“Please tell your son that he will never be a writer” (Vladimir Nabokov and Some Poets of Russian Modernism). This prophecy, supposedly made by a distinguished Russian poet to Vladimir Nabokov’s father, proved to be quite a short-sighted condemnation of the young Russian-born author. Nabokov went on to become one of the most renowned and influential authors of the twentieth century, famous for his intricate prose, complex plot-lines and lucid descriptions of sensory experiences. His controversial novel Lolita (1955), which catapulted him into the American mainstream, remains one of the most critically-acclaimed novels of its time and a work which still carries particular connotations familiar to readers everywhere.
Nabokov was born on 23 April 1899 to a Russian aristocratic family in Saint Petersburg. His father was a lawyer, criminologist, newspaper editor and the leader of a movement calling for the establishment of democracy in Russia, the pre-Revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party. Nabokov enjoyed a privileged childhood which he later described as being idyllic, a “perfect” and “cosmopolitan” upbringing. The family often employed a mixture of Russian, English and French in their household, which resulted in Nabokov becoming trilingual from an early age. He was able to speak and write in English even before he had mastered his native tongue. An interesting fact about Nabokov is that he was a synesthete, a condition where one sensory experience triggers another, and one which his son would inherit from both his father and mother. In Nabokov’s case, letters and numbers were associated with certain colors, such as the connection between the number five and the color red. In 1916, at the age of 17, the young author’s first literary publication came into being, consisting of a collection of 68 Russian poems under the name of Stikhi.
After the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the family was forced to abandon their estate and seek refuge in different locations including Crimea, Livadiya and eventually settle for a short period of time in England. Nabokov enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied Romance languages and found his academic studies light and accessible due to his thorough previous education. He was, however, unimpressed with life at the university. In 1920, the family moved to Berlin and Nabokov followed two years later. His father, who had become editor of an émigré newspaper in Berlin called Rul (The Rudder), was assassinated in a public meeting in 1922 by Russian monarchists while attempting to protect the actual target in the audience.
A Game of Chess
Although Nabokov denied any influence of this catastrophic event seeping into his artistic output, the sudden death of his father found its way into his writing in several instances in the form of abrupt deaths and a constant reflection on the unavoidability of fate. In his memoir Speak, Memory he regards the death of his father as one of “several lines of a play in a difficult chess composition” which “were not blended yet on the board” (Speak, Memory).
In fact, his allusion to chess boards is not incidental; the author’s passion for the game can be glimpsed again and again in his literary works. He became acquainted with chess during his stay in Crimea, and began composing chess problems which were published in his father’s newspaper Rul. His third novel and one of his major works, The Defense (1930), centers around Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, an incredibly talented but hypersensitive and socially isolated chess-player. During a competition that would determine who would challenge the current world champion, Luzhin finds his meticulous defense strategies failing against his opponent, and the game unfolds in such a way that the winner cannot be determined, and the game is subsequently suspended. Before and after the game, Luzhin suffers from a nervous breakdown owing to his mounting obsession with chess, which begins to impose on his hold on reality. Luzhin’s course of life begins to seem more like a game of chess where he observes repetitive patterns unfolding, and he frantically searches for a move that will ensure the victory of the symbolic game. After an interaction with his old chess teacher, Luzhin becomes convinced that he must escape the confines of the game entirely. In an increasingly unreachable and withdrawn state of mind, he confines himself in the bathroom and flings himself from the window; effectively absconding from what he believed was an imminent and fast-approaching defeat. The story was inspired from the actual suicide of a chess master whom Nabokov was acquainted with, Curt von Bardeleben, who jumped out of a second-floor window in 1924.
When a connection is drawn between chess and human life, the resulting view of humanity is often a bleak one, where individuals are reduced to the status of pawns, mindlessly being moved about by invisible hands. Nabokov’s intimate knowledge of chess was therefore reflected in a similar way in his writing, particularly through the complexity of his plots which often feature intersecting story-lines:
“As a thinker, Nabokov always stalked inscrutable fate, the incomprehensible gap between the unforseeability of an event and the light it casts, once happened, back over the past, turning hitherto neutral moments into abortive tries or necessary preparations for an outcome now obvious” (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years)
Pnin and the Beginning of Success
After his father’s assassination, Nabokov stayed behind in Berlin while his mother and sister moved to Prague. He gained an income through providing language, tennis and boxing lessons. Among the émigré community in Berlin, he became popular as an author, writing under the pen name V. Sirin. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, a Russian-Jewish woman whom he married in 1925. Vera became an indispensable partner, acting as his editor, translator, typist, agent and assistant. Their only son, Dmitri, was born in 1934. The couple moved to the United States in 1940 and settled in Manhattan. Nabokov initiated Wellesley College’s Russian Department, which he joined in 1941. In 1948, he left Wellesley and taught Russian and European literature at Cornell University.
Although Lolita was the novel that launched Nabokov into mainstream readership, it was not published in the United States until 1958 and Pnin, published in 1957, was the novel that first consolidated his literary success. The protagonist of the novel, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born assistant professor in his fifties residing in the United States, teaching at the fictional Waindell College which was possibly a reference to either Wellesley or Cornell, where Nobakov himself was once employed. Pnin’s sudden death due to heart problems probably reflects the author’s fixation with his father’s assassination. The novel expresses Nabokov’s experiences as a Russian emigrant teaching in American universities, and many of the characters, locations and incidents related in the novel were supposedly based on events that took place in reality. It was praised for its humor, wit and sympathetic main character, and won Nobakov his first National Book Award nomination.
A year later, Lolita was finally published in New York City, after having been published in Paris three years earlier. Humbert Humbert, a European literature professor, is the unreliable narrator and protagonist of the novel. He traces his fixation on “nymphets” (girls aged nine to fourteen) to the premature death of his childhood love Annabel Leigh. A middle-aged man, he develops an obsession with the daughter of his landlady, the twelve year-old Dolores Haze whom he nicknames Lolita, and who greatly resembles Annabel in appearance. In order to preserve contact with Lolita, he marries her mother Charlotte Haze, who afterwards suddenly dies in a car accident. Humbert then enters into an inappropriate sexual relationship with Dolores after she seduces him, bribing her with food and money, and threatening to put her into an orphanage if she does not comply with his demands. Due to the sensitive subject matter of the novel, it was condemned by many critics as indecent and offensive. It was, however, highly praised for the depth of its psychological dimensions, its numerous references to other literary works, and its use of irony and elegant prose, something the narrator directly addresses when he says that one can always “count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (Lolita).
There is a visible connection between Lolita and several authors and literary works, primarily to Edgar Allan Poe, Nabokov’s favorite poet, and Lewis Carroll. Nabokov initially intended to give his novel the title The Kingdom by The Sea, which echoes a line from Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee”:
“I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee”
The name of Humbert’s first love is identical to the one in Poe’s poem and the previous passage is similar to a line from Lolita’s opening paragraph: “. . . had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea”. Poe’s misery following the loss of his beloved Annabel Lee, who died of Tuberculosis, also parallels Humbert’s pain of bereavement and the subsequent obsession which it gives rise to. Nobakov, who had translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland into Russian during his stay in England, thought of Carroll as “the first Humbert Humbert”, due to his fascination with Alice Liddell, whose family he met when she was three years old and who would later inspire him to write Alice in Wonderland.
In 1961, Nobakov and his wife moved to Switzerland, where he stayed till his death in 1976. He spent the last years of his life pursuing a life-long interest in observing and collecting butterflies. Other notable works by Nobakov include Pale Fire (1962), The Gift (1932) and Ada, or Ardor (1968).
Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years