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  People > V.Nabokov
Mashen
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The publishers promoted Mashen'ka as "a novel of émigré life," and in fact its action takes place during the 1924 peak of the émigré exodus from Berlin to Paris, in a pension not unlike Nabokov's mother's quarters in Prague. The novel was lauded for its innovative structure and vibrant, if occasionally unpalatable, detail. It tells the story of the Russian émigré Ganin, who discovers that the lover he left behind in Russia has married his fellow boarder in Berlin. Mashen'ka never appears in the novel, but is conjured by Ganin's reminiscences. Mashen'ka incorporates a wealth of autobiographical material, from Ganin's...

Korol, dama, valet. Berlin, 1928 (King, Queen, Knave, 1968)
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Korol', dama, valet [King, Queen, Knave] was, like Mashen'ka, conceived, executed, and published in just over a year, with one excerpt appearing in Rul'. It focuses on the lives of three Germans: Franz; his aunt Martha, with whom he is carrying on an affair; and his uncle Kurt Dreyer, whom they plot to murder. Julian Connolly notes that in 1928 one critic "remarked that the novel seems at times to read like a translation from German, although he finds no traces of 'Germanisms' in the text." It was a great popular success, engendering positive reviews, an evening of public debate...

Zashchita Luzhina. Berlin, 1930 (The Defense, 1964)
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Zashchita Luzhina [The Defense], the novel Nabokov later described as the "story of a chess player who was crushed by his genius," was his first complete critical success. It was serialized in 1929-30 in Sovremennye zapiski, the leading Parisian émigré journal, which would publish all of his subsequent Russian novels. It was also excerpted in another Parisian paper, the weekly Poslednie novosti, and in Berlin's Rul'. It was picked up by both the German press Ullstein and the French publisher Fayard; it provoked Nina Berberova to claim that Nabokov's work validated the entire generation of émigré writers; and it drew...

Podvig. Paris, 1932 (Glory, 1971)
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The serialization of Podvig [Glory] began in Sovremennye zapiski in February 1931, and parts of it appeared in two other Parisian reviews, Poslednie novosti and Rossiia I Slavianstvo, as well as in Segodnia, in Riga. Nabokov had considered several titles: Voploshchenie ("the 'realization' of a plan, the 'embodiment' of a dream"); Zolotoy vek ("golden age"); and others, before settling on Podvig. In 1966 he described it as "the story of a Russian expatriate, a romantic young man of my set and time, a lover of adventure for adventure's sake, proud flaunter of peril, climber of unnecessary mountains, who merely for...

Kamera obskura. Berlin, 1933 (Laughter in the Dark, 1938)
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Nabokov developed Kamera obskura [Laughter in the Dark] from the sketch of his earlier, unpublished story Bird of Paradise. It was serialized in Sovremennye zapiski from May 1932 to May 1933, and was excerpted in the Parisian journals Poslednie novosti and Russkii invalid, as well as in the Berlin weekly Nash vek. Despite the dwindling numbers of Russians in Berlin - by the summer of 1931 there were 30,000 - Nabokov was able to draw a full house to two readings in the fall and winter. Though the readings and publication were well received, Nabokov was not satisfied with the...

Otchaianie. Berlin, 1936 (Despair, 1966)
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Nabokov visited Paris in October 1936 for his first reading there, and to assess the feasibility of moving from Berlin. A public triumph, the reading included the first two chapters of Otchaianie [Despair], then still titled "Zapiski mistifikatora" ["Notes of a Hoaxer"]. Sovremennye zapiski ran it from February to October 1934, after excerpts had appeared in the Parisian Poslednie novosti. The plot revolves around a man who tries to fake his own death by murdering a vagrant he believes can pass for his double. The only clearly autobiographical element of the novel is the setting for the murder, which takes...

Priglashenie na kazn. Paris, 1938 (Invitation to a Beheading, 1959)
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Nabokov wrote this anti-totalitarian novel in "a burst of spontaneous generation," composing the first draft in Berlin during a short hiatus from his major Russian novel, Dar [The Gift], during the summer of 1934, when Hitler's presence had become oppressive. He continued to revise as Véra prepared the typescript that winter, and its Sovremennye zapiski serialization ran from June 1935 to March 1936. As late as 1967, he still reserved "the greatest esteem" for this novel - while feeling "most affection" for Lolita - even over Pale Fire and The Gift. It was the first title to be picked up...

Dar. New York, 1952 (The Gift, 1963)
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Nabokov's Russian masterwork tells the story of "a great writer in the making." It contains a good deal of autobiographical material, including the seemingly preordained courtship and marriage of the central couple, Fyodor and Zina, and an especially vivid portrait of the hero's father. Still, in a 1962 interview Nabokov reflected: "I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches." Nabokov's protagonist is Fyodor, whose chef d'oeuvre is a critical biography of Nikolai Chernyshevski, the father of socialist realism in...

New Directions
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In the fall of 1938, Nabokov's financial resources were depleted. He solicited a grant from the Russian Literary Fund in the United States, claiming: "My material situation has never been so terrible, so desperate"; the fund responded with $20. Unable to get a French work permit, he cast about for academic and literary opportunities in England and America, and began The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Sharing a studio apartment with Véra and Dmitri, he composed his first novel in English on a makeshift desk consisting of his suitcase placed over the bidet. The following year, a fellow émigré poet...

Bend Sinister. New York, 1947
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The first novel he composed in the United States, Bend Sinister is Nabokov's most overtly anti-fascist, anti-communist novel. He had envisioned it as early as 1942 under the title "The Person from Porlock"; later as "Game to Gunm[etal]"; and still later as "Solus Rex," or possibly "Vortex." He described it in broad strokes to friends in May 1946: "I propose to portray in this book certain subtle achievements of the mind in modern times against a dull-red background of nightmare oppression and persecution. The scholar, the poet, the scientist and the child - these are the victims and witnesses of...

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