Capsule Biography: Vladimir Nabokov

In a rare appearance on Apostrophes, the legendary French talk show, Nabokov said that his life resembled more a biography than a bibliography, providing a stark contrast with Borges, with whom he was often compared, who would often say bookish things such as, “I grew up in my father’s library” and “few things have happened to me, a lot of things I’ve read.” A lot of things happened to Nabokov.


Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St Petersburg, Russia. His family fled Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution; his father was murdered soon after. He studied French and Russian literature at Cambridge; he led an agitated émigré existence in the 1920s and 30s in Berlin and Paris. He met Véra, the love of his life and dedicatee of all his novels, in 1923; in 1934, he had a son with Véra; three years later, he cheated on her. In 1940, he moved to America where he taught, wrote and researched, and was the occasional focus of controversy; in 1961, he retired in Montreux, Switzerland a wildly successful novelist.


Nabokov taught Russian and European literatures at Wellesley and Cornell. At the behest of the famous Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson, the faculty at Harvard denied him a position to lecture on Russian literature—“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?”—but Nabokov worked as a curator in the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, pursuing his other passion, lepidopterology. At Cornell, Nabokov gave a serious of lectures which were eventually compiled in book form under the name Lectures on Literature. The introduction to that collection is an essay Nabokov wanted to name “Kindness to Authors” but was eventually published as “Good Readers, Good Writers”. The preliminary title is instructive of the essay’s main idea—that we ought to appreciate the ways in which the author has crafted the work, thereby honoring her time and skill—but puzzling when we consider that Nabokov himself was often unkind to other authors. He had unkind things to say about Céline, E.M. Forster, Hemingway, Faulkner, Sartre, Pound, some of the French New Novelists, Dostoyevsky, and, quite famously, Cervantes, to whom he dedicated a whole book, Lectures on Don Quixote, written supposedly to expose all the wickedness of the famous proto-novel.


We all feel at times that there are things we have to say and do in order to be perceived as that which we want to become. Another great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, had already desecrated Shakespeare’s place in the canon. Trying to be next in his imagined line of great Russian masters, Nabokov sets out to undermine another pillar of Western literature. (I suppose we will have to wait for a third Russian, the phantasmatic successor to these two, to finally learn of all the inadequacies of Dante.)


This posturing is indicative of Nabokov’s art and life. A terrible public speaker and wholly incapable of speaking extemporaneously (“I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child”[1]), Nabokov would set up a mountain of books in front of him to cover the index cards, prepared in advance, from which he read during lectures and interviews. During the Apostrophes interview, he delights in shattering the illusion provided by the fence of books, and does so with impeccable sense of humor.


Perennially fascinated by illusion, Nabokov was exceptionally intrigued by the ways in which Nature succeeded in deceiving us, and sought to understand these better through his research on butterfly disguises. Nabokov’s novels still mystify critics, as Brian Boyd, widely regarded as the premier Nabokov scholar, readily admits.[2] One could say that Nabokov aims to do to his readers what Nature does to us all, but there is a difference: while Nature is radically unaware of our existence, Nabokov’s designs presuppose a reader; rather than setting out to trump his readers, Nabokov rewards them at every stage of their reading, and lovingly scatters the clues that will help them achieve a better understanding of the text upon reading it a second or third time.[3] When reading Nabokov one does not bicker with him, nor is one ignored by him; one is invited to gradually discover more.


Nabokov was fond of saying that one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. This is not true, practically and of many authors, but it is true of Nabokov, as his work demands rereading. Together with the foregrounding of the narrative in writing, the layering of a work’s themes is Nabokov’s most recognizable trope: Lolita’s Humbert is a pervert and therefore the book itself is perverted; Humbert is not a pervert, he’s in love with a nasty temptress and he’s therefore a tragic figure; Humbert is a pervert, though neither the book nor Nabokov are perverted — the temptress (the “nymphet”) does not exist outside Humbert’s mind, and the novel allows, in fact, invites us to reconstruct an accurate account of the events and a faithful portrait of Lolita herself, taking Humbert’s tale as a point of departure. In other words, subsequent readings of Lolita will yield the following themes: perversion, tragic love, back to perversion or, rather, the cooption of an innocent girl’s voice and life by a perverted man.


This painstaking search for the essence of things, for truth, although constant in Nabokov, does not always yield accurate results, of course. But one senses that this—this playful quest for the center, this hope and longing for stable knowledge—is precisely what so amuses Nabokov, what moves his imagination most profoundly. These lines from his poem “On Translating Eugene Oneign” (and his translating efforts themselves) illustrate my point:

I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose–
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

The rose here is tantamount to truth. It seems appropriate that a timeless symbol—one that figures prominently in the literary imagination of writers of all epochs—would be used to describe the epistemology of an author who’s ultimately irreducible to a single aesthetic school. One wants to imagine that, guided by Nabokov himself, we have long thought of him as a talented yet vile international freak when Nabokov’s truth, if one can speak of such a thing, lies closer to hope and kindness.


Probably more than the work of the French New Novelists with whom he was sometimes bundled, Nabokov’s work will endure. I think I have found the reason in these lines by Boyd: “Amid all the mayhem [Pale Fire’s] Kinbote causes, [Nabokov] allows us the pleasures of form, the satisfaction of sensing the author’s order everywhere behind the commentator’s chaos.”[4] Nabokov understood the world as ultimately chaotic and felt that the task of the artist was to map a provisional order on that chaos.


If the inconsistencies of the narrator in Madame Bovary and the inherent ambiguity of the discours indirect libre give us the sense of witnessing an “explosion admirably controlled,” as Nabokov described Flaubert’s novel, one can argue that the accounts of the inconceivable, iniquitous, and utterly mad narrators of Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin – their failed attempts to silence the other characters’ voices and our efforts to recover said voices – allow for the rampant proliferation of meaning that Nabokov so deeply admired in Flaubert, and is the stuff of enduring literature.


Nabokov died of bronchial congestion in 1977.


(Copyright Pedro Hurtado Ortiz 2015)


[1] See Nabokov’s Foreword to his Strong Opinions, a compilation of interviews and essays.

[2] Boyd, Lolita: What We Know and What We Don’t”.

[3] Incidentally, Nabokov was keen on composing chess problems of the “suicide” variety, where the composer forces the other player to win.

[4] Boyd, Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, 37.

Pedro Hurtado Ortiz

Mr. Hurtado is the faculty advisor for The Oracle and has worked with Chriss and Tys to establish it.