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Vladimir Nabokov Biography

(1899–1977), Stikhi, Poems, Smert, Death, Polyus, Rul, The Rudder, Mashenka, Mary, Korol, Dama, Valet

American novelist, born in St Petersburg, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Nabokov enjoyed a privileged childhood, interrupted by the Russian Revolution when his father, who had been a leading member of the Russian Constituent Assembly, evacuated the family south to Yalta to avoid the Red Army. In 1919 Nabokov left Russia, never to return. In 1922 he rejoined his family in Berlin for a short-lived reunion; later in that year his father was assassinated by a Russian monarchist gunman. Nabokov's earliest writings predate the revolution: Stikhi (Poems) was privately published in 1916, but his more mature writings are a product of his Berlin years: his early plays such as Smert (Death) and Polyus appeared in Rul (The Rudder) magazine in 1923 and 1924, and his first novel, Mashenka, was published in Berlin in 1926 (translated by the author and Michael Glenny as Mary in 1970). Despite his sojourn in Germany, Nabokov continued to write in Russian, using the pseudonym V. Sirin for novels including Korol, Dama, Valet (King, Queen, Knave, 1928), Zashchita Luzhina (The Defense, 1930), Kamera Obskura (Camera Obscura, also known as Laughter in the Dark, 1932), and Otchayanie (Despair, 1936). In 1937 Nabokov moved his family to Paris where Dar (translated as The Gift, 1963) appeared in an incomplete version in 1936 and Priglashenie na Kazn (translated by the author and Dimitri Nabokov as Invitation to a Beheading) in 1938. In Paris Nabokov wrote his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). In 1940 he moved to the USA where he held academic posts at Stanford University, and later at Wellesley College in Massachusetts; through-out this period he was also a part-time research fellow at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard where he pursued his passion for lepidoptery. Having taken US citizenship in 1945 Nabokov was now, in effect, an American writer and Bend Sinister (1947), despite its European setting, was, like the subsequent major fiction, written in English. In 1948 Nabokov took up a position in Comparative Literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and rose to become a professor. At Cornell he wrote Lolita (1955), his best-known novel. Much criticism of Nabokov has sought to understand the significance of his early Russian writings in relation to the later works, particularly with regard to the themes and devices they share. Both Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962) seek to assimilate Russian experience to that of the USA. The American writings, in particular, have been appropriated by the critics of post-modernism and Nabokov is now commonly discussed alongside other American ‘anti-realists’ such as Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and Thomas Pynchon (whom he taught at Cornell) who make much use of the techniques of fractured chronology, collage effects, unreliable narrators, and varieties of sexual degradation. But Nabokov was also influenced by European modernism and writers such as Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, and by the nineteenth-century ‘romantic realists’, in particular Nikolai Gogol, of whom he wrote a valuable critical study, Nikolai Gogol (1944). Nabokov's last three novels were Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974); at his death, however, he left an incomplete manuscript for Original of Laura, which his only son, Dimitri, claims would have been his most brilliant novel. In addition he wrote one of the great volumes of twentieth-century autobiography, Speak, Memory (1966), parts of which had earlier appeared as Conclusive Evidence (1951), and several works of translation and criticism, the most important of which are his translations of The Song of Igor's Campaign (1960) and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964). Julian Moynahan's Vladimir Nabokov (1971) and Tony Sharpe's Vladimir Nabokov (1991) are short introductions to his work; Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990), and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991) is a two-volume biography by Brian Boyd.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Mr Polly to New France