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A Week to Remember: Vladimir Nabokov

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Vladimir Nabokov holding a book of lepidoptery – butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899. Praised for his wit and wordplay, Nabokov is best known for the novels he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a noble family. He was trilingual from childhood, speaking Russian, English, and French, and learned to read and write in English before Russian. He published his first book, a collection of Russian-language poems, in 1916.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Nabokov family left St. Petersburg and went to Crimea; the social and political situation there grew increasingly turbulent, and the family moved to England in 1919. Nabokov enrolled at Cambridge University, where he studied zoology and Slavic languages. After receiving his degree in 1922, he moved to Berlin, where there was a large community of Russian émigrés.

By the late 1920s, Nabokov had become a successful author among the Russian community in Berlin; most of his Russian novels from this period have been translated into English, many of them by Nabokov himself. Among the most popular of these early works are King, Queen, Knave (e-book | print | audio), about a young man's affair with his cousin's wife; and The Luzhin Defense (e-book | print | audio), in which a chess player has a nervous breakdown while preparing for an important match. John Turturro stars in the 2000 film adaptation of The Luzhin Defense.

As anti-Semitism grew in Germany in the late 1930s, Nabokov began seeking opportunities in America; his wife, Vera, was Jewish, and the couple feared for their safety. They moved to France in 1937, and to the United States three years later. From this point, Nabokov wrote in English, not in Russian.

Nabokov got a job teaching Russian literature and language at Wellesley College; for several years, he was a one-man Russian department. He also worked at Harvard, as the curator of lepidoptery—butterflies—at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Butterflies were a lifelong passion of Nabokov, and he did significant work as a lepidopterist, spending as much as six hours a day examining butterflies under a microscope to identify their species. A genus of butterflies is named Nabokovia in his honor, and several species are named after characters from his novels. Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates explore the scientific side of Nabokov's career in Nabokov's Blues (print); the title is a reference to the blue butterflies that were his specialty.

three books from Nabokov

As a professor at Wellesley, and later at Cornell, Nabokov was a popular but strict professor, whose lectures were said to be lively and entertaining. He had little interest in fraternizing with his students, and often didn't even bother to learn their names, referring to them in the classroom by their seat numbers. His lectures on literature have been collected in several volumes (e-book | print).

Nabokov's 1957 novel Pnin (e-book | print) was a comic tale about a Russian-born professor, loosely based on Nabokov himself. It wasn't an enormous commercial success, but it was very well-received by critics, and brought Nabokov to a level of prominence that his earlier American novels had not.

The novel for which Nabokov is best remembered, Lolita (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was published in 1958 in the United States. It had actually been published in England before Pnin, in 1955. But the controversial story of literature professor Humbert Humbert and his romantic obsession with a 12-year-old girl was banned for several years in both England and France, and American publishers were initially hesitant to publish it. When it finally was released, it was a sensation, selling more than 100,000 copies in less than a month. There have been two film versions of Lolita; James Mason starred as Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, and Jeremy Irons played the role in Adrian Lyne's 1997 version.

The success of Lolita allowed Nabokov to give up teaching and begin writing full-time. He moved to Switzerand in 1961, and lived there until his death. He published two more successful novels in the 1960s. Pale Fire (e-book | print) was his most formally innovative work, taking the form of a long poem by one fictional author, and the commentary on that poem by a second fictional author; the poem and commentary combine to tell the story of the relationship between the two authors. Ada, or Ardor (e-book | print) is another tale of an illicit sexual relationship, this one between brother and sister.

Nabokov died on July 2, 1977 after several months of severe bronchial problems.

While he is best remembered for his novels, Nabokov did write in other forms, and there are collections of his short stories  (e-book | print) and poetry (e-book | print). Speak, Memory (e-book | print) is a memoir of his life before emigrating to the United States.

Also This Week

April 22, 1889

The Oklahoma Land Rush began at noon on this date, with approximately 2 million acres of land up for grabs. An estimated 50,000 lined up at the borders of the territory to claim a piece of land. The land rush created a nickname still used for Oklahomans: "Sooners" were those who snuck in early to claim the best land for themselves. By the end of the day, the city that would become Oklahoma City had gone from zero to a population of more than 10,000. Sam Anderson tells the tale of the land rush in his history of Oklahoma City, Boom Town (e-book | e-audio | print).

April 28, 1944

Alice Waters was born. Waters is a chef whose Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been at the forefront of the organic food movement for almost fifty years. Waters is an advocate of using locally produced meat and produce whenever possible, and her charitable foundations work with public schools to teach children about the value of growing and preparing one's own food. Waters published her memoir, Coming to My Senses (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), in 2017.

April 27, 1959

Sheena Easton was born. Easton was a popular singer of the early 1990s, whose biggest hit was the chart-topping "9 to 5 (Morning Train)". She had a wide stylistic range, reflected in her duets with Prince, Kenny Rogers, and Luis Miguel. Many of Easton's albums are available for streaming at Hoopla; the highlights can be heard on The Best of Sheena Easton.

April 25, 1969

Renée Zellweger was born. Zellweger was one of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning an Academy Award in the Civil War drama Cold Mountain (streaming | DVD). Other signature roles include Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago (streaming | DVD) and the title character in the romantic comedy Bridget Jones's Diary (streaming | DVD). After taking several years off, Zellweger has recently returned to acting.