Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1899, in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad). His family was both aristocratic and wealthy. The family name, indeed, may stem from the same Arabic root as the word nabob, having been brought into Russia by the fourteenth-century Tatar prince Nabok Murza. Since the eighteenth century the Nabokovs had enjoyed distinguished military and governmental careers. Our author’s grandfather, Dmitri Nikolaevich, was State Minister of Justice for the tsars Alexander II and Alexander III; his son, Vladimir Dmitrievich, forsook a certain future in court circles in order to join, as politician and journalist, the doomed fight for constitutional democracy in Russia. A courageous, combative liberal who was sent to prison for three months in 1908, he without misgiving maintained himself and his immediate family in what one biographer has called “a splendid and luxurious Russian version of Edwardian timelessness,”1 divided between the large townhouse built by his father in the fashionable Admiralteiskaya region of St. Petersburg, and the country estate, Vyra, brought by his wife to the marriage as part of her dowry.

Their first surviving child, Vladimir, received, in the testimony of his siblings, a uniquely generous portion of parental love and attention. He was precocious, spirited, at first sickly and then robust. A friend of the household remembered the young “Volodya” as “the slender, well-proportioned boy with the expressive, lively face and intelligent probing eyes which glittered with sparks of mockery.”

V. D. Nabokov was something of an Anglophile, and his children were tutored in English as well as French. His son, in Speak, Memory, claims, “I learned to read English before I could read Russian,” and remembers an early “sequence of English nurses and governesses,” as well as a procession of comfortable Anglo-Saxon artifacts: “All sorts of snug, mellow things came in a steady procession from the English Shop on Nevski Avenue: fruitcakes, smelling salts, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers, talcum-white tennis balls.” Of the authors whom Nabokov later lectured upon at Cornell, Dickens was probably the first encountered. “My father was an expert on Dickens, and at one time read to us, children, aloud, chunks of Dickens, in English, of course,” Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson forty years after the event. “Perhaps his reading to us aloud, on rainy evenings in the country, Great Expectations…when I was a boy of twelve or thirteen, prevented me mentally from re-reading Dickens later on.”2 It was Wilson who directed his attention to Bleak House in 1950. Of his boyhood reading, Nabokov recalled to a Playboy interviewer, “Between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I must have read more fiction and poetry—English, Russian, and French—than in any other five-year period of my life. I relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. On another level, my heroes were the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes.” This last level of reading may help to account for Nabokov’s surprising, though engaging, inclusion of such a piece of late-Victorian fog-swaddled Gothic as Stevenson’s tale of Jekyll and Hyde within the course of European classics he gave at Cornell.

A French governess, the stout, well-memorialized Mademoiselle, took up abode in the Nabokov household when young Vladimir was six, and though Madame Bovary is absent from the list of French novels which she so trippingly (“Her slender voice sped on and on, never weakening, without the slightest hitch or hesitation”) read aloud to her charges—“We got it all: Les Malheurs de Sophie, Le Tour du Monde en Quatre Vingts Jours, Le Petit Chose, Les Misérables, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, many others”—the book undoubtedly existed in the family library. After V.D. Nabokov’s senseless murder on a Berlin stage in 1922, “a fellow student of his, with whom he had gone for a bicycle trip in the Black Forest, sent my widowed mother the Madame Bovary volume which my father had had with him at the time and on the flyleaf of which he had written ‘The unsurpassed pearl of French literature’—a judgment that still holds.”

Elsewhere in Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes of his rapturous reading of the work of Mayne Reid, an Irish author of American Westerns, and states of a lorgnette held by one of Reid’s beleaguered heroines, “That lorgnette I found afterward in the hands of Madame Bovary, and later Anna Karenin had it, and then it passed into the possession of Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog and was lost by her on the pier at Yalta.” At what age he might have first perused Flaubert’s classic study of adultery, we can only guess a precocious one; he read War and Peace for the first time when he was eleven, “in Berlin, on a Turkish sofa, in our somberly rococo Privatstrasse flat giving on a dark, damp back garden with larches and gnomes that have remained in that book, like an old postcard, forever.”


At this same age of eleven Vladimir, having been tutored entirely at home, was enrolled in St. Petersburg’s relatively progressive Tenishev School, where he was accused by teachers “of not conforming to my surroundings; of ‘showing off’ (mainly by peppering my Russian papers with English and French terms, which came naturally to me); of refusing to touch the filthy wet towels in the washroom; of fighting with my knuckles instead of using the slaplike swing with the underside of the fist adopted by Russian scrappers.” Another alumnus of the Tenishev School, Osip Mandelstam, called the students there “little ascetics, monks in their own puerile monastery.” The study of Russian literature emphasized medieval Rus—the Byzantine influence, the ancient chronicles—and proceeded through study of Pushkin in depth to the works of Gogol, Lermontov, Fet, and Turgenev. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were not in the syllabus.

At least one teacher, Vladimir Gippius, “a first-rate though somewhat esoteric poet whom I greatly admired,” impressed himself forcibly on the young student; Nabokov at the age of sixteen published a collection of his own poems and Gippius “brought a copy with him to class and provoked the delirious hilarity of the majority of my classmates by applying his fiery sarcasm (he was a fierce man with red hair) to my most romantic lines.” Andrew Field proposes that “from Gippius…Nabokov learned a manner, a literary posture, which to a certain extent he has never abandoned…. It does not take a very gifted ear or imagination to hear the soft echoes of Gippius’s proprietorial devotion to literature and easy viciousness of judgment in much of what Nabokov has said and written about books and their authors.”

Nabokov’s secondary education ended as his world was collapsing. In 1919, his family became émigrés. “It was arranged that my brother and I would go up to Cambridge, on a scholarship awarded more in atonement for political tribulations than in acknowledgment of intellectual merit.” He studied Russian and French literature, much as at the Tenishev School, and played soccer, wrote poetry, romanced a number of young ladies, and never once visited the University Library. Among his desultory memories of his college years there is one of “P.M. storming into my room with a copy of Ulysses freshly smuggled from Paris.” In a Paris Review interview Nabokov names the classmate, Peter Mrosovsky, and admits that he did not read the book through until fifteen years later, when he “liked it enormously.”

In Paris in the mid-Thirties he and Joyce met a few times. Once Joyce attended a reading Nabokov gave. The Russian was pinch-hitting for a suddenly indisposed Hungarian novelist before a sparse and motley crowd: “A source of unforgettable consolation was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.” On another inauspicious occasion in 1938, they dined together with their mutual friends Paul and Lucie Léon; of their conversation Nabokov remembered nothing and his wife Véra recalled that “Joyce asked about the exact ingredients of myod, the Russian ‘mead,’ and everybody gave him a different answer.” Nabokov distrusted such social conjunctions of writers and in an earlier letter to Véra recounted a version of the legendary single, fruitless encounter between Joyce and Proust.

When did Nabokov first read Proust? The English novelist Henry Green in his memoir Pack My Bag wrote of Oxford in the early Twenties that “anyone who pretended to care about good writing and who knew French knew his Proust.” Cambridge was likely no different, though as a student there Nabokov was intent upon his own Russianness to an obsessive degree—“my fear of losing or corrupting, through alien influence, the only thing I had salvaged from Russia—her language—became positively morbid….” At any rate, by the time he granted his first published interview, in 1932, to a correspondent for a Riga newspaper, he can say, rejecting the suggestion of any German influence on his work during the Berlin years, “One might more properly speak about a French influence: I love Flaubert and Proust.”

Nabokov’s knowledge of German is a shadowy matter. “I speak and read German poorly,” he told the Riga interviewer. Thirty years later, talking in a filmed interview for the Bayerischer Rundfunk, he expanded upon the question: “Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed émigré circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the routine necessities of shopping: Ich möchte etwas Schinken. I now regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a cultural point of view.”


Yet he had been acquainted with German entomological works since boyhood, and his first literary success was a translation, in the Crimea, of some Heine songs for a Russian concert singer. In later life, his wife knew German, and with her help he checked translations of his own works into that language and ventured to improve, in his lectures on “The Metamorphosis,” upon the English version by Willa and Edwin Muir. There is no reason to doubt his claim, in his introduction to the translation of his rather Kafkaesque novel Invitation to a Beheading, that at the time of its writing he had read no Kafka. In 1969 he told a BBC interviewer, “I do not know German and so could not read Kafka before the 1930s when his La métamorphose appeared in La nouvelle revue française“; two years later he told Bavarian Broadcasting, “I read Goethe and Kafka en regard as I also did Homer and Horace.” Whether it occurred in French or in ponied German, Nabokov’s first encounter with Kafka must postdate 1935, when Invitation to a Beheading was composed, “in one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration.”

On April 17, 1950, Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson from Cornell, where he had recently taken academic employment: “Next year I am teaching a course called ‘European Fiction’ (XIX and XX c.). What English writers (novels or short stories) would you suggest? I must have at least two.” Wilson promptly responded, “About the English novelists: in my opinion the two incomparably greatest (leaving Joyce out of account as an Irishman) are Dickens and Jane Austen. Try rereading, if you haven’t done so, the later Dickens of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Jane Austen is worth reading all through—even her fragments are remarkable.” On May 5, Nabokov wrote back, “Thanks for the suggestion concerning my fiction course. I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice…. I shall take Stevenson instead of Jane A.”

Wilson countered, “You are mistaken about Jane Austen. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park…. She is, in my opinion, one of the half dozen greatest English writers (the others being Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Keats and Dickens). Stevenson is second-rate. I don’t know why you admire him so much—though he has done some rather fine short stories.” And, uncharacteristically, Nabokov capitulated, writing on May 15, “I am in the middle of Bleak House—going slowly because of the many notes I must make for class-discussion. Great stuff…. I have obtained Mansfield Park and I think I shall use it too in my course. Thanks for these most useful suggestions.” Six months later, he wrote Wilson with some glee:

I want to make my mid-term report on the two books you suggested I should discuss with my students. In connection with Mansfield Park I had them read the works mentioned by the characters in the novel—the two first cantos of the “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” Cowper’s “The Task,” passages from King Henry the Eighth, Crabbe’s tale “The Parting Hour,” bits of Johnson’s The Idler, Browne’s address to “A Pipe of Tobacco” (Imitation of Pope), Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (the whole “gate-and-no-key” passage comes from there—and the starling) and of course Lovers’ Vows in Mrs. Inchbald’s inimitable translation (a scream)…. I think I had more fun than my class.

Nabokov in his early Berlin years supported himself by giving lessons in an unlikely quintet of subjects: English, French, boxing, tennis, and prosody. In the latter years of exile, public readings in Berlin and in such other centers of émigré population as Prague, Paris, and Brussels earned more money than the sales of his works in Russian. So, but for his lack of an advanced degree, he was not unprepared, arriving in America in 1940, for the lecturer’s role that was to provide, until the publication of Lolita, his main source of income. At Wellesley for the first time, in 1941, he delivered an assortment of lectures among whose titles were “Hard Facts about Readers,” “A Century of Exile,” “The Strange Fate of Russian Literature,” and “The Art of Literature and Commonsense.” Until 1948 he lived with his family in Cambridge (at 8 Craigie Circle, his longest-maintained address until the Palace Hotel in Montreux received him for keeps in 1961) and divided his time between two academic appointments: that of Resident Lecturer at Wellesley College, and as Research Fellow in Entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

He worked tremendously hard in those years, and was twice hospitalized. Besides instilling the elements of Russian grammar into the heads of young women and pondering the minute structures of butterfly genitalia, he was creating himself as an American writer, publishing two novels, a book on Gogol, and stories and reminiscences in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Among the growing body of admirers for his English writings was Morris Bishop, light-verse virtuoso and head of the Romance Languages Department at Cornell; he mounted a successful campaign to hire Nabokov away from Wellesley, where his resident lectureship was neither remunerative nor secure. According to Bishop’s reminiscence “Nabokov at Cornell” in Triquarterly, Nabokov was designated Associate Professor of Slavic and at first gave “an intermediate reading course in Russian Literature and an advanced course on a special subject, usually Pushkin, or the Modernist Movement in Russian Literature…. As his Russian classes were inevitably small, even invisible, he was assigned a course in English on Masters of European Fiction.” According to Nabokov, the nickname by which his course was known, “Dirty Lit,” “was an inherited joke: it had been applied to the lectures of my immediate predecessor, a sad, gentle, hard-drinking fellow who was more interested in the sex life of the authors than in their books.”

According to Robert M. Adams, a colleague of Nabokov’s at Cornell, “Dirty Lit,” of whom the instructor had been Charles Weir, continued under a new number, Literature 309-10, and a new instructor, Victor Lange of the German Department. Titled “Development of the European Novel,” it promised “special attention to the history of ideas and the related evolution of the forms of fiction,” whereas Nabokov’s course proposed “special attention to individual genius and questions of structure.” The two courses met at the same hour (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12) to prevent a student from taking both. Literature 311-312 met in Goldwin Smith “C,” a hall containing 200 seats, and the registration was around 150.

One student from the course, Ross Wetzsteon, contributed to the Triquarterly special issue a fond remembrance of the many alterations in translation Nabokov insisted upon, of Véra Nabokov’s regal white-haired presence at every lecture, of the antic diagrams Nabokov scribbled on the blackboard with a mock plea that the students “copy this exactly as I draw it.” His accent caused half the class to write “epigrammatic” where Nabokov had said “epigrammatic.” “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!”‘ Wetzsteon concludes, “Nabokov was a great teacher not because he taught the subject well but because he exemplified, and stimulated in his students, a profound and loving attitude toward it.”

Another survivor of Literature 311-312 has recalled how Nabokov would begin the term with the words, “The seats are numbered. I would like you to choose your seat and stick to it. This is because I would like to link up your faces with your names. All satisfied with their seats? O.K. No talking, no smoking, no knitting, no newspaper reading, no sleeping, and for God’s sake take notes.” Before an exam, he would say, “One clear head, one blue book, ink, think, abbreviate obvious names, for example, Madame Bovary. Do not pad ignorance with eloquence. Unless medical evidence is produced nobody will be permitted to retire to the W.C.”

A third former student, who sat in the last classes Nabokov taught—the spring and fall terms of 1958—before, suddenly enriched by Lolita, he took a leave of absence that never ended, does not remember the course being referred to as “Dirty Lit.” On campus it was called, simply, “Nabokov.” Nor does my informant (who happens also to be my wife) remember any talk of numbered seats. Though the course was popular, many students preferred not to entrust themselves to Nabokov’s notoriously stern grading standards, and simply audited the entertaining lectures. As a lecturer he was enthusiastic, electric, evangelical. She, my connubial informant, was so deeply under his spell that she attended one lecture with a fever high enough to send her to the infirmary immediately afterward. “I felt he could teach me how to read. I believed he could give me something that would last all my life—and it did.” She cannot to this day take Thomas Mann seriously, and has not surrendered a jot of the central dogma she culled from “Nabokov”: “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.”

Yet even his rare ideal student might fall prey to Nabokov’s mischief. When our Miss Ruggles, a tender twenty, went up at the end of one class to retrieve her blue book from the mess of graded “prelims” strewn there, she could not find it, and at last had to approach the professor. Nabokov stood tall and apparently abstracted on the platform above her, fussing with his papers. She begged his pardon and said that her exam didn’t seem to be here. He bent low, eyebrows raised. “And what is your name?” She told him, and with prestidigitational suddenness he produced her blue book from behind his back. It was marked 97. “I wanted to see,” he told her, “what a genius looked like.” And coolly he looked her up and down, while she blushed; that was the extent of their conversation.

Seven years after his retirement, Nabokov remembered the course with mixed feelings:

My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with the students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examinations…. Vainly I tried to replace my appearances at the lectern by taped records to be played over the college radio. On the other hand, I deeply enjoyed the chuckle of appreciation in this or that warm spot of the lecture hall at this or that point of my lecture. My best reward comes from those former students of mine who ten or fifteen years later write to me to say that they now understand what I wanted of them when I taught them to visualize Emma Bovary’s mistranslated hairdo or the arrangement of rooms in the Samsa household….

In more than one interview handed down, on 3 x 5 cards, from the Montreux-Palace, the publication of a book based upon his Cornell lectures was promised, but (with such other rumored works in progress as the continuation of his autobiography entitled Speak On, Memory, and his illustrated treatise on Butterflies in Art, and the novel Original of Laura) the project still hovered in the air at the time of the great man’s death in the summer of 1977.

Now the lectures are to be published in October, still redolent of the class-room odors that an authorial revision might have scoured away. Nothing one has heard or read about them has quite foretold their striking, enveloping quality of pedagogic warmth. The youth and, somehow, femininity of the audience have been gathered into the urgent, ardent instructor’s voice. “The work with this group has been a particularly pleasant association between the fountain of my voice and a garden of ears—some open, others closed, many very receptive, a few merely ornamental, but all of them human and divine.” For longish stretches we are being read to, as young Vladimir Vladimirovich was read aloud to by his father, his mother, and Mademoiselle. During these stretches of quotation we must imagine the accent, the infectious rumbling pleasure, the theatrical power of this lecturer who, now portly and balding, was once an athlete and a participant in the Russian tradition of flamboyant oral presentation. Elsewhere, the intonation, the twinkle, the sneer, the excited pounce are present in the prose, a liquid speaking prose effortlessly bright and prone to purl into metaphor and pun: a dazzling demonstration, for those lucky Cornell students in the remote, clean-cut Fifties, of the irresistibly artistic sensibility.

Nabokov’s reputation as a literary critic, heretofore circumscribed, in English, by his laborious monument to Pushkin and his haughty dismissals of Freud and Faulkner and Mann, benefits from the evidence of these generous and patient appreciations, as they range from his delineation of Jane Austen’s “dimpled” style and his hearty identification with Dickens’s gusto to his reverent explication of Flaubert’s counterpoint and his charmingly awed—like that of a boy dismantling his first watch—laying bare of Joyce’s busily ticking synchronizations.

Nabokov took early and lasting delight in the exact sciences, and his blissful hours spent within the luminous hush of microscopic examination carry over into his delicate tracing of the horse theme in Madame Bovary or the twinned dreams of Bloom and Dedalus; lepidoptery placed him in a world beyond common sense, where “when a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in,” where on a butterfly’s hindwing “a large eyespot imitates a drop of liquid with such uncanny perfection that a line which crosses the wing is slightly displaced at the exact stretch where it passes through.” He asked, then, of his own art and the art of others a something extra—a flourish of mimetic magic or deceptive doubleness—that was supernatural and surreal in the root sense of these degraded words. Where there was not this shimmer of the gratuitous, of the superhuman and non-utilitarian, he turned harshly impatient, in terms that imply a lack of feature, a blankness peculiar to the inanimate: “Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies… Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others, mean absolutely nothing to me….” Where he did find this shimmer, producing its tingle in the spine, his enthusiasm went far beyond the academic, and he became an inspired, and surely inspiring, teacher.

The Fifties, with their emphasis upon private space, their disdainful regard of public concerns, their sense of hermetic, disengaged artistry, and their New Criticism faith that all essential information is contained within the work itself, were a more congenial theater for Nabokov’s ideas than the following decades might have been. But in any decade Nabokov’s approach would have seemed radical in the degree of severance between reality and art that it supposes. “The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales—and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales…. Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf wolf and there was no wolf behind him.” But the boy who cried wolf became an irritation to his tribe and was allowed to perish.

Another priest of the imagination, Wallace Stevens, could allow that “if we desire to formulate an accurate theory of poetry, we find it necessary to examine the structure of reality, because reality is a central reference for poetry.” Whereas for Nabokov, reality has less a structure than a pattern, a habit, of deception: “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives.” In his aesthetic, small heed is paid to the lowly delight of recognition and the blunt virtue of verity. For Nabokov, the world—art’s raw material—is itself an artistic creation, so insubstantial and illusionistic that he seems to imply a masterpiece can be spun from thin air, by pure act of the artist’s imperial will. But works like Madame Bovary and Ulysses glow with the heat of resistance that the will to manipulate meets in banal, heavily actual subjects. Acquaintance, abhorrence, and the helpless love we give our own bodies join in these transmuted scenes of Dublin and Rouen; away from them, in works like Salammbô and Finnegans Wake, Joyce and Flaubert yield to their dreaming, dandyish selves and are swallowed by their hobbies.

In his passionate reading of “The Metamorphosis,” Nabokov deprecates as “mediocrity surrounding genius” Gregor Samsa’s philistine and bourgeois family without acknowledging, at the very heart of Kafka’s poignance, how much Gregor needs and adores these possibly crass, but also vital and definite, inhabitants of the mundane. The ambivalence omnipresent in Kafka’s rich tragi-comedy has no place in Nabokov’s credo, though in artistic practice a work like Lolita brims with it, and with a formidable density of observed detail—“sense data selected, permeated, and grouped,” in his own formula.

The Cornell years were productive ones for Nabokov. After arriving there he completed Speak, Memory. It was in an Ithaca backyard that his wife prevented him from burning the difficult beginnings of Lolita, which he completed in 1953. The good-humored stories of Pnin were written entirely at Cornell, the heroic researches attending his translation of Eugene Onegin were largely carried out in her libraries, and Cornell is reflected fondly in the college milieu of Pale Fire. One might imagine that his move two hundred miles inland from the East Coast, with his frequent summer excursions to the Far West, gave him a franker purchase on his adopted “lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” (to quote Humbert Humbert).

Nabokov was nearly fifty when he came to Ithaca, and had ample reason for artistic exhaustion. He had been exiled twice, driven from Russia by Bolshevism and from Europe by Hitler, and had created a brilliant body of work in what amounted to a dying language, for an émigré public that was inexorably disappearing. Yet in this his second American decade he managed to bring an entirely new audacity and panache to American literature, to help revive the native vein of fantasy, and to bestow upon himself riches and an international reputation. It is pleasant to suspect that the rereading compelled by the preparation of his college lectures at the outset of the decade, and the admonitions and intoxications rehearsed with each year’s delivery, contributed to the splendid redefining of Nabokov’s creative powers; and to detect, in his fiction of those years, something of Austen’s nicety, Dickens’s brio, and Stevenson’s “delightful winey taste,” added to and spicing up the Continental stock of Nabokov’s own inimitable brew.

Copyright © 1980 John Updike

This Issue

September 25, 1980