by Wilma Slaight, Wellesley College Archivist
January 8, 2001
Nabokov was born in April 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His parents were wealthy and had a commitment to public service. Nabokov, who categorized himself as "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library," attended the Tenishev School in St. Petersburg, the most advanced and expensive school in Russia. In addition to his avid participation in sports, Nabokov indulged in what would become a life-long passion for him— butterfly collecting.
In November 1917, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, the family fled to a friend's estate in the Crimea. Nabokov's father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, a leader of the Kadet party, accepted a position in the provisional government. When the Bolsheviks took over, the family fled to England. Nabokov attended Trinity College, Cambridge, studying ichthyology and French and Russian literature.
The family settled in Berlin which had a large Russian émigré community. Nabokov began writing poetry and short fiction, using the pseudonym of V.I. Sirin. He also earned money by giving tennis and English lessons, acting, and translating. He published his first scholarly article on butterflies in The Entomologist, and composed the first Russian crossword puzzles. On April 15, 1925, he married Véra Slonim. Their son, Dmitri, was born in 1934.
Soon, world events forced him into exile again. In 1937 Nabokov and his family fled Hitler's Germany for Paris. The 1940 German invasion of France forced them to flee once more— this time to New York. In the U.S., Nabokov taught, collected and studied butterflies, and wrote. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945.
Nabokov came to Wellesley College in 1941 for a year as a lecturer in comparative literature. He returned to teach Russian, first in a non-credit course (spring of 1943), then as a regular part of the curriculum. In addition to the introductory course, as the sole member of the newly formed Russian Department, he taught courses on Russian poetry and prose in translation. While at Wellesley College, Nabokov also held an appointment at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. In 1948 Nabokov went to Cornell as chair of the department of comparative literature.
At Wellesley, Nabokov's courses were very popular. One of his students, Hannah Green '48, talked about being in his class in a February 1977 New Yorker article. "He didn't talk about conflict or symbols or character development," she said. "He didn't talk about the things that were usually talked about in literature courses. He didn't try to make us state the underlying meaning of something. He didn't make us talk about themes. He never took the joy out of reading... In the gayest, most natural way in the world, he opened the door and led us into the world of Russian literature. He taught us to take literature seriously and what is ordinarily said about it lightly. He gave me back my passion for reading."
An insomniac, Nabokov did most of his writing at night. Zembla, a web site devoted to Nabokov, contains a list of his works and critical commentary on them. His publications included poetry, translations, essays, short stories, novels, plays, and scholarly treatises on butterflies. His autobiography, Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir (1951) was first published in England as Speak, Memory: A Memoir.
Nabokov's best known work, Lolita, a novel about a man's affair with his twelve-year old stepdaughter, initially was refused by four American publishers as too scandalous. It was eventually published in Paris in 1955 by Olympia Press; the American edition appeared in 1958. The success of the book and the subsequent movie version gave Nabokov the financial security to give up teaching. He moved to Switzerland in 1959.
Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, Switzerland, leaving behind a unique literary legacy. The New York Times obituary explained that "his writing often perplexed his readers. 'For some weeks now I have been floundering and traveling in the mind of that American genius, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Nabokov,' wrote the critic Alfred Kazin on reading the writer's novel Ada in 1969. His remark echoed the attitude of many readers... These readers recognized Mr. Nabokov's technical brilliance and mastery of form, but were frequently baffled by his irrepressible sense of flippancy and his penchant for parody. Was he, it was asked, a gifted artificer entranced by fun and games, or was he a creative and profound artist?"
Perhaps a 1977 article in Time said it best: "[Nabokov's] challenging, intricate fiction, which miraculously demonstrates that art is not a mirror held up to nature, but rather a prism that refracts blinding reality into rainbows of wisdom and feeling."