lost in the fabricated storyline by "starting with colors." Many other subtle references are made in Nabokov's writing that can be traced back to his synesthesia. Many of his characters have a distinct "sensory appetite" reminiscent of synesthesia.


Echinárgus in the family Lycaenidae: one of the many genera discovered and named by Nabokov
Echinárgus in the family Lycaenidae: one of the many genera discovered and named by Nabokov

His career as a lepidopterist was equally distinguished. Throughout an extensive career of collecting he never learned to drive a car, and he depended on his wife Vera to bring him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, as a research fellow in zoology, he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical. This, combined with his specialty in the relatively unspectacular tribe Polyommatini of the family Lycaenidae, has left this facet of his life little explored by most admirers of his literary works. The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of this work, as were a number of butterfly and moth species.[3]

Butterflies drawn by V (Vladimir) for V (Vera).Nabokov House of Saint Petersburg.
Butterflies drawn by V (Vladimir) for V (Vera).
Nabokov House of Saint Petersburg.

The paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould discussed Nabokov's lepidoptery in an essay reprinted in his book I Have Landed. Gould notes that Nabokov was occasionally a scientific "stick-in-the-mud"; for example, Nabokov never accepted that genetics or the counting of chromosomes could be a valid way to distinguish species of insects, and relied on the traditional (for lepidopterists) microscopic comparison of their genitalia. The Harvard Museum of Natural History, which now contains the Museum of Comparative Zoology, still possesses Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet", where the author stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. [2], [3] "Nabokov was a serious taxonomist," according to the museum staff writer Nancy Pick, author of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "He actually did quite a good job at distinguishing species that you would not think were different—by looking at their genitalia under a microscope six hours a day, seven days a week, until his eyesight was permanently impaired." [4]

Many of Nabokov's fans have tried to ascribe literary value to his scientific papers, Gould notes. Conversely, others have claimed that his scientific work enriched his literary output. Gould advocates a third view, holding that the other two positions are examples of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. Rather than assuming that either side of Nabokov's work caused or stimulated the other, Gould proposes that both stemmed from Nabokov's love of detail, contemplation and symmetry.

List of works


Novels and novellas

Samizdat copies of Nabokov's works on display at Nabokov House
Samizdat copies of Nabokov's works on display at Nabokov House

Novels and novellas written in Russian
  • (1926) Mashen'ka (Машенька); English translation: Mary (1970)
  • (1928) Korol' Dama Valet (Король, дама, валет); English translation: King, Queen, Knave (1968)
  • (1930) Zashchita Luzhina (Защита Лужина); English translation: The Luzhin Defense or The Defense (1964) (also adapted to film, The Luzhin Defence, in 2001)
  • (1930) Sogliadatai (Соглядатай (Eavesdropper)), novella; first publication as a book 1938; English translation: The Eye (1965)
  • (1932) Podvig (Подвиг (Deed)); English translation: Glory (1971)
  • (1932) Kamera Obskura (Камера Обскура); English translations: Camera Obscura (1936), Laughter in the Dark (1938)
  • (1936) Otchayanie (Отчаяние); English translation: Despair (1937, 1966)
  • (1938) Priglasheniye na kazn' (Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to an execution)); English translation: Invitation to a Beheading (1959)
  • (1938) Dar (Дар); English translation: The Gift (1963)
  • (Unpublished novella, written in 1939) Volshebnik (Волшебник); English translation: The Enchanter (1985)

Novels written in English
  • (1941) The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
  • (1947) Bend Sinister
  • (1955) Lolita, self-translated into Russian, (1965)
  • (1957) Pnin
  • (1962) Pale Fire
  • (1969) Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
  • (1972) Transparent Things
  • (1974) Look at the Harlequins!
  • (1977) The Original of Laura (Unfinished/Unpublished)

Short story collections

  • (1929) Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb"). Fifteen short stories and twenty-four poems, in Russian, by "V. Sirin".
  • (1947) Nine Stories
  • (1956) Vesna v Fial'te i drugie rasskazy ("Spring in Fialta and other stories")
  • (1958) Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories (Also reprinted as Spring in Fialta and First Love and Other Stories.)
  • (1966) Nabokov's Quartet
  • (1968) Nabokov's Congeries; reprinted as The Portable Nabokov (1971)
  • (1973) A Russian Beauty and Other Stories
  • (1975) Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
  • (1976) Details of a Sunset and Other Stories
  • (1995) The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (alternative title The Collected Stories) -- complete collection of all short stories
  • (2005) Cloud, Castle, Lake


  • (1938) Izobretenie Val'sa (The Waltz Invention); English translation The Waltz Invention: A Play in Three Acts (1966)
  • (1974) Lolita: A Screenplay (Despite the credits given in the earlier film version, this was not used.)
  • (1984) The Man from the USSR and Other Plays


  • (1916) Stikhi ("Poems"). Sixty-eight poems in Russian.
  • (1918) Al'manakh: Dva Puti (An Almanac: Two Paths"). Twelve poems by Nabokov and eight by Andrei Balashov, in Russian.
  • (1922) Grozd ("The Cluster"). Thirty-six poems in Russian, by "V. Sirin".
  • (1923) Gornii Put' ("The Empyrean Path"). One hundred and twenty-eight poems in Russian, by "Vl. Sirin".
  • (1929) Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb"). Fifteen short stories and twenty-four poems, in Russian, by "V. Sirin".
  • (1952) Stikhotvoreniia 1929–1951 ("Poems 1929–1951") Fifteen poems in Russian.
  • (1959) Poems. The contents were later incorporated within Poems and Problems.
  • (1969) Poems and Problems (a collection of poetry and chess problems) ISBN 0-07-045724-7
  • (1979) Stikhi ("Poems"). Two hundred and twenty-two poems in Russian.


From French into Russian
  • (1922) Nikolka Persik Translation of Romain Rolland's novel Colas Breugnon.

From English into Russian
  • (1923) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (as Аня в стране чудес - Anya in Wonderland)

From Russian into English
  • (1945) Three Russian Poets: Selections from Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tyutchev. Expanded British edition: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev: Poems (1947)
  • (1958) A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov. (Collaboration with his son Dmitri.)
  • (1960) The Song of Igor's Campaign: An Epic of the Twelfth Century
  • (1964) Eugene Onegin, by Aleksandr Pushkin, in prose. Includes "Notes on Prosody". Revised edition (1975).



  • (1944) Nikolai Gogol
  • (1963) Notes on Prosody (Later appeared within Eugene Onegin.)
  • (1980) Lectures on Literature
  • (1980) Lectures on Ulysses. Facsimiles of Nabokov's notes.
  • (1981) Lectures on Russian Literature
  • (1983) Lectures on Don Quixote

Autobiographical and other

  • (1951) Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir - first version of Nabokov's autobiography. (British edition titled Speak, Memory: A Memoir)
  • (1954) Drugie Berega (Другие берега, "Other Shores") - revised version of the autobiography
  • (1967) Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited - final revised and extended edition of Conclusive Evidence. It includes information on his work as a lepidopterist.
  • (1973) Strong Opinions. Interviews, reviews, letters to editors.
  • (1979) The Nabokov–Wilson Letters Letters between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson
  • (1984) Perepiska s Sestroi (Переписка с Сестрой (Correspondence with the Sister)) Correspondence between Nabokov and Helene Sikorski; also includes some letters to his brother Kirill
  • (1987) Carrousel. Three long-forgotten short texts that had recently been rediscovered.
  • (1989) Selected Letters
  • (2001) Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov–Wilson Letters, 1940–1971. A revised and augmented edition of The Nabokov–Wilson Letters.


  • (2000) Nabokov's Butterflies, collected works on butterflies. ISBN 0-8070-8540-5

Collected Works

  • Boyd, Brian, ed. Vladimir Nabokov, Novels and Memoirs 1943-1951 (Library of America, 1996) ISBN 978-1-88301118-5
  • Boyd, Brian, ed. Vladimir Nabokov, Novels 1955-1962 (Library of America, 1996) ISBN 978-1-88301119-2
  • Boyd, Brian, ed. Vladimir Nabokov, Novels 1969-1974 (Library of America, 1996) ISBN 978-1-88301120-8

Works about Nabokov


  • Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-691-06794-5 (hardback) 1997. ISBN 0-691-02470-7 (paperback). London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. ISBN 0-7011-3700-2 (hardback)
  • Boyd, Brian, Vladimir Nabokov: The American years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-691-06797-X (hardback) 1993. 0-691-02471-5 (paperback). London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. ISBN 0-7011-3701-0 (hardback)
  • Field, Andrew. Nabokov, his life in part. New York: Viking. 1977. ISBN 0-1400-4784-0
  • Proffer, Elendea, ed. Vladimir Nabokov: A pictorial biography. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1991. ISBN 0-87501-078-4 (a collection of photographs)
  • Schiff, Stacy. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). New York, NY.: Random House, 1999. ISBN 0-679-44790-3.


Michael Juliar, "Vladimir Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography," New York, Garland Pub., 1986. ISBN 0-8240-8590-6.

Fictional works

Peter Medak's short television film, Nabokov on Kafka, is a dramatization of Nabokov's lectures on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The part of Nabokov is played by Christopher Plummer. Nabokov makes three cameo appearances, at widely scattered points in his life, in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants.


  • Johnson, Kurt, and Steve Coates. Nabokov's blues: The scientific odyssey of a literary genius. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-137330-6 (very accessibly written)
  • Sartori, Michel, ed. Les Papillons de Nabokov. [The butterflies of Nabokov.] Lausanne: Musée cantonal de Zoologie, 1993. ISBN 2-9700051-0-7 (exhibition catalogue, primarily in English)
  • Zimmer, Dieter. A guide to Nabokov's butterflies and moths. Privately published, 2001. ISBN 3-00-007609-3 (web page)

See also

  • Nabokov House


  1. ^ Nabokov said, "I do not believe that any particular writer has had any definite influence on me." (Strong Opinions, p. 46.) The list given above includes writers who he admired (including Mayne Reid, whose work Nabokov admired as a child) and writers he alluded to in fiction (such as Poe). Such a list might be extended greatly.
  2. ^ Article, Medford Mail Tribune, Nov. 5, 2006, p. 2, "Snapshot: Nabokov's Retreat"
  3. ^

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.
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