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  People > V.Nabokov
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Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) - pen name Vladimir Sirin

Russian-born American novelist, critic, and acknowledged lepidopterist. Nabokov wrote both in Russian and English. His best-known novel, LOLITA (1955), shocked many people but its humor and literary style were praised by critics. The first version of the story, VOLSHEBNIK (The Enchanter), was written in 1939 in Paris. The Enchanter centered on a middle-aged man, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her sick, widowed mother to satisfy his erotic desires. He molests the girl in a Riviera hotel while she's asleep, she wakens and he runs into the traffic and dies.

"Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their nature, which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose designate as "nymphets." (from Lolita)

Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His father, Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov, was a liberal politician, lawyer, and journalist. The household was Anglophile - Nabokov spoke Russian and English, and at the age of five he learned French. Nabokov received his education at the Tenishev, St. Petersburg's most innovative school. At 16 he inherited a large estate from his father's brother, but he did not have much time to enjoy his wealth. During the Russian Revolution his father was briefly arrested. The family emigrated to Berlin and Nabokov entered Trinity College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in 1923. Vladimir Dimitrievich was murdered in Berlin in 1922 by a Russian monarchist.

Nabokov lived in Berlin for 15 years and worked as a translator, tutor, and tennis coach. He won acceptance as the leading young writer in the Berlin Russian community. Most of his readers were Russian émigrés - in the Soviet Russia his books were banned or ignored. In his early works Nabokov dealt with the death, the flow of time and sense of loss. Already using complex metaphors, Nabokov themes became later more ambiguous puzzles - he was a remarkable chess player - that challenge the reader to involve in the game. ''Readers are not sheep," he once wrote to a publisher, "and not every pen (pun) tempts them." In LECTURES ON LITERATURE (1980) Nabokov wrote that to be a good reader one do not have to lean heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle, or belong to a book club. "The good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense - which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance."

In Zashchita Luzhina (1930, The Defense) Nabokov took the role of a grandmaster and played with the expectations of his readers. The protagonist, Aleksandr Luzhin, is a chess phenomenon, who becomes a character on a giant chessboard. Luzhin finds it increasingly difficult to make transition from the world of the game to everyday reality. After suffering a mental breakdown, he recuperates slowly with the help of a young woman. Luzhin starts to believe that a cunning opponent is trying to manipulate the moves he makes in his life. He decides to throw himself out of a window and notices that the courtyard below seems to look like a giant chessboard. Luzhin is right: there is an opponent and he is Nabokov himself, who makes the point that the story is an artistic creation.

As a writer Nabokov gained his first literary success with his translations of some of Heine's songs. Nabokov's first novel, MASHENKA (1926), was written in Russia. In 1924 Nabokov married Véra Evseevna Slonim, who came from a Jewish family; they had one son, Dmitri. Nabokov's early nine novels were published under the pen name Vladimir Sirin. Among there works were The Gift (1937-38), a novel and an intellectual history of 19th-century Russia, and Invitation to a Beheading (1938), a political fantasy, in which the remaining days in the life the central character correspond to the length of his pencil. Also Nabokov himself wrote everything in longhand. "I cannot type," he confessed in an interview in 1962.

When Hitler released the killer of his father, Nabokov moved to Paris in 1937. There he met the Irish novelist James Joyce. With a loan he received from the composer Rachmaninov, Nabokov moved three years later with his wife and son to the United States. Nabokov taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University, where he delivered highly acclaimed lectures on Flaubert, Joyce, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and others. He also continued his extensive researches in entomology, becoming a recognized authority on butterflies. He also held an official position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His years at the museum Nabokov later described "the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life." In his boyhood Nabokov had already made notes on butterflies and in 1920 The Entomologist had published his article 'A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera'. "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting," Nabokov once said. Nabokov's first publication in English was an article titled 'A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera'. Changing language was not easy - ''What agony it was, in the early 'forties, to switch from Russian to English,'' he said in a letter in 1954.

Nabokov's first novels in English were THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT (1941) and BEND SINISTER (1947). The Atlantic and the New Yorker started to publish Nabokov's short stories in the early 1940s. In America, apart from collecting his shorter prose of the 1930s into one book, VESNA V FIAL'TE, Nabokov wrote only memoirs and verse in Russian. In the 1950s Nabokov published CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE (1951), an autobiography, which was later revived as SPEAK, MEMORY (1966), set mainly in pre-revolutionary Russia. When the Australian critic and writer Andrew Field planned to write a biography on Nabokov, the answer was: "I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies. Not very interesting."

Lolita is one of the most controversial novels of the 20th-century. The story deals with the desire of a middle-aged pedophile Humbert Humbert for a 12-year-old girl. Humbert is said to be a metaphor for the writer and his art, and for the old world - Humbert is an European expatriate - encountering the new, represented by an American teenage girl, in all its vulgarity. Humbert keeps a prison-diary of his lifelong fascination with pubescent "nymphets". The first is Annabel Leigh, who dies of typhus, but then he finds Lolita in a New England town. She reminds him of the little girl he loved as a boy. During the course of the story, Humbert loses her to Clare Quilty, a playwright and pornographic filmmaker. Humbert kills him and dies in a prison of a heart attack. Lolita dies in childbirth as delivering a stillborn daughter. With the book Nabokov gained a huge success, although it was banned in Paris in 1956-58 and not published in full in America and the U.K. until 1958. Stanley Kubrick's film version of the book was based on Nabokov's screenplay. "I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would," Nabokov said, "and I also knew that at best the end product is such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretations."

Lolita allowed Nabokov to abandon teaching and devote himself entirely to writing. In 1957 Nabokov published PNIN, a story of a hapless Russian professor of literature on an American college campus. PALE FIRE (1962) was an ambitious mixture of literary forms, partly a one-thousand-line poem in heroic couplets, partly a commentary on them by a mad exiled king. "I can do what only a true artist can do," describes the mad Kinbote himself, "pounce upon the forgotten butterfly or revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things..."

From 1959 Nabokov lived in Switzerland, where his permanent home was at the Montreux Palace Hotel. His later works include ADA (1969), a love story set on the planet of Antiterra, a mixture of Russia and America, TRANSPARENT THINGS (1972), and LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! (1975), in which Nabokov's own life coincides occasionally with the protagonist's, also a writer.

The writer's son Dmitri has undertook the translation of several of Nabokov's books from these later years. Nabokov himself wanted to be valued more as an American writer than a Russian one. In the Soviet Union he perhaps enjoyed greater fame than in the West. Nabokov died in Lausanne on July 2, 1977. Among Nabokov's major critical works are his study of Nikolay Gogol (1944), and translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's masterpiece Eugene Onegin (1964), with commentary. The ten-year-long work was first brought out by the Bollingen Foundation in four volumes.

For further reading: The Annotated Lolita by A. Apper Jr. (1970); Nabokov's Garden by B.A. Mason (1974); Vladimir Nabokov by L.L. Lee (1976); Nabokov Translated by J. Grayson (1977); VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov by A. Field (1986); Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by H. Bloom (1987); Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by B. Boyd (1990); Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by B. Boyd (1991); Vladimir Nabokov by T. Sharpe (1991); Small Alpine Form by C. Nicol and G. Barabtarlo (1993); The Magician's Doubts by Michael Wood (1994); The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by Vladimir E. Alexandrov (1995); Lolita: A Janus Text by Lance Olsen (1995); Pniniad by Galya Diment (1997); Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery by Brian Boyd (2000); Nabokov's World: Reading Nabokov by Jane Grayson (2002); Vladimir Nabokov by Jane Grayson (2003); Vladimir Nabokov: His Life and Works by Stanley P. Baldwin (2004) - SEE other writers who combine fantastical elements, fabulations, with realistic narrative: Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco. See also: Magic Realism.

Selected works:

STIKHI, 1916

GROZD', 1922

GORNYI PUT', 1923

MASHENKA, 1926 - Mary

KOROL-DAMA-VALET, 1928 - King, Queen, Knave - Kuningas, rouva, sotamies

SOGLYADATAY, 1930 - The Eye - Silmä

ZASHCHITA LUZINA, 1930 - The Defense - Luzinin puolustus - film 2000, dir. by Marleen Gorris, starring Emily Watson, Joh Turtutto, Geraldine James, screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov and Peter Berry

CAMERA OBSCURA, 1933 - Naurua pimeässä

OTCHAYANIYE, 1936 - Despair

DAR, 1937-38 - The Gift

PRIGLASHENIYE NA KAZN, 1938 - Invitation to a Beheading

THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT, 1941 - Sebastian Knightin todellinen elämä
translation: THREE RUSSIAN POETS: SELECTION FROM PUSHKIN,
LERMONTOV AND TYUTCHEV, 1944

NIKOLAI GOGOL, 1944 - suom.

BEND SINISTER, 1947

NINE STORIES, 1947

CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE / SPEAK, MEMORY, 1952 - Puhu, muisti

STIKHOTVORENIIA 1929-51, 1952

LOLITA, 1955 - suom. - film 1962, dir. by Stanley Kubrick, starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters. "I'd have given the Humbert role to Peter Sellers, with perhaps Rod Steiger playing the unspeakable Quilty. That way, the central machinery of the picture might have looked less like the motel adventures of a second-hand car salesman and a quick-lunch cashier. The sex in Lolita is no longer perverse; it is now merely sordid." (Robert Hatch in the Nation, June 23, 1962) - Also filmed in 1998, dir. by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain. Both version made Lolita appear older than in the novel but still ran into serious trouble. - "One could argue that this Humbert is no pedophile at all. He is attracted only to Lolita, and it is made quite clear that that is due more to her resemblance to the lost Annabel than to anything pertaining to her age. At no time, for example, does he pay the slightest attention to the many other little girls that scamper about the edges of the story. It is the malevolent Clare Quilty who, by contrast, is the genuine pedophile." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1997)

PNIN, 1957 - suom.
translation: A HERO OF OU TIME by Lermontov, 1958

VESNA V FIAL'TE / Nabokov's Dozen, 1958 - Nabokovin tusina

INVITATION TO BEHEADING, 1959

POEMS, 1959<7LI>
translation: A SONG OF IGOR'S CAMPAIGN, 1960

PALE FIRE, 1962
Commentary and translation of Alexandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (4 vol), 1964

THE DEFENCE, 1964

THE EYE, 1965

NABOKOV'S QUARTET, 1966

THE WALZ INVENTION, 1966

SPEAK, MEMORY, 1967

NABOKOV'S CONGERIES, 1968

KING, QUEEN, KNAVE, 1968

ADA OR ARDOR, 1969 - suom.

MARY, 1970

POEMS AND PROBLEMS, 1970

GLORY, 1971

TRANSPARENT THINGS, 1972

A RUSSIAN BEAUTY AND OTHER STORIES, 1973

LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS!, 1974

STRONG OPINIONS, 1974

THE NABOKOV-WILSON LETTERS: CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN VLADIMIR NABOKOV AND EDMUND WILSON, 1940-1971, 1979

TYRANT DESTROYED AND OTHER STORIES, 1976

DETAILS OF A SUNSET AND OTHER STORIES, 1976

LECTURES ON LITERATURE, 1980

LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE, 1981

LECTURES ON DON QUIXOTE, 1983

THE MAN FROM THE USSR AND OTHER PLAYS, 1984

THE ENCHANTER, 1987 (early version of Lolita)

RASSKAZY, 1989

ISTREBLENIE TIRANOV, 1989

SELECTED LETTERS, 1940-77, 1989

KRUG, 1990

P'ESY, 1990

SOBRANIE SOCHINENII, 1990, 1992, 1995 (4 vols.)

THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV, 1995 (edited by Dmitri Nabokov)

NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLIES. Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, 2000 (ed. by Brian Boyd)

DEAR BUNNY, DEAR VOLODYA: THE NABOKOV-WILSON LETTERS, 1940-1971, REVISED AND EXPANDED EDITION, 2001 (ed. by Simon Karlinsky)

         
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2. Nabokov by Peter Shaw
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