The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.
It is no less than a tragedy that people think first of the issue of pedophilia when they hear the name Vladimir Nabokov. But this is a tragedy of the human species, rather than any chosen or developed mindset. Let us rather try (and inevitably fail) to remember him as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, first and foremost.
It has been mentioned that Nabokov came eventually to write in English, which was his second or third language, though he had known it since he had been a child in St. Petersburg (born in 1899). This point is crucial to an understanding of some of the manifestations of genius we find in his work: the effect that writing in one's own third-language had, the necessary dearth of word associations and vernacular habits, this freed Nabokov in a way, and in some sense enabled him to wield a purer English. Nabokov was a genius, certainly, but genius itself is unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. Nuanced genius, on the other hand...
Style and Structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.
Nabokov's English was brilliant. This is difficult to explain. His word selection was thorough and astute, and capable of abrupt and ferocious color; he had a feel for the necessity of calm and cool prose, but this was punctuated by a sense of timing and the occasional explosion, which filled the silence he so masterfully established. The first 4 paragraphs of Lolita:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
Note the singing lyricism of the first paragraph, the 't' sound he himself delves into and repeats forcefully, and the 'l'.
As a youth, Nabokov fled St. Petersburg, Russia to escape the revolution. His father was killed in Berlin 1923 at a political rally, when he shielded the speaker from a "right-wing" assassin. It was around this time that Nabokov graduated from Cambridge, and returned to Berlin. But this was a difficult time in Germany, and it wasn't very long before he fled to Paris; no, that didn't work out either.
In 1940, Nabokov fled to America. He would become a professor of Russian Literature at Wellesley, then Harvard, then Cornell. Only now did he abandon his mother tongue, after having published a number of works in Russian (often under the pseudonym Sirin). It was over the course of the next two decades that Nabokov acquired so much glory and infamy.
Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life's foolscap.
Considered by many his best book (though he himself prefers Ada), Pnin appeared in 1957. It traced the cycle of displacement of an exiled Russian professor in America. There is probably just as much to be learned about Nabokov in this book as there is in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. Always a man without a home, it was inevitable that Nabokov would eventually treat the subject of exile. Pnin is marked by a style that combines a sense of absurdity with a profound sadness; the reader is reminded of a rare form of human laughter, marked by resigned melancholy, as one has seldom experienced before in literature or anywhere.
In addition to some plays early in his Russian-language writing career, and of course his long list of novels, non-fictional essays and books, and poetry collections, Vladimir Nabokov is also responsible for some of the seminal translations of Lermontov and Pushkin, from Russian to English.
He moved to Switzerland in 1959, as the money he'd earned with Lolita (which took almost 4 years to get published) had become enough to finance retirement. He died there in 1977, before he could finish a novel called The Original of Laura.
I confess, I do not believe in time.
Vladimir Nabokov was also an internationally acclaimed lepidopterist. In July 1938 he caught and named 2 specimens of a previously unnamed butterfly, Lysandra cormion.
The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov
- Mary (1926, 1970)
- King, Queen, Knave (1928, 1968)
- The Defense (1930, 1964) Also known as The Luzhin Defense
- Glory (1932, 1971)
- Laughter in the Dark (1933, 1960)
- Despair (1934, 1937; revised 1966)
- The Gift (1937-38, 1963)
- Invitation to a Beheading (1938, 1959)
- The Eye (1938, 1965)
- The Enchanter (1939, 1986)
- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
- "Ultima Thule" (Solus Rex, 1942)
- Bend Sinister (1947)
- Lolita (1955)
- Pnin (1957)
- Pale Fire (1962)
- Ada (1969)
- Transparent Things (1972)
- Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
- The Original of Laura (unfinished)
Nabokov wrote in Russian up until The Real Life of Sebastian Night, at which point he began writing in English.