Professor Nabokov

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,…

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