Reader's Encyclopedia

Nabokov, Vladimir [Vladimirovich] (1899 - 1977)

Russian - born American novelist and poet Born of a noble Russian family, Nabokov was educated in England after 1917, lived in Europe, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1940, becoming an American citizen in 1945. From 1948 to 1959, he taught Russian literature at Cornell University. In 1959 he moved to Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life. Until 1938 Nabokov wrote his books in Russian, under the name Vladimir Sirin. Among the books from this period are Mary (1926; translated 1970), King, Queen, Knave (1928; translated 1968), The Eye (1930; translated 1965), and Invitation to a Beheading (1938; translated 1959). The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), his first book in English, was followed by Bend Sinister (1947) and Pnin (1957), a comic account of a Russian teaching at an American college. Nabokov's greatest public success, and the work for which he is most widely known, is Lolita, a brilliant satirical novel about an aging professor's obsession with a twelve-year-old nymphet. The theme of sexual preoccupation also appears in Laughter in the Dark (1932; translated 1938) and in Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Much of Nabokov's fiction represents variations on the form of the novel. As with the fantastic Pale Fire and The Gift (1937; translated 1963), his last novel in Russian, Nabokov manipulates his readers as well as his characters, establishing one layer of reality and then interjecting another. For Nabokov, the creative act is a delicate interplay between the real world and the world the writer creates. Nabokov is known for his brilliant poetic imagination, pervasive sense of paradox, vivid wit, obscure literary allusions, and erudite word games. His skill at chess and his knowledge of lepidopterology also figure in much of his work. The novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974) is an "oblique biography" of himself; Speak, Memory (1951; revised 1966) is a remarkable and moving evocation of his childhood and youth. His spirited correspondence with Edmund Wilson was published in The Nabokov-Wilson Letters (1979). Lectures on Literature (1980), on six 19th-century English and American writers, is one of a series of lectures given at Cornell University.