Vladimir Nabokov

1899 - 1977

Russian-American author, translator, lepidopterist whose linguistic faculty has been compared to that of James Joyce

Nabokov was born on April 23rd, 1899 in St Petersburg, Russia as the son of a politician and a noble woman. He spent a happy childhood in St Petersburg and Vyra. Nabokov grew up trilingual, in his family French, English and Russian was spoken. As a young boy, he began collecting butterflies and his first scholalry publication was on entomology (the science of butterflies) in the scientific journal The Entomologist. Throughout his life, Nabokov remained interested in butterflies and made a name for himself in the science. A butterfly species is named after him.

The man who would go one to become one of the most lauded craftsmen of anglophone literature self-published his first book, on poetry, with a print-run of 500. The publication was financed by his family. In the Russian revolution, the family had to leave St Petersburg, in November 1917. They went to Crimea, where Nabokov went on collecting butterflies.

In 1919, the family left for the UK, where Nabokov and his brother Sergej enrolled at Cambridge University. Vladimir originally was enrolled in a course in ichthyology but then switched to French and Russian literature. He played soccer at school and translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. While Nabokov remained at Cambridge, his family settled in Berlin, where his father became editor of the Russian emigrant newspaper The Rudder (Rul). Nabokov's father was murdered in 1922 when trying to protect another emigre politician from assassination. Afterwards his wife, Vladimir's mother, settled in Prague. Nabokov received his Cambridge degree in 1923 and moved to Berlin. There, he began to publish fiction and poetry and supplemented his income by giving English and tennis lessons, translating, working as a movie extra, doing some acting and designing crossword puzzles. On April 15th, 1925, he married Vera, a fellow Russian emigre. Their son Dimitri was born on May 10th, 1934.

While living in Berlin, Nabokov began publishing his first novels, in Russian.
In 1937, the family was forced to move to Paris, due to Vera's Jewish heritage and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Nabokov wrote and published his first English language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. In 1940, the Nabokovs went to New York to escape the advancing Germans. In the US, Nabokov initially worked as a lepidopterist (butterfly expert) for the Museum of Natural History. He published papers on butterflies. In the summer of 1941, he became Creative Writing Teacher at Stanford University and then went on to teach comparative literature and Russian at Wellesley College before moving on to Harvard where he worked as an entomologist (insect specialist) and lecturer. From 1948-58, he was professor of Russian and European Literature at Cornell University. Around this time, he also started writing for the New Yorker.

In 1945, Nabokov and his wife became American citizens. In 1951, he published a memoir, Conclusive Evidence, which was later incorporated into his autobiography Speak Memory. In the US, Nabokov kept making trips to collect butterflies and during on of these trips he wrote his most widely known novel, Lolita. It was first published in France, in 1955. When it was finally published in the US, in 1958, it remained on the American bestseller lists as a number 1, for six months, displacing Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. The profits from Lolita allowed Nabokov to retire from Cornell and dedicate himself to fulltime writing.

In 1961 he moved with Vera to Montreux, Switzerland, to be closer to their son who was studying opera in Milan. In Switzerland, Nabokov wrote some of his finest novels. He remained an American author, and continued to significantly influence the world of anglophone literature, including exerting a great influence on some British classical writers like Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange. Nabokov's finest work is considered to be Pale Fire, which has been called a masterpiece of the English language.

He also kept translating his own, earlier, novels, from Russian. Glory was the last of these, published in English in 1971.
Nabokov died on July 2nd, 1977, of lung disease.


St Petersburg Nabokov Museum -- News and scholarly updates from the museum, with contact details

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Nakokov as an Lepidopterist -- Book Review stating Nabokov to be the most famous 20th century butterfly collector

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Bibliography from Japan -- Four new entries of Nabokov Scholarship from Japan

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