Vladimir Nabokov, (pronounced Vlad-EEM-ere Na-BORE-kov), is hard to categorise. At once a Russian and American novelist - for he wrote in both languages - a lepidopterist, a lecturer, translator and literary critic, he was also a passionate chess-player and self-styled defender of literary standards, and a hater of anything bourgeois or 'philistine'. One can gain a rich insight into the man in the list of things he enjoyed detesting (listing these detested things were a favourite pastime), among which were Fabergé eggs, bullfighting, restaurants and cafes, crowds, harried waiters, Bohemians, vermouth concoctions, coffee, zakuski, floor shows, "italicised passages in a novel which are meant to represent the protagonist's cloudbursts of thought", background music, canned music, piped-in music, portable music, next-room music, inflicted music, concise dictionaries, abridged manuals, journalistic cliches, the moment of truth, humility..."
Nabokov's biography, so present in his writing, spanned the first three quarters of the turbulent twentieth century, and was one long migration west, away from communism, but a migration in which he took Russia with him in the form of idyllic childhood memories. As he said of Russia in an interview for French television near the end of his life (embedded below), "I will never go back. For the simple reason that all the Russia I need, after all, is with me, always with me. Her literature, her language, my own Russian childhood. I will never return, I will never surrender."
Born into an aristocratic, intelligentsia family in St Petersburg in 1899 (exactly a hundred years after the birth of Pushkin, as he was proud to note), he died in 1977 in Montreux, Switzerland in the Montreux Palace Hotel, where he lived for the last fifteen years of his life, managing to bypass communism and the Soviet Union altogether. When he was eighteen, he and his family were forced by the Revolution to flee St Petersburg for Berlin, from where he went to Cambridge University to study Russian literature. While he was at Cambridge, his beloved father was assassinated by Russian monarchists in Berlin in 1922. Nabokov returned to live in Berlin after university, marrying a Jewess, Vera Slonim in 1925, whom he met at an emigre charity ball. Their only child, Dmitri, was born in 1934. He is a baritone and translator, and the executor of his father's literary estate.
As WWII loomed, the Nabokovs felt they had no choice but to leave Germany because of growing anti-semitism. They moved to Paris in 1937 but only until 1940, when they boarded a ship for the United States to start a new, important chapter in their lives.
Vladimir and Vera initially made their home in Manhattan, where Nabokov started work at the American Museum of Natural History. The following year, he began teaching at Wellesley College in Massachussetts as resident lecturer in comparative literature and where he founded the Russian department. In 1945, Nabokov became a naturalised citizen of the United States, and three years later, he took up a job teaching Russian and European literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
For the first half of the Nabokovs' married life, Vladimir's modest income as an academic meant a frugal existence. All that was to change, however, with the thunderbolt which was the publication, in 1955, of Lolita, which he wrote while on a butterfly-hunting tour of the United States in 1953. The book caused a huge scandal worldwide, and is the work for which he is best remembered.
Nabokov's works were banned in Russia until 1986, although keen Russian readers and many leading Russian writers had been reading him in samizdat editions for decades. He wrote nine novels in Russian before publishing his first novel in English (Mashenka), in 1926.
In 1961, the Nabokovs travelled to Switzerland to be nearer their son Dmitri, who was then singing in Italy. It was a holiday from which they were never to return; they spent 16 years at the Montreux Palace Hotel, where Nabokov died on 2nd July 1977.
He never learned to type nor to drive a car, relying on his wife Vera for both. The only house he was ever to own was that on the estate at Rozhdestveno, which he inherited from his Uncle Ruka in 1916. A year later, it was confiscated by the Bolsheviks when they came to power in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Click here for an article in which Nabokov's book collection, awaiting sale, is combed through for clues as to his personality.