Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977), a Russian author and entomologist, was born into a wealthy patri­cian family in St. Petersburg, Russia, and died in Montreux, Switzerland. Time plays an important role in all of Nabokov’s novels, and in all of his works a certain melancholy is noticeable.

Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dimitrijevich Nabokov, was a liberal criminologist, publicist, and politician who was one of the leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party in Russia before the Russian revolution. His mother, Jelena Ivanova Nabokov, nee Rukavishnikov, came from a family of industrialists and land owners. In the Russian October Revolution of 1917, the family lost all its property. The elder Nabokov was one of the lead­ers in the Duma in the February Revolution, but he had to flee after being captured by the Bolshevists in the October Revolution. The family left Russia for England, where Nabokov attended Cambridge and studied Russian and French literature; later the family moved to Berlin, Germany. In 1922, while shielding a friend from gunfire, his father was assassinated at a political meeting by a reactionary Russian exile.

In 1925, Nabokov married Vera Jevsejevna Slonin, a Jewish Russian. In the same year, his first novels, Maschenka and Korol, Dama, Walet (King, Dame, Knave) were published. In 1937, Nabokov had to flee to France because he was married to a Jew in Germany. In Paris, he wrote his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1939), was published in 1941. In the same year, his mother died in Prague. In 1940, together with his family, he moved to New York shortly before France was con­quered by Germany. From 1941 to 1948, he worked as a lecturer in Russian language and literature and as a research fellow in entomology at Harvard Uni­versity in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1948 to 1959, he was a professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.

Nabokov’s first autobiography was published in 1951, and it was republished after many changes as Speak, Memory (1966). In 1955, what was to be his most famous work, the novel Lolita, was published. In this novel, the cultured Frenchman Humbert Humbert writes his mem­oirs concerning his love for a 12-year-old American girl. The book was a succes de scanDalíe and a literary sensation; the substantial income from this novel allowed Nabokov to quit his work as a college professor and to move back to Europe, where he and his wife lived in a suite in a hotel at Switzerland from 1961 onwards.

His second famous novel, Pale Fire, appeared in 1962 and consists of two parts. The first part is a poem by a fictional author called John Shade. In the second part, the scholar Kinbote, who claims to be the king of a country called Zembla, com­ments at length on the poem and interprets it as the story of his own life.

In his most famous novel, Lolita, there is the contrast between the protagonist and the narrator of the story. Both are one person: Humbert Humbert. But, the narrator Humbert tries to relive the pleas­ures he once had by telling the story of his time with Lolita. The pervading melancholia results from the feeling of being small and powerless in comparison with the universal laws of time and the universe. On the other hand, time does not matter for that work of art which can revive memories (even the memories of stran­gers). Unfortunately, these memories are always deficient.

While Nabokov’s concept of time remains implicit in his novels, it is one of the main themes in his autobiography Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966). Many of his creative ideas were inspired by his reading of Marcel Proust. Nabokov’s main theme in this context is human consciousness. For him, the human life is “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” But in consciousness, a human life (even other human lives) can be pre­served in memories. From this viewpoint, litera­ture is a way to preserve memories (although a deficient one) and also a way to prevent others from dying. Moments and persons can be con­served in words, but not without a loss of real­ity. Consequently, consciousness is superior to literature.

From Nabokov’s point of view, literature is a desperate fight against time and darkness, which, in his opinion, follow the consciousness of a human life.

Markus Peuckert

See also Consciousness; Memory; Proust, Marcel

Further Readings

Boyd, B. (1990). Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Boyd, B. (1991). Vladimir Nabokov: The American years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Connolly, J. W. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge companion to Nabokov. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nabokov, V. (1996). Novels and memoirs 1941-1974. New York: Library of America.

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Acharya Nagarjuna

Acharya Nagarjuna