09 January 2016

Nabokov: Russia, Europe and the American West

Where did Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) belong?

Young Vladimir was no impoverished son of a peasant farmer; he born in St Petersburg to an important family of the Russian nobility. His father was a lawyer-statesman and his mother was the granddaughter of a millionaire gold-mine owner. One grand-father had even been a cabinet minister in the reign of Alexander II.

Vladimir was the family's eldest of five children. This privileged family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was equally skilled in all three. In 1916, Nabokov inherited an estate from his uncle (although ownership was soon taken away, as quickly as it had been given). Nonetheless this was the very period in which his first serious literary endeavours were made. In 1916 there was a first adolescent collection of poetry published. His privileged childhood, and his ability to recall in vivid detail memories of his past, helped this budding man of letters enormously.

After the 1917 February Revolution, Nabokov's father was a member of the Russian Provisional Government. So after the Bolshevik Revolution, the family quickly escaped to Crimea. Nabokov's father became a minister of justice in the Crimean Regional Government.

After the withdrawal of the German Army (late 1918) and the defeat of the White Army (early 1919), the Nabokovs sought exile in western Europe. They settled in the UK and Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College Cambridge, first studying science and then foreign languages. Graduating in 1922 again gave Nabokov grist for his future literary mill – he drew on his Cambridge experiences to write 2 later novels.

In 1920, Nabokov's parents moved to Berlin, where his father set up the émigré newspaper. Nabokov followed them to Berlin two years later, after completing his studies at Cambridge. His father was murdered (by mistake), a theme that would appear a number of times in Nabokov's later fictional works.

Nabokov was not himself Jewish but his wife, Vera Slonim, was. They married in Berlin in 1925 and had a son a few years later (1934). In 1936, Véra lost her job because of the increasingly anti-Semitism so the family left Germany for France. They settled in Paris, but by mid 1940, the Nabokov family fled Nazi control of France and sailed to the USA.

Front cover of Robert Roper's book
evoking Nabokov's travels in the West, highways and motels 

Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita was written by Robert Roper and published by Bloomsbury in 2015. The publishers wrote that Robert Roper filled out this period in the writer's life with insight, covering Nabokov's critical friend­ship with Edmund Wilson, his time at Cornell and Harvard. But the book was most evocative of the Wilds of the West. Roper brought detail to these journeys, and traced their significant influence in Nabokov's work: "on two-lane highways and in post-war motels and cafés, we feel Lolita draw near, and understand Nabokov's seductive familiarity with the American mundane". Nabokov in America was a love letter to American literature, in Nabokov's broad embrace of it from Melville to the Beats. "Though the book we feel anew the mountain breezes and the miles logged, the rich learning and the Romantic mind behind some of Nabokov's most beloved books".

In 1953 Nabokov and his family moved to Oregon. There he fin­ish­ed Lolita and began writing a new novel. Lolita was first published in France in 1955 and reached the USA three years later. It was a hit.

Lolita was important to the literary world but the book’s success also meant Nabokov was able to return to Europe and devote himself exclusively to writing. His only child landed himself an operatic position in Italy and in 1961, Vladimir and his wife Vera moved to the Palace Hotel in Montreux Switzerland where they lived until the end of his life (1977).

The author found original documents all over the place - usually through sister Elena’s letters, correspondence with Vlad­im­ir’s wife, notes to his publishers and son Dimitri's journals. And he cited two books written earlier: Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991) written by Brian Boyd; and Vera, Mrs Nabokov (1999) written by Stacy Schiff.

The change from a highly Europeanised Russian Vladimir Nabokov to an American, and his creative years in the USA, were important elements for the book to analyse. Roper provided a powerful argument for the role America played in actually creating one of the 20th century's literary giants, and I have no doubt that Nabokov’s claim to great­ness did indeed rest most solidly on the books he wrote while living in the USA.

But Nabokov had a very well travelled and mobile life, living in various nations:
1899-1919 Russia, 20 years
1918-1922 UK, 4 years
1922-1936 Germany, 14 years
1936-1940 France, 4 years
1940-1961 USA, 21 years
1961-1977 France, 16 years.

In total he lived 21 years in the USA, 20 years in Russia, 20 years in France and 14 years in Germany and 4 years in the UK. So I cannot call him a Russian, American, Frenchman or any other thing - he called many nations “home”.


Andrew said...

I heard him in an interview in a BBC podcast quite recently. It was quite interesting and your information about his life adds to it.

Deb said...

I read Lolita years ago and found the writing interesting but the characters weird.

Hels said...


sometimes the links are totally unexpected.. and even a bit spooky. I had never heard of Frank Pick (Vice Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board) and Charles Holden (the major inter-war architect for London Underground) until this week in one of my favourite blogs. Then I saw them in a second blog, for a totally separate project, within 12 hours of the first.

Hels said...


the language he used is still fascinating... almost as if Nabokov was playing games with the words. And it didn't matter if he was writing in Russian and did his own translations into French or English, or vice versa.

But Lolita was certainly his most famous book. The theme is very weird! A middle aged academic Humbert Humbert, became obsessed with a pre-pubescent girl Dolores Haze, aka Lolita. Humbert married Lolita’s widowed mother, presumably so he could root Lolita *sigh*

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Nabokov's peripatetic life must certainly have influenced his thoughts and writing, especially since most of his moves were done under political pressures. For my next book-shopping spree, I will try to find some of his later works--now I an interested to see if I can discern any national/geographical threads in his writing.

Hels said...


I always thought that people were born and educated in one place, and that was their core identity, even if they moved to other places in their adulthood. If they were committed to cultural internationalism, I assumed it meant they were Russian (or whatever) and then willingly adapted to other cultures and absorbed other values.

But what happens to this theory if Nabokov was equally skilled in three languages from birth and equally exposed to three different cultures from kindergarten on? I may have to change my entire understanding of cultural internationalism.