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Vladimir Nabokov

(1899—1977) Russian-born American novelist and poet

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Russian-born US novelist.

Born in St Petersburg,Nabokov left Russia with his aristocratic family in 1919, having already published two verse collections (1916 and 1918). In England he became a student of zoology at Trinity College, Cambridge, but later switched to literature. While in England he wrote two further volumes of Russian poetry, published in 1923. From 1922 to 1940 Nabokov lived in Germany and France, establishing himself as an émigré writer of Russian novels with Mashenka (1926; translated 1970), an autobiographical love story, and Korol-dama-valet (1929; translated as King, Queen, Knave, 1928). Subsequent works included his chess novel Zashchita luzhina (‘The Luzhin Defence’, 1930; called The Defence in the 1964 English translation), Camera Obscura (1933; translated 1936 and called Laughter in the Dark in the 1938 US translation), and Priglasheniye na kazn (1935; translated as Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). The last of his Russian novels, Dar (1937; translated as The Gift, 1963), introduced his mastery of literary parody of which he was to make skilful use in his later English books. All these Russian-language novels were published under the pseudonym V. Sirin, derived from the name of an admired Russian publisher.

In 1940 the penurious Russian émigré moved with his wife Véra and son Dimitri to the USA; here he established himself as a teacher of Russian subjects at a variety of colleges, became a US citizen in 1945, and in 1948 settled down for eleven years as professor of Russian literature at Cornell University. In this period he wrote under his own name in a consummately polished English that gave no hint of being a second language. The first of his English novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), was followed by Bend Sinister (1947) and Pnin (1957), a portrait of the New World as seen through the lugubrious eyes of an Old-World émigré professor of entomology. The contrast between the brash new and the intellectual old is again the theme of Lolita (1958; Paris publication 1955), a hilarious and highly sophisticated account of a middle-aged European's physical obsession with a monstrous twelve-year old American girl. As pornography, Lolita brought Nabokov instant notoriety and considerable wealth. As allegorical literature, he had to wait a little longer for acclaim and for the interest that it awakened in his earlier (and later) work. Most notable of his novels after Lolita are Pale Fire (1962), written in the form of a long poem accompanied by a parody of a critical commentary, and Ada: A Family Chronicle (1969), a long and sensual novel written in his uniquely erudite style.

Apart from his eighteen papers on entomological subjects (he was an ardent amateur lepidopterist), Nabokov wrote an autobiography, Speak, Memory (1967), a translation of Alice in Wonderland into Russian (1923), and a translation of Eugene Onegin (1964) into English.

Subjects: Literature

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