“Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov was born on this day in 1899, 115 years ago. The Russian-American author was a prolific writer and translator, and published novels in Russian, short story collections, plays, and poetry, as well as nine novels in English. The most famous of these is, of course, the controversial and celebrated Lolita, which is widely considered to be one of the best contemporary English-language novels to date. His work is characterised by its rich and complex plots, as well as its innovative and playful use of language.
Nabokov was born in Czarist Saint Petersburg to a wealthy family of minor nobility as the eldest of five children. In 1916, he inherited the beautiful Rozhdestveno Mansion from his Uncle, Vsailiy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov. He lost it a year later however, in the October Revolution. The mansion would be the first and last house Nabokov ever owned. After the Revolution, the family fled to Crimea, and from there on to England where Nabokov enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge. The family stayed in England only briefly, eventually settling in Berlin where Vladimir joined them after his studies. In 1922, his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was shot and killed during a Constitutional Democratic Party meeting as he tried to intervene in the attempted assassination of liberal politician Pavel Miliukov. This unexpected, tragic, and accidental death can be found echoed in Nabokov's work. In 1925, Nabokov married Véra Slonim, and had a son, Dmitri, in 1934. They then moved to the USA, where he taught at various universities. The commercial and critical success of Lolita in 1958 allowed him to move back to Europe, where he took up residence in a grand hotel in Switzerland. He remained there until his death in 1977.
Not only a distinguished writer, academic, and critic, Nabokov was a self-taught and passionate expert on butterflies (or lepidoptera). He collected and published detailed notes on the insects from across the United States. In 1945, he published his theory on the evolution of the Polyommatus blues - that they travelled to the Americas from Asia in waves over millions of years. At the time, few lepidopterists took the theory seriously. In perhaps Nabokov's final victory, however, the Royal Society of London proved this theory correct in 2011.
Nabokov led a fascinating life, and published some of the defining novels of contemporary English literature. To celebrate his birth, we have collated a series of UPSO chapters on his life and work. They are free and available for one month:
- 'On the Way to the Author' in Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics by Nina L. Khrushcheva
- 'The Origins of Nabokov's Idea of Artistic Play' in Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play by Thomas Karshan
- 'Refiguring Loss and Exilie in "Speak, Memory"'' in Figurations of Exile in Hitchcock and Nabokov by Barbara Straumann
- 'The Otogeny of Love' in Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger by Sudhir Kakar and John Munder Ross
- 'Nabokov' in Javier Marías's Debt to Translation: Sterne, Browne, Nabokov by Gareth J. Wood
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