Today in Literary History – April 22, 1899 – Vladimir Nabokov is born

Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist, memoirist, poet and critic, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 22, 1899. He came from a wealthy and influential aristocratic family. His father was one of the leaders of a liberal political party, The Constitutional Democrats, and was a prominent writer and public figure.

Nabokov wrote about his idyllic childhood in his memoir, Speak Memory (written between 1936 and 1951), a beautiful book that recreates his life as a pampered child growing up in his father’s St. Petersburg mansion and the family’s country estate, known as Vyra; the upheaval of his family’s loss of everything after the Russian Revolution in 1917; and his attempts to create a new life for himself in Europe.

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The Russian Revolution forced the   Nabokov family into exile, first to the Crimea and later to Berlin. Vladimir, who was already fluent in English, enrolled in Cambridge University and graduated in 1922. That same year, his father was shot and killed in Berlin by an exiled Russian monarchist.

Nabokov published poetry, novels and short stories in Berlin under the pen name V. Sirin. He also met his wife, Véra, an exiled Russian Jew. They married in 1925 and had an unusually happy and productive life together. He would later say that her editorial help and critical eye as his first reader made her an invaluable collaborator in his writing.

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As the Nazis began their rise to power Vladimir and Véra moved to France and then in 1940 to America. Nabokov got professorships first at Wellesley College and then at Cornell.

He also had time to indulge in his passion for lepidoptery, the study of butterflies. He was recognized as a leading academic expert on the subject and has a species named after him.

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He published several novels in English, but couldn’t find an American publisher for the novel that would become his most famous book, Lolita, because of its scandalous portrayal of a paedophile.

Lolita as first published in 1955 by Olympia Press in Paris, who were undaunted by controversy, but Lolita wasn’t published in the US until 1958, when it became an enormous bestseller and made Nabokov famous, or perhaps infamous.

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I’ve read quite a few of Nabokov’s books, including the early Russian ones which began to appear in English translations in the 1970s. He is full of tricks, wordplay, puns and more allusions that I will ever be smart enough to catch.

Lolita is a wonderful book, and it made Nabokov rich enough to enjoy a long retirement in Switzerland before his death in 1977 , but there is much more to Nabokov than that one “dirty book.”

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