Vladimir Nabokov

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This page is about the novelist. For his father, the politician, see Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Владимир Владимирович Набоков; pronounced: vlah-DEE-meer nah-BAWK-awf) (April 10 O.S. [April 22 N.S.], 1899 - July 2, 1977) was a Russian-American author. He wrote his first literary works in Russian, but rose to international prominence as a masterly prose stylist for the novels he composed in English.

Nabokov's best-known work in English is undoubtedly Lolita (1955), frequently cited as one of the most important novels of the 20th century, probably followed by the singularly structured Pale Fire (1962). Both of these works exhibit Nabokov's love of wordplay and descriptive detail.

He also made significant contributions to lepidoptery and created a number of chess problems.



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. The family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age.

The Nabokov family left Russia in the wake of the 1917 February Revolution for a friend's estate in the Crimea, where they remained for 18 months. Following the defeat of the White Army in Crimea, they left Russia for exile in western Europe. After emigrating from Russia in 1919, the family settled briefly in England, where Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied Slavic and romance languages. In 1923, he graduated from Cambridge and relocated to Berlin, where he gained some 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.

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, John Shade is mistaken for the king of Zembla and is assassinated.

Nabokov was a synaesthete and described aspects of synaesthesia in several of his works. In his memoir Strong Opinions, he notes that his wife also exhibited synaesthesia; 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, a position created specifically for him, providing an income, free time to write creatively and pursue his lepidoptery. He is also 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 Wellesley. 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 wildly popular, due as much to his unique teaching style as to the wartime interest in all things Russian. Nabokov left Wellesley in 1948 to become chairman of Cornell's comparative literature department. In 1945, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

After the success of Lolita, Nabokov was able to move to Europe. From 1960 to the end of his life he lived in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977.

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 Feb 1900. However this is irrelevant as Nabokov was born before then. In ‘Speak, Memory’ Nabokov explains the cause of the error and confirms the correct date of 22 April.


His 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 only composed 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 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 consummated passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelist of the 20th century. Perhaps his defining work, which met with a mixed response, is his longest novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). He devoted more time to the construction of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov's fiction is characterized by its linguistic playfulness. Nabokov's short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous in part for its acrostical final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a ghostly 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 Russian soul epic Eugene Onegin. That commentary ended with an appendix called Notes on Prosody which has developed a reputation of its own. This essay 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.

His translation was the focus of a bitter polemic among him and other translation theorists; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse as (by his own admission) a stumbling, non-metrical, non-rhymed prose version. 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 only empathise with the characters but that a 'higher' enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to detail. 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 aide 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 overattention 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."

Recent scholarship has uncovered the fact that Nabokov may have had cryptomnesia (a form of unintentional or unconscious plagiarism) while he was composing his most famous novel, Lolita. There is a German short story also entitled "Lolita" about an older man obsessed with a young girl that was published in 1916. Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin, Germany as the author, Heinz von Lichberg, and was most likely familiar with the author's work, which was widely available at that time in Germany. More information regarding this recent controversy can be found here and here.


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 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 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 insect. 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


  • Nabokov Library e-text depository, many works mentioned below are available here (for non-commercial use and non-public presentation only)

Novels and novellas

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

Short story collections



  • (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.
  • (1971) Poems and Problems (a collection of poetry and chess problems) ISBN 0070457247
  • (1979) Stikhi ("Poems"). Two hundred and twenty-two poems in Russian.


From French into Russian

From English into Russian

From Russian into English



  • (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 recently rediscovered short texts.
  • (1989) Selected Letters


Works about Nabokov


By far the best biography is the large, two-volume work by Brian Boyd. A photograph collection complements this.

  • 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)
  • Proffer, Elendea, ed. Vladimir Nabokov: A pictorial biography. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1991. ISBN 0-87501-078-4 (a collection of photographs)


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.


  • 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)

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