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Nabokov, Vladimir

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Nabokov, Vladimir

(Russian/US, 1899–1977)

Born in St Petersburg to an aristocratic family with estates (grandfather Minister of Justice to the Tsar, grandmother a baroness), Nabokov's privileged future was curtailed by the 1917 Revolution; after studying at Cambridge he lived a migrant life in Berlin and Paris, before fleeing the Nazis in 1940 to settle in the United States. His early novels were written in Russian; in 1941 he began writing in English, but it wasn't until the publication of Lolita (1955) that Nabokov gained wide public recognition—and notoriety. The novel purports to be the confession of a middle-aged professor, Humbert Humbert, about his obsessive infatuation with, pursuit and seduction of, a 12-year-old nymphet. Naturally it caused a storm of protest, and narrowly escaped being banned, but has survived to become regarded as a classic work of lyrical fiction, beautifully and tenderly written and not in the least smutty or salacious. Lolita is also quite clearly Nabokov's European sensibility getting to grips with the myth of America: its slick consumer culture, teenage slang, freeways, and fast-food joints, and in which he pokes malicious fun at a society awash with plenty of everything except good taste.

Nabokov is a conjuror, delighting in fanciful wordplay, literary pyrotechnics, and puns (some dreadful); you can almost see him lurking in the wings of his books with a wickedly amused gleam in his eye, often rather too beguiled by his own erudition and wit. Never more so than in Pale Fire (1962), which is fiction dressed up as a learned critique of ‘A Poem in Four Cantos’ by the deceased John Francis Shade, including the 40-page poem itself with all the academic apparatus. While bubbling with Nabokovian high spirits, this is perhaps his most extreme, and supreme, literary jest.

Less tricksy and hugely enjoyable is one of the early Russian novels, Laughter in the Dark (1933; original title Kamera Obskura). Albert Albinus, a prosperous and respectable married man in Berlin, becomes hopelessly infatuated with a pretty 16-year-old cinema usherette, Margot Peters, who fancies herself as a film star. She in turn falls for the odious and sadistic Axel Rex, a cartoonist, and together they manipulate poor Albinus (the final scenes in which the pair taunt the recently blinded Albinus are mesmeric and horrible) and bring about his downfall. Bend Sinister (1947) is the story of Adam Krug, a dreamy philosopher, caught up in a fascist regime of the self-styled Average Man. Situated in a strange Slavic/German fantasy land, it veers, not always successfully, between whimsical fantasy and surrealistic nightmare, the hero finally rescued from oblivion by a sleight of the pen. Closely shadowing the author's own English education and wanderings in Europe, Glory (1932) evokes the intoxicating rapture of youth, the discovery of passion, and heart-wrenching loss—the thrill and the glamour in the most ordinary pleasures as well as in the seemingly meaningless adventures of a lonely life, to quote Nabokov. In addition to some seventeen novels he also wrote short stories, translations, literary criticism, and the autobiography Speak, Memory (1967).

James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Pynchon. See RUSSIA  TH

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