Vladimir Nabokov: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Eira Long

Eira has a PhD in English and new media studies. She has taught literature and writing to students of all ages.

This lesson will introduce you to Vladimir Nabokov, one of the twentieth century's best-known novelists. You'll also learn a bit about Nabokov's most famous works and the themes they explore.

Nabokov's Early Life

If you've heard the name Vladimir Nabokov (VLAD-ih-meer nah-BOH-kohv) before, it was probably in connection with his most famous (and most controversial) novel: Lolita. But there's a lot more to Nabokov's body of work, not to mention his life, than Lolita - although that book is definitely famous for a reason. (More on that later.) Let's begin where most biographies begin: with Nabokov's birth.

Vladimir Nabokov was born into a wealthy family in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. That's right - one of the towering figures in American literature was actually Russian. Nabokov grew up speaking Russian, English, and French. He could actually read and write in English before he could do so in Russian (much to his father's annoyance). Many biographers think that the adult Nabokov's fascination with wordplay began with his trilingual childhood.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Nabokovs fled St. Petersburg. Nabokov lived in England and Germany before emigrating to the United States with his family in 1940, just ahead of advancing German troops.

Lolita: Nabokov's Big Break

For the next several years, Nabokov taught comparative literature and Russian in the United States, wrote nine novels in Russian and two in English, and studied butterflies. (In addition to his formidable talents as a writer, Nabokov made serious contributions to the field of lepidoptery, or the scientific study of moths and butterflies.)

In 1953, he wrote Lolita, which tells the story of a literature professor who is romantically and sexually obsessed with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Because of the book's inflammatory subject matter, Nabokov was unable to find a reputable American publisher; finally, two years after the book was finished, Lolita was published in France.

Almost instantaneously, it was a success. And almost instantaneously, it was banned in France and Britain. Lolita remains a hugely controversial book, but it's also considered one of the finest novels ever written in English. Whenever you see a list of the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, it's a safe bet that you'll find Lolita somewhere near the top.

Nabokov's Other Books

The success of Lolita meant that Nabokov could devote himself to writing full-time. In addition to Lolita, he's well-known for several other English-language books, including:

  • Pale Fire (1962) - tells its story through a 999-line poem and extensive commentary that are woven together into a complex, unconventional narrative
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) - Nabokov's longest work, the tale of a decades-long love affair between a man and his sister
  • Speak, Memory (1967) - Nabokov's memoir, which covers the author's life from early childhood until his emigration to America, especially rich in sensory details from his early life

Nabokov's best-known Russian-language novels (many of which he translated into English himself, or with the help of his son, Dmitri) include:

  • Laughter in the Dark (1938) - explores a similar story to the one in Lolita
  • Despair (1965) - about a complicated and doomed murder plot
  • Invitation to a Beheading (1959) - a surreal, even absurd book about a man awaiting execution

Overachiever that he was, Nabokov also wrote poetry, publishing hundreds of poems in both English and Russian between 1916 and 1979 and eleven collections of short stories.

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