Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is most famous for his shocking book Lolita (1955) which rose to international acclaim. Not only was the Russian-American an author of books, but he was also a poet, professor, translator, and entomologist. He spoke three languages and was known for his poetic and maximalist style mastery. 

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Vladimir Nabokov


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Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is most famous for his shocking book Lolita (1955) which rose to international acclaim. Not only was the Russian-American an author of books, but he was also a poet, professor, translator, and entomologist. He spoke three languages and was known for his poetic and maximalist style mastery.

Did you know Vladimir Nabokov's pen name is Vladimir Sirin? Sirin, in Russian mythology, is a creature with the beautiful face of a woman and the body of an owl.

Vladimir Nabokov biography

Vladimir Nabokov, St. Petersburg Russia, StudySmarterSt. Petersburg, Russia, Pixabay

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on April 22, 1899, and was the oldest of 5 children. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, was a politician and his mother, Elena Ivanovna, was the granddaughter of a millionaire and an heiress. Nabokov was the favorite of his siblings and grew up in the wealthy world of Russian aristocracy. Despite growing up in the tumultuous time surrounding the Russian Revolution, Nabokov lived a comfortable childhood and would spend many summers at the idyllic country mansion in Vyra, where he first discovered his love of butterflies.

The Russian Revolution— the 1917 revolution that saw the overthrow of the imperial government. The government was taken over by the Bolshevik party. The Russian Revolution saw the conversion of Russia from a monarchy to a communist nation known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). As Nabokov was part of the Russian aristocracy, his family was in danger and were forced to flee the country.

As most aristocratic children were educated, Nabokov was taught by governesses and tutors until he was sent to Tenishev school—a liberal secondary school— in 1911. While attending Tenishev, Nabokov began to write poetry and verse and wrote his first book of poems, Stikhi, between 1915 and 1916. Nabokov's first book was not very popular or very well-liked. After the October Revolution of 1917, Nabokov's family fled Russia. Nabokov's family moved around Europe while he began attending Trinity at Oxford University in 1919. His family settled in Berlin in 1920 funded by Elena's jewels which they were forced to sell to survive.

At the university, Nabokov began to write extensively on topics ranging from entomological articles to critical essays to poetry. Nabokov's father was tragically killed during a politically fueled attack against the liberal politician Pavel Milyukov. This event traumatized Nabokov, and accidental death appears often in his books.

Nabokov's father was a believer in Jewish rights, was against the death penalty, and favored liberalism. When Pavel Milyukov was holding a Berlin conference in 1922, two extreme rightist gunmen attempted to assassinate Milyukov. Nabokov's father disarmed the first gunman and was shot by the second gunman, ultimately killing him.

When Nabokov graduated from Trinity he lived in Berlin and tried to work at a bank. He lasted barely three hours before quitting, so Nabokov began to support himself by tutoring in French and English. Nabokov belonged to the Russian Berlin literary community and continued to write prose and poetry.

Vladimir Nabokov, Berlin, StudySmarterBerlin, Pixabay

in 1923, Nabokov met Vera Evseyevna Slonim at a ball and fell madly in love with her. By 1925 they were married. Vera was also a poet and had intentions of attending the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, but her health was too poor. In 1934 they had their only child, Dmitri.

In 1922, Nabokov began to publish translations, and in 1926 published his first book Mary (1926) under his pseudonym Vladimir Sirin. By 1934, writing was his established career. As Vera was Jewish and antisemitism was on the rise in Berlin, Nabokov began to search elsewhere to live. After a brief affair with Irina Guadinini in France, Nabokov moved his family to the USA in 1940. They lived in New York and Nabokov began to tutor once more until he found work as a lecturer at Wellesley College in 1941. Nabokov continued writing and publishing post-modernist books such as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947). In 1948, Nabokov accepted a teaching position at Cornell University.

During his time at Cornell, Nabokov wrote his most famous book Lolita which was internationally successful despite initial difficulties to publish it and it's subsequent banning in France for two years. Lolita and Nabokov's other books created foundations for the Post Modernist movement.

In the first three weeks of the USA release of Lolita in 1958, the book sold over 100,000 copies.

Nabokov left the USA in 1961 and moved to Switzerland with Vera to be close to their son Dmitri who was living in Italy. During this period, Nabokov continued his love of hunting butterflies and writing. In 1977, Nabokov fell ill with bronchitis and on July 2nd died.

Vladimir Nabokov's Books

Vladimir Nabokov, Book, StudySmarterBook, pixabay.com

Vladimir Nabokov wrote many books and other types of literature during his lifetime. Nabokov's famous works helped him become a 7-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Below are some of his most famous works:

Vladimir Nabokov's Famous Works

Mary (1926)A tale about Lev Ganin, a young Russian officer living in a Berlin boarding house. The book follows his memories of his first love, Mary, and his future in love. Relationships and Love versus Time, Memory, Nostalgia"Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in Spring (Chapter 1)."
Lolita (1955)The book is about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European professor, and his obsession and sexualization of a 12-year-old girl named DoloresLanguage, Alienation, Perversions, and Obsessions“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita (Chapter 32).”
Pnin (1957)A narrative about Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a Russian Immigrant, working at an American University. The story follows his struggles, both personal and professional, as an immigrant. Language, Home, Memory, Alienation“There is an old American saying 'He who lives in a glass house should not try to kill two birds with one stone (Chapter 2).”
Pale Fire (1962)The book is a 999 line poem divided into four cantos written by the imaginary John Shade with a foreword, commentary, and index. Delusion, Identity, Nature of Art"There was a time in my demented youthWhen somehow I suspected that the truthAbout survival after death was knownTo every human being: I aloneKnew nothing, and a great conspiracyOf books and people hid the truth from me (Canto 2).”

Vladimir Nabokov's Genre

Nabokov began his career writing in the Modernism genre and transitioned into the Post-Modernism genre.

Modernism— A literary movement that began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that sought to break with traditional writing styles of the past. Modernists would experiment such as with style, composition, time, and narration.

Post-Modernism— a mid to late twentieth-century literary movement that focused on a few key elements such as metafiction, unreliable narration, anti-authoritarianism, and a belief in pluralism and relativism.

Nabokov is credited with linking Modernism and Post-Modernism as his novels often combine both genres. In his book, Pale Fire, Nabokov explores metafiction which means that Nabokov wants the reader to be aware they are reading a work of fiction- it is a book written by Nabokov written as a poem by a fictional poet. In Lolita, Nabokov uses the power of language to show how the main character is both an unreliable narrator and intentionally alienates himself from American culture. Both are examples of how Nabokov uses both the Modernist and Post-Modernist genres.

Vladimir Nabokov's Quotes

Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy." (Quote by Nabokov in The Paris Review, Summer/Fall 1967)

Vladimir Nabokov's Writing Style

Nabokov had a very distinctive writing style. Critics have credited Nabokov for having the ability to beautifully put words together to create very poetic language. Nabokov is considered a maximalist writer for his digressive storytelling and heavy use of literary techniques.

Nabokov also wrote in a style where the narrator has a personality of their own and the story is told from their point of view including their moral justifications for their actions and thoughts, opinions and attitudes towards others, and trains of thought that depart from the main subject. In this way, Nabokov can create unreliable narrators and metafictional pieces. Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, is a perfect example as the way Nabokov wrote shows the way Humbert obsesses over Dolores without realizing the perversion of his own thoughts.

Additionally, Nabokov is credited with writing in Fancy Prose Style. Prose is a writing style in which the writing mimics the natural flow of language. This combined with Nabokov's synesthesia, a condition that allows one to experience one sensory organ through another sensory organ, allowed for unique descriptions that are vivid and lyrical.

Here is the most famous example of Nabokov's Fancy Prose Style found in his book, Lolita:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta (Chapter 1)."

Notice the sensory description of the name Lolita. The sensory experience of saying the name and seeing a fiery image associated with the name create a lyrical and poetic way to describe what would otherwise simply be a name. This is why Nabokov's writing style is so unique.

Vladimir Nabokov - Key takeaways

  • Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1899 to a politician father and wealthy heiress mother. He was the oldest of five children.
  • Political turmoil followed Nabokov his whole life: His family fled Russia due to the Bolshevik revolution, his father died at the hands of political assassins, and he fled Germany because his wife was Jewish and antisemitism was high.
  • Despite the turmoil, Nabokov managed to write prose and poetry extensively. While a professor at Cornell, Nabokov wrote his most famous book, Lolita.
  • Nabokov is credited with linking the Modernism and Post-modernism genres by combining them in his books.
  • Nabokov had a distinctive writing style known as Fancy Prose Style. He used lyrical, poetic language and liked the narrator to have an all-encompassing personality.

Frequently Asked Questions about Vladimir Nabokov

Ada (1969) is Nabokov's longest novel. 

Vladimir Nabokov's writing style is considered maximalist and as fancy prose style. 

Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American poet, novelist, professor, translator, and entomologist. He is most well known for his 1955 book, Lolita

Nabokov is considered one of the best and most influential modernist/post-modernist poets in the 20th century. 

Nabokov did not win the Nobel Prize for literature. Nabokov was a 7-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Lolita is written in the style of a ______.

Who is the protagonist and narrator of Lolita?

Why does Humbert marry Charlotte?


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