Vladimir Nabokov *


Background information, Questions for Reading, and further resources

Nabokov is the best-known and most easily accessible of the authors on the list for the club this year -- at least in terms of finding his books. He has enjoyed a degree of fame and influence (at least, posthumously) in two literatures, both Anglophone and Russian, which can be compared to few other writers -- Samuel Beckett, perhaps, in French and English. Because he worked closely with his son, Dmitrii, in translating his Russian novels into English and his English novels into Russian, his work can be read in English translation with an exceptional degree of confidence -- in fact, in some cases (such as in his autobiography), the two versions are radically different, with distinct titles and contents. Because information on Nabokov is so easy to find, I only give a brief outline here. Because of the richness of incident (personal and historical) in Nabokov's life, "brief" is only so brief -- but the best biography of him to date comprises two thick volumes.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in 1899 in a wealthy St. Petersburg family. His childhood combined high culture and exceptional privilege -- he was practically trilingual, and even once the family emigrated in 1919 his excellent English allowed him to earn a degree in Slavic and Romance literatures at Cambridge University in the UK. Nabokov lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1937 and published his first writing under the pseudonym "Sirin;" in the difficult economy of Weimar Germany, he also made somme money writing chess problems, and he gave tennis lessons. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim; the marriage was apparently very happy, and they had one son. He originally intended to be a poet, but his success came with short stories and, by 1930, three novels in Russian.

Nabokov's life in Western Europe was marked by family tragedy, however; his father, a politician, was killed in 1922, when he threw himself in front of the prominent émigr´ Constitutional Democrat Pavel Miliukov during an attempted assassination. His brother, a homosexual, died in a German concentration camp during the Second World War. Nabokov left Berlin for France with his wife and son in 1938, and in 1940 they moved to the United States. After that his original prose was almost all written in English -- and the rest is history. However, many of his American novels are still strongly imbued with Russian history and culture; he made a living by teaching Russian literature (at Wellesley and Cornell) and made some important translations of Russian classics (Lermontov's Hero of Our Time and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin; he also did a very adequate translation of Lewis Carroll's Alive in Wonderland as Ania v strane chudes) before the scandalous success of his novel Lolita (1958) allowed him to retire and move to Switzerland. He also made significant discoveries as a lepidopterist; his precise drawings of butterflies are well worth examination even for a non-specialist. He died in 1977.

Among Nabokov's "Russian" novels (none written in Russia, but all written in Russian), Mashen'ka (translated as Mary, 1926) and Podvig (translated as Glory, 1933) are considered the most personal, while Korol', dama, valet (King, Queen, Knave, 1928) and Kamera obskura (translated as Laughter in the Dark, 1932) have something of the cool and slick impersonality of formula fiction. Sogliadatai (The Eye, 1930) and Otchaianie (Despair, 1936) may remind a reader of Dostoevsky with their interest in psychology and unbalanced, unreliable narrators; Zashchita Luzhina (The Defense, 1930) edges on the same territory, adding a plot driven by chess moves and strategy. The finest of the Russian novels are Priglashenie na kazn' (Invitation to a Beheading, 1938) and Dar (The Gift, 1937-8; revised in 1952).

Nabokov's continuing control over his own translations and over the presentation of his writing results in one more significant trait: what Russians refer to as "Mystification." In many cases, a perfectly plausible- sounding reference to an earlier literary or cultural figure turns out to gloss another of his fictional creations. One example is in his "Foreword" to Invitation to a Beheading, beginning "My favorite author (1768-1849) once said..." (p. 7). After getting a question about the identity of this favorite author from Tom Sahagian, I did an extensive search of the web and turned up several unlikely candidates of various nationalities who were born in 1768 and died in 1849: Maria Edgeworth, Dolly Madison (!), Aleksei Ivanovich Iakovlev, and Jean-Baptiste Desnoyers -- only the latter would have been remotely likely to write literary criticism in French. I contacted a colleague who is much more knowledgeable than I am about Nabokov, Stephen H. Blackwell at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and received this reply:

I quote Dr. Blackwell at length because his reply illustrates so many things: Nabokov's fondness for Mystification, supported by an impressive erudition in rather obscure areas of culture; the fact that the games he initiated are still engaging the most serious scholars 25 years after Nabokov's death; the way his literary or quasi-scholarly games snag the imagination of the reader, much like a word puzzle that won't let you go until you've figured out the solution (remember that it was Nabokov, author and fan of chess problems, who first "translated" the genre of the crossword into Russian!); and, finally and perhaps consolingly, how much you learn as you perform the investigation -- whether or not the knowledge you gain is relevant to anything except the author's own quixotic expectations for the background of a cultured person. Indeed, Nabokov transformed the genre of the footnote in ways that have surely influenced later (post-modernist) authors. Here, I would recommend reading his "Problems of Transation: Onegin in English," in Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds., Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 1217-143, and especially p. 143: "I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one eternal line between commentary and eternity. I want such footnotes and the absolutely literal sense, with no emasculation and no padding -- I want such sense and such notes for all the poetry in other tongues that still languishes in 'poetical' versions, begrimed and beslimed by rhyme." (Sorry, I couldn't bear to stop just because he had stopped talking about footnotes...) "Mystification" was a much-loved game among poets of the Russian Silver Age (roughly, 1890-1917 or maybe -1925); if you would like to hear more just ask me.

(Personally, I was both a bit relieved that my inability to come up with a quick answer didn't mean [or rather, didn't only mean] that I simply had no idea -- and frustrated that something as seemingly simple as the name of an author so exactly dated, copiously quoted and temptingly identified [Nabokov's favorite!] would be so elusive -- not only in terms of finding and identifying the person, but also in determining whether he ever existed.) The moral of the story must be that it always pays to ask or investigate when Nabokov makes you wonder about anything. Many thanks to Tom Sahagian for provoking this search, as well as to Dr. Blackwell for his patient and detailed response.

A minor but most important note for readers of a certain age: if you know the Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me," then you are likely to pronounce Nabokov's name wrong. It is not "NA-buh-cough," but "Nah-BOH-kuff." The distortion, I suspect, was made simply in order to make the author's name rhyme with the line "He starts to shake and cough" -- it does not reflect the way people spoke to Mr. Nabokov in his own lifetime. In other words: you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by saying his name correctly.

Questions for Reading:

1. Which literary references do you detect in the book, and how do they impact your reading? In particular, does it make a difference when the plot forces you to remember a work like The Count of Monte Cristo rather than some élite high-culture novel?

2. How does the society Nabokov depicts resemble or differ from the One State or United State in Zamyatin's We? To what extent is the depicted society's totalitarian tendency more like stifling middle-class morality than like a dystopia?

3. Who is Cincinnatus, and how do his physical appearance, psychology, past history, and other traits affect the reader's identification (or not) with him?

4. If you have read any of Nabokov's more stylistically elaborate later works, how would you compare the language of Invitation to them?

5. How does the book work to evade unitary interpretations?

6. Nabokov is one of those particularly self-conscious authors -- for example, if anything he writes reminds you of another author (Dostoevsky?), you can be sure he's doing it on purpose. With that in mind, what significant references do you note to other bodies of knowledge? (Freud?) How does he deploy gender?

7. Nabokov not only avoids many seemingly tempting themes or associations: he also shies away from self- revelation in his fictions. How does this apparent distrust of the reader affect your experience as a reader?

8. What is the effect of the ending?

A select bibliography of works on Nabokov in English (there's so much that these are only a few):

  • Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimiar Nabokov: The American Years
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters, 1940-1977, eds. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli
  • Stacy Schiff, Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov

    If you enjoyed this book, you will surely like Nabokov's other prose works, including novels, collections of short stories, his memoirs, Speak, Memory, and his striking and informative Lectures on Russian Literature.

    Novels and other works by Nabokov: Ada, Bend SInister, Christmas, Despair, The Enchanter, The Eye, The Gift, Glory, Invitation to a Beheading, King, Queen, Knave, Laughter in the Dark, Lolita, Look at the Harlequins!, Mary, Pale Fire, Pnin, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, A Russian Beauty and other Stories, Speak, Memory, Transparent Things, Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories

    A nearly exact contemporary of Nabokov who also wound up teaching Russian in the US is Nina Berberova -- quite differentin her style and emphases, but now available in a number of very fine translated collections, as well as her earlier, acidic autobiography, The Italics Are Mine (Kursiv moi, 1969 in English translation by Philippe Radley, 1972 in Russian). See Billancourt Tales, translated and introduction by Marian Schwartz;The Book of Happiness, translated by Marian Schwartz; Cape of Storms, trans. Marian Schwartz; The Ladies from St. Petersburg, trans. Marian Schwartz; The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels, trans. Marian Schwartz

    * This image is from Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

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