Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was a Russian-born writer who emigrated to America. It has been said that Nabokov arrived in America without knowing English. But that is not true. He knew English earlier than his native Russian and studied it at the Tenishev School in St. Petersburg along with Russian. In his memoir Speak, Memory he describes his language background. Nabokov not only learned English but wrote in it with "erudition, multilingual wordplay and narrative frolics" according to Time writer R.Z. Sheppard.

In his book The Magician's Doubts, Micheal Woods summed up the Nabokov's life: "There was once a Russian writer, let's call him V, who was prodigiously gifted, learned, intelligent, observant, inventive. A scandalous book brought him late and surprising fame and wealth, and he moved to a hotel in Switzerland, where he continued to write, enjoying both glory and privacy." The scandalous book of course was Lolita.”

Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899 into a wealthy St. Petersburg family with several country estates, which he inherited at the age of 16. As a young man he was a first rate soccer goalie and tennis player.

Nabokov left Russia on a ship called Hope in 1919, two after the Bolshevik Revolution. An intellectual aristocrat, he left his homeland during the revolutionary period after the liberal democratic government was crushed by the Bolsheviks. He lost everything and had to leave behind his treasured collection of butterflies and books. His life of pampered comfort was replaced with one of poverty and uncertainty.

Books: Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by Brian Boyd (Princeton University Press, 1991); The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrew Field (Crown); autobiography Speak, Memory.

Nabokov, the Russian Émigré, and Vera

In the 1920s and 30s Nabokov wrote for Russian émigré publications in Berlin, As a poor struggling writer in Berlin he wrote under the name V. Sirin and often "read whole books little by little in bookshops" because he couldn’t afford to buy book outright.

In 1925, Nabokov married Vera Evseevna Slonim, a strikingly beautiful woman with a fine-boned face and snowy white hair. Many scholars believe that the character Clare in The rRal Life of Sebastian Knight was Vera. They had one son, Dmiti, born in 1934. Vera and Nabokov met in Berlin in 1923. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist from St. Petersburg who had lost his fortune, she was twenty one and Nabokov was twenty-four when they were married. Vera knew of his work before they met and she considered him one of world's best living writers.

Nabokov lived in Nazi-controlled Berlin with his Jewish wife and half Jewish child in the 1930s. One reason he stayed in Berlin for so long was that he was absorbed in writing The Gift (1938). In 1937, he escaped to Paris, where again he wrote for Russian émigré publications, .

Nabokov studied at Cambridge University. He often listed his occupation as a "one-man finishing school," tennis coach and a movie extra. He liked chess. His passion was butterflies. He suffered all his life from neuralgia, headaches, heart palpitations and dental trouble.

Nabokov in the United States

To escape World War II, Nabokov fled again, this time to the United States, where he arrived in 1941 at the age of 41. With many professional researcher taking part in the war efforts, he was able to land a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Later Nabokov worked as a part time zoologist at Harvard for $1,200 a year and then as a popular literature instructor at Cornell (between 1948 and 1958) and Wellesley. At Cornell he taught a Masterpieces of European Fiction course, which including lectures of Gogol's The Overcoat, Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English.

Vera always accompanied Nabokov to his Cornell lectures and performed duties like erasing the blackboard and finding his notes. She sat at his side or in the front row and never spoke a word. When Nabokov made a reference to her she was his "assistant." When Nabokov was sick she did his lectures and usually graded tests and met with students during office hour times.

Nabokov and Butterflies

Nabokov was deeply interested in butterflies. He once speculated that if there had been no Russian Revolution who probably wound have ended up a butterfly specialist at a Russian museum. He wrote, "I have hunted a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts...Few things could surpass in richness and strength the excitement of entomological exploration."

From the age of seven he dreamed of discovering a new species, something he achieved at an elevation of 4,000 feet in the Alps in the summer of 1938 and in the United States, with the discovery of Neonympha dorothea at the Grand Canyon, in 1942. He worked on producing the most detailed and comprehensive butterfly catalogue ever produced but abandoned the project after two years because it was just too ambitious

Nabokov interests in butterflies crept into his fiction. Several of his characters were lepidopterists (butterfly scientists) and others—Vanessa Van Ness, Percy Elphinstone, Electra Gold and Avis Chapmen— had butterflies incorporated into their names.

In the 1940s, Nabokov held a part time position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and also worked as a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Most summers were spent driving around the Rockies and the West looking for butterflies. His experience in American motels late showed up in Lolita. One of Nabokov's colleagues at Harvard was the famous biologist Edmond Wilson, who Nabokov once accused of cutting out the bottom of one of his butterfly nets.

Book: Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates (Zoland Books, 2001) on butterflies.

Nabokov's Blues

Nabokov published several papers on group of North American and South American butterflies known as Polyommatini, or blues. His specialty was differentiating the different butterfly species by on the basis of differences in their genitalia which he gave names like alula and bululla.

By dissecting a small sample of 120 specimens, Nabokov did the first extensive taxonomic study of this large, complicated group of neo-tropical butterflies and helped to classify them. "Nabokov was blessed with what taxonomists called a good eye," butterfly expert Dr. Kurt Johnson told the New York Times in 1997. "In the whole study, Nabokov actually misidentified only three species, a remarkable success rate, really."

New species have been named vera, lolita, humbert, ada and zembla. In the 1970s, Nabokov's research was used to examine the effects of plate tectonics on animals in North America and South America. It was discovered that butterflies in South America had more in common with butterflies in Africa than North America, which gave evidence than Africa and South America were once connected.

Vladimir Nabokov on the Caterpillar to Butterfly Transformation

In a lecture on caterpillars and butterflies at Cornell in 1951,Vladimir Nabokov told his students, “Though wonderful to watch, the transformation from larvae to pupa.". is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved. There comes for every caterpillar a difficult moment when he begins to feel pervaded by an odd sense of discomfort. It is a tight feeling---here about the neck and elsewhere, and then an unbearable itch. Of course he has molted a few times before, but that is nothing in comparison to the tickle and urge he feels now. He must shed that tight dry skin, or die. As you have guessed under that skin, the armor of a pupa---and how uncomfortable to wear one's skin over one's armor---is already forming."

“The caterpillar must do something about that horrible feeling. He walks about looking for a suitable place. He finds it, he crawls up a wall or a tree-trunk. He makes for himself a little pad of silk on the underside of that perch, he hangs himself by the tip of his tail or last legs, from the silk patch, so as to dangle head downwards in the position of an inverted question-mark, and there is a question ---how to get rid of his skin. One wriggle, another wriggle---and zip the skin bursts down the back and he gradually gets out of it working with shoulders and hips like a person getting out of sausage dress. Then comes the most critical moment---You understand that we are hanging head down by our last pair of legs, and the problem now is to shed the whole skin---even the skin of those last legs by which we hang---but how to accomplish this without falling?”

“So what does he do this courageous and stubborn little animal who already is partly disrobed. Very carefully he starts working out his hind legs, dislodging them from the patch of silk which is dangling, head down---and then with an admirable twist and jerk he sort of jumps off the silk pad, sheds the last shred of hose, and immediately in the process of the same jerk-and-twist jump he attaches himself anew by means of a hooks that was under the shred of skin on the tip of his body. Now all the skin has come off, thank God, and the bared surface, now hard and glistening, is the pupa, a swathed-baby-like thing hanging from that twig---a very beautiful chrysalis with golden knobs and a plate-armor wingcases. This pupal stage lasts from a few days to a few years."

On the transformation from pupa to butterfly Nabokov told his students, “After two or three weeks something begins to happen. The pupa hangs quite motionless but you notice one day that through the wingcases, which are many times smaller than the wings of the future perfect insect---you notice that through the horn-like texture of each wingcase you can see in miniature the pattern of the future wings, the lovely flush of the ground color, a dark margin in a rudimentary eyespot."

“Another day or two---and the final transformation occurs. The pupa splits as the caterpillar had split---it really is the last glorified mouth, and the butterfly creep out---and in its turn hangs down from the twig to dry. She is not handsome at first. She is very damp and bedraggled. But those limp implements of hers that she had disengaged, gradually dry and distend, the veins branch and harden---and in 20 minutes or so she is ready to fly . You have noticed that the caterpillar is a he , the pupa is it and the butterfly is she . You will ask---what is the feeling of hatching? Oh, no doubt , there is a rush of panic to the head, a thrill of breathlessness and strange sensations, but then the eyes sees a flow of sunshine, the butterfly sees the world, the large and awful face of the gaping entomologist."

Nabokov, the Writer

Nabokov was introduced to the American public through his articles in the Atlantic Monthly. He was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. Nabokov taught Russian literature and European literature at Cornell in to order pay his son's tuition at Harvard. After Lolita became a bestseller in 1958, he quit his position at Cornell and traveled to Europe.

Nabokov wrote in Russian, English, French, German and Italian. He wrote feverishly between 1925 and 1935 and completed his first novel eight months after his wedding. Vera took upon her self to create a protected world for her husband so that his genius could flourish. While Nabokov wrote and did who knows what before he established, she met with publishers and earned an income doing translation work and giving French lessons. She even typed all three thousand pages of his Onegin manuscript and answered all his phone calls. She memorized most of Nabokov's poetry by heart.

Hallmarks of Nabokov's fiction include impersonators, distorted mirror images and parodies of the self. Describing Nabokov's switch from writing in Russian to English, Wood wrote he "found, through his very loss, a fabulous, freaky, singing acrobatic, unheard of English” and found that "the second language could flower for him only at the cost of the first."

Nabokov once said good books should not make us thinks; they should make us shiver. He railed against Dostoevsky in his Cornell lectures and condemned Doctor Zhivago. In his view Biely's St. Petersburg is the greatest novel of the 20th century. Nabokov greatly admired James Joyce. The one time the two writers met, Joyce asked him about the "history of mead in Russia." Nabokov's works were banned during his lifetime in the Soviet Union.

Nabokov's works include the novels The Gift, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pale Fire and Laughter in the Dark. His last novel Ada, was loftier and more incomprehensible than his earlier works. A superb collection of 65 short stories ( Stories of Vladimir Nabokov) was released in 1995. Some regard The Gift as his greatest work and Ada as his worst (although some consider it failed magnus opus). The Gift was written in Russian and is regarded by some as the greatest 20th century Russian novel. It was a story about Russian emigres and all that they lost and left behind in Russia.


Nabokov's most famous work Lolita (1958) is a controversial. bestselling novel about a middle-age man, Humbert Humbert, and his lust towards his stepdaughter, a 13-year-old "nymphet" named Dolores Haze. The climax of the book is when Humbert brings himself to orgasm by rubbing against the unknowing buttocks of Lolita, who he had described as the "light of my life, fire of my loins. My Sin. My soul. "

While the book contained no obscenities, only suggestive language, it was banned in Britain, confiscated by police in France and labeled as immoral in the United States. Later a priest said the novel played a part in the breakdown of Western Civilization and linked it to murders of young girls in Belgium prostitution ring.

The book was set in 1947 in the New England town of Ramsdale, where Humbert takes out a room with Lolita's mother Charlotte. When Charlotte accidently dies, Humbert and Lolita take off on a long road trip in which imagined sex becomes an integral part of their relationship. At one point Lolita put his hand on Humbert's thigh and says, "You know how my allowance is a dollar a week...Well, I think it should be two."

Modern Library choices for best English-language novels of the 20th century: 1) Ulysses by James Joyce; 2) Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; 3) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce; 4) Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; 5) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; 6) The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; 7) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 8) Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler; 9) Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence; 10) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Nabokov, Lolita and Lolita Films

Lolita was Nabokov's twelfth novel. Most of it was conceived while riding in the back seat of a Buick on road trip in the West. It was turned down by five American publishers who feared being arrested on obscenity charges before it was first published by Olympia Press in Paris. It was published by Putam in the United States in 1958. Lolita changed Nabokov's life and made him a controversial international success. It also changed the world. Nabokov once said, "I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't name their daughter Lolita anymore."

More scandal broke out when Lolita was made into movies: first by Stanley Kubrik in 1962, with the 20-something Sue Lyon playing the part of the lollipop-sucking 13-year-old Lolita and James Mason as the charming but seedy Humbert. The screenplay had as much input from Kubrik as Nabokov and New Yorker film critic Pauline Kale called it a "wild, marvelously enjoyable comedy." It was big commercial success.

The controversial 1997 version of Lolita cost $50 million and stared Jeremy Irons as Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita. It was truer to the book a but dull and gloomy. It was largely a flop that was aired in the United States on cable television not movie theaters. In 1971, a musical inspired by Lolita was released.

Samples of Nabokov's Writing

In the three-page short story The Wood Sprite, a forest elf ("hunched, gray, powdered with pollen") explains why he left the Soviet Union: "Once, towards evening, I skipped out into a glade, and what did I see? People lying around, some on their backs, some on their bellies. Well, I think, I'll wake them up, "I'll get them moving! And I went to work shaking boughs, bombarding with cones, rustling, hooting....Then I took a closer look, and I was horror-struck. Here's a man with his head hanging by one flimsy crimson thread, there's one with a thick heap of worms for a stomach...I could not endure it. I let out a howl, jumped in the air, and off I ran."

Describing a pretentious fop in Spring in Fialta, Nabokov wrote" "Lean adn arrogant, with some poisonous pun ever ready to fork out and quiver at you, and with a strange look of expectancy in his dull brown veiled eyes, this false wag had, I daresay, an irresistible effect on small rodents."

Describing a character in the Vane Sisters, Nabokov wrote: "the roofs blaze like oblique, sunblinded mirrors, A winged woman stands on a window still washing the panes. She bends over, pouts, brushes a strand of flaming hair from her face. The air is faintly redolent of gasoline and linens."

Nabokov's Later Years

Nabokov lived at the Montreaux Palace Hotel in Switzerland from 1961 until his death in 1977. He spent much of his time butterfly hunting in the Alps.

Nabokov died in 1977 at the age of 78 of complications related to a flu infection. Some say that his death was caused in part by a fall that occurred the year before on a butterfly hunting outing in Davos, Switzerland. It one of his last visits with his son, Nabokov reportedly began weeping because, his biographer Brian Boyd wrote, "a certain butterfly was already on the wing, and was made clear that he expected never to see it again." Vera died in 1991.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2019

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