Biography of Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, most famous as the author of Lolita, was born on or about April 23, 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The eldest of five children, he grew up in a wealthy and aristocratic family, moving between two homes (one in St. Petersburg, and an estate fifty miles to the south in the countryside). He enjoyed playing tennis and soccer in his youth, but also spent many hours chasing and collecting butterflies, a passion he apparently learned from his father.

At the time of Nabokov's adolescence, Russia was under the rule of the doomed czar, Nicholas II. The Nabokovs lived largely at piece with the czar's regime, though Nabokov's father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a famous and controversial liberal politician. He was imprisoned in 1908 for ninety days for his involvement in a political manifesto.

Meanwhile, Nabokov's mother, Elena Ivanova, raised the three boys and two girls in aristocratic fashion, using several governesses and tutors who taught the children French and English along with Russian. In 1911 Nabokov entered the highly regarded Tenishev School. He has been described as an arrogant student who came to school each day in the family's Rolls-Royce. He wrote his first poem at the age of 15 and privately published two books of poetry before leaving the school.

This childhood of privilege ended with the Bolshevik revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Political unrest forced the Nabokov family to leave Russia for England in 1919. Nabokov and his brother subsequently enrolled at Cambridge University, where Nabokov majored in French and Russian literature.

Nabokov's father chose to move the family to Berlin in order to settle down. However, in 1922 he was murdered while attempting to stop an assassination attempt targeting the politician Pavel Miliukov. Nabokov returned to school and graduated later that year, and decided to move to Berlin in 1923. He spent his time writing poetry and short stories for "The Rudder," a Russian newspaper his father founded. Known as VN, he developed a following with fellow Russian emigres for his writings. He also met his future wife, Vera Slonim, a Russian emigre, whom he married in 1925.

Nabokov's first Russian novel, Mary, was published that year, but received little attention. However, the rise of the Nazis interrupted his growing literary career and forced him to move to Paris. He continued to write, publishing the novels King, Queen, Knave in 1928 and The Defense in 1930. He soon developed a Russian and French readership that hailed his genius. The eruption of the war soon caused him to flee Paris for New York in 1940, along with his son Dmitri who had been born in 1934. Thus, at 41 years of age, Nabokov abandoned his budding fame in Europe for obscurity in America. Money was not a problem due to his inheritance, but he nonetheless chose to work. Returning to his passion for butterflies, he succeeded in getting a position at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He was rather successful in his Lepidoptera studies, and his work includes the naming of several butterflies and the publication of scientific studies.

In 1941 Nabokov accepted a position at Wellesley College as a resident lecturer in Comparative Literature. He also published his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which is full of references to chess. While at Wellesley, he continued to write and to pursue his study of lepidoptery; in addition, he participated in the founding of that school's Russian Department. In fact, between 1944 and 1948, Nabokov was the only lecturer in the Wellesley Russian Department. During this time Nabokov also published in "The New Yorker" and other respected magazines, helping him gain a reputation. He also lectured at Harvard, where he was the curator of lepidoptery at the Museum of Comparative Biology. In 1948, he left Wellesley for Cornell.

During this time he continued collecting butterflies during visits to the Rocky Mountains. While on one of these trips in the early 1950s Nabokov composed his masterpiece, Lolita. The book proved initially difficult to sell to publishers, but within a decade it was such a success that it allowed Nabokov to give up teaching and concentrate solely on writing fiction.

In 1961 he moved to Montreux, Switzerland, in an effort to escape American publicity. He spent his last years publishing several novels, including Pale Fire in 1962. The book left his readers shaking their heads in confusion; it is a 999-line poem written by assassinated American poet John Shade, a poem which is then analyzed by the narrator. His work peaked in 1969 with the publication of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the book he considered his best. He and his son also spent time translating his Russian works into English and his English work into Russian. Nabokov remained in Switzerland until his death in 1977 of a viral infection, leaving an unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura. During his life he published eighteen novels, eight books of short stories, seven books of poetry and nine plays.


Study Guides on Works by Vladimir Nabokov

Despair is Vladimir Nabokov's novel in Russian, first published in the Paris émigré journal "Contemporary notes" in 1934. In 1936, it was published as a book in the publishing house "Petropolis" in Berlin.

Despair is the sixth Russian novel...

Vladimir Nabokov started writing Lolita while teaching at Cornell University in 1949. He continued writing the novel while traveling with his wife around the country on summer butterfly hunting trips (Nabokov was an esteemed lepidopterist, or...

There is a major political context to Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. Within the chronology of Nabokov's works, Pale Fire was published in 1962, years after Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Pale Fire conjures up the unreal world of Zembla,...