April 11, 1899 - July 02, 1977
Vladimir Nabokov, also known by his pen-name Vladimir Sirin was a Russian and American novelist, most famous for his novel Lolita, as well as an entomologist of note, a chess master and a popular literature lecturer.
Vladimir Nabokov – The Russian Genius in Exile
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on 22 April 1899 in Saint Petersburg to a wealthy family of minor Russian nobility. He spent his "perfect" (in his own words) childhood at the country estate Vyra near Siverskaya, just south of the Russian capital of the time. The family spoke Russian, English, and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from a very early age.
In 1916 the young Nabokov inherited the idyllic Rozhdestveno estate from his uncle Vasiliy Rukavishnikov, but did not enjoy life in the beautiful mansion on a riverbank for long: after the Bolshevik coup in October 1917 his father, a member of the Russian Provisional Government, was forced to flee to the Crimea, and from there to Berlin, Germany.
In Berlin, Nabokov's father was killed by an anarchist while shielding the assassin's real target, Pavel Milyukov, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile. The death of his father in such a senseless manner would be often reflected in his literary works, with characters often dying in accidents.
While in exile, Nabokov started publishing his stories under the pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin, to mask his identity from critics. His first works, including Mashen'ka (1926), Korol' Dama Valet (1928) and The Eye (1930), were in Russian, but soon he switched over to English.
Also, during his exile, he published papers on composition of chess problems, comparing the process to any other type of art.
In 1925 Nabokov married Vera Slonim, who would later become his stalwart supporter against the critics and a personal assistant (the writer never learned to drive, so Vera would chauffeur him on his exploration and business trips). In 1936 they were forced to leave Germany and immigrate to America because of the rising tide of anti-semitism with the coming to power of the Nazi regime.
A little known fact: Nabokov was a synesthete, who equated certain numbers with certain colors. His wife also exhibited synesthesia, and he frequently endowed his protagonists with a similar peculiarity.
In the US, he settled in Manhattan and joined the staff of Wellesley College as a lecturer in comparative literature - the position created specifically for him. Simultaneously, he worked as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
Nabokov became an established entomologist with a penchant for taxonomy, and lepidopterists (expert in butterflies) of quite some note. The Harvard Museum of Natural History still has in its archives Nabokov's "genitalia cabinet", where the writer stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. He was the curator of lepidoptery department at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
He wrote his most famous and controversial work, Lolita, in 1955, while on a trip across the Western states collecting butterflies for the Harward Museum. He was so dissatisfied with the result as to attempt burning the manuscript; it was Vera who stopped him and persuaded him to continue.
Lolita was first published by Olympia Press, a Paris publishing house, which, as Nabokov found out to his horror post factum, specialized in erotic and semi-pornographic literature.
The novel would be published in dozens of countries and banned in about as many. It was adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, and then again in 1997 by Adrian Lyne. The novel was a tremendous commercial success, which allowed Nabokov to move back to Europe, to Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.
In 1977 Nabokov was hospitalized with severe bronchial congestion, and died quietly on 2 July in his home in Montreux, Switzerland, surrounded by his family.
Amis, Martin. Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions. Penguin Books (1993)
Herbert Gold (Summer-Fall 1967). "Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40". The Paris Review.
Interview with Dmitri Nabokov on NPR – 30 April 2008
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