Thursday, February 7, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born to Vladimir Dmitrievich and Elena Rukavishnikov Nabokov in St. Petersburg, Russia, the eldest of five children. He grew up in comfortable circumstances, tracing his ancestry back to a Tartar prince of the 1380’s and through a number of military men, statesmen, Siberian merchants, and the first president of the Russian Imperial Academy of Medicine.

Vladimir Nabokov began, as many novelists do, as a poet. As a youth, he published privately what now would be called a chapbook and a full book of poetry before emigrating from Russia. Throughout his life, he continued to publish poetry in periodicals and several book-length collections, including Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951 (1952), Poems (1959), and Poems and Problems (1970). Some critics even consider the long poem “Pale Fire” (an integral part of the novel Pale Fire) a worthy neo- Romantic poem in itself. Nabokov also published a good deal of short fiction, first in a variety of short-lived émigré publications such as Rul’, Sovremennye Zapiski, and Russkoe ekho, and later in such prominent magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, and Tri-Quarterly. His stories were collected in Vozrashchenie Chorba (1930; the return of Chorb, which also included twenty-four poems), Solgyadatay (1938; the eye), Nine Stories (1947), and Nabokov’s Dozen (1958), among others. His plays include: Smert’ (1923; death); Tragediya gospodina Morna (1924; the tragedy of Mister Morn); Chelovek iz SSSR (1927; the man from the USSR); Sobytiye (1938; the event); and Izobretenie Val’sa (1938; The Waltz Invention, 1966). He also worked on a screenplay for the film version of Lolita (1962). Besides translating his own works from Russian to English (and vice versa, as well as occasionally from French to Russian to English), he often translated the works of other writers, including Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and poetry of Rupert Brooke, Alexander Pushkin, Arthur Rimbaud, William Shakespeare, and Alfred de Musset. In nonfiction prose, Nabokov’s fascinating life is recalled in three volumes of memoirs, Conclusive Evidence (1951), Drugie Berega (1954; other shores), and Speak, Memory (1966,a revision and expansion of the earlier works). Throughout his life, his often idiosyncratic criticism was widely published, and the publication after his death of several volumes of his lectures on world literature provoked much discussion among literary scholars. As a lepidopterist, Nabokov published a number of scholarly articles in such journals as The Entomologist, Journal of the New York Entomological Society, Psyche, and The Lepidopterists’ News.

An extraordinary individual, Nabokov’s strength as a writer lay in his control and mastery of style. Writers are sometimes successful in a language other than their native language, but only a select few are capable of writing equally well in two languages, and Nabokov may be alone in his ability to master the insinuations of two extraordinarily different and subtle languages such as Russian and English. Under the pen name “V. Sirin,” Nabokov was recognized as a noteworthy émigré novelist and poet in Berlin and Paris. After fleeing the rise of Nazism and settling in the United States, he became recognized as a major English-language author with the publication of Lolita in 1955. As was the case with Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, all of whose international sales were aided by the controversies surrounding their works, Nabokov received worldwide attention as critics debated the morality of Lolita, prompting the republication and translation of many of his earlier works. Few writers with such an uncompromising style achieve such popularity. Nabokov was often in financial difficulty before Lolita, yet he always remained the consummate craftsman. He has come to be regarded as one of the literary giants of his generation.

Lolita, the novel that would provide a comfortable living for the author for the rest of his life, has been called everything from pornography to one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Today, when virtually every sexual predilection has been the subject of motion pictures and television, it is hard to appreciate the whirlwind of controversy that was stirred up by Lolita’s publication. Humbert Humbert, the central character and narrator, has an obsession for young girls which he has hidden by unhappy affairs with older women. He comes to the United States after inheriting a business and separating from his childish wife Valeria. Eventually, he becomes the boarder of Charlotte Haze and becomes sexually obsessed with her twelve-year- old daughter Lolita. He marries Mrs. Haze to be near Lolita, and when the mother is killed, he takes the girl on a trip across the United States. She is eventually stolen by Clare Quilty, who is, in many ways, Humbert’s double, and Humbert goes on a two-year quest to rescue her. He finds the sad, pregnant Lolita married to a man named Richard Schiller and, in revenge, shoots Quilty. The novel is allegedly Humbert’s manuscript, written as he awaits trial. According to the foreword, Humbert died in jail of a coronary thrombosis, and the manuscript was transmitted to one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., who prepared it for publication.
drama
Polius, pb., 1924
Dedushka, pb., 1923
Smert’, pb., 1923
Izobretenie Val’sa, pb., 1938 (The Waltz Invention, 1966)
Sobytiye, pr., pb., 1938
Chelovek iz SSSR, pb., 1927
Tragediya gospodina Morna, pb., 1924

long fiction
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941
Dar, 1937-1938 (serial), 1952 (book; The Gift, 1963)
Priglashenie na kazn’, 1935-1936 (serial), 1938 (book; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959)
Otchayanie, 1934 (serial), 1936 (book; Despair, 1937; revised 1966)
Look at the Harlequins!, 1974
Transparent Things, 1972
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969
Kamera obskura, 1932 (Camera Obscura, 1936; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938)
Podvig, 1932 (Glory, 1971)
Zashchita Luzhina, 1929 (serial), 1930 (book; The Defense, 1964)
Korol’, dama, valet, 1928 (King, Queen, Knave, 1968)
Mashenka, 1926 (Mary, 1970)
Pale Fire, 1962
Pnin, 1957
Lolita, 1955
Bend Sinister, 1947

nonfiction
Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981
Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German, 1980
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, 1979
Strong Opinions, 1973
Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966 (revision of Conclusive Evidence and Drugie berega)
Drugie berega, 1954
Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir, 1951
Nikolai Gogol, 1944
Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977, 1989
Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983

screenplay
Lolita, 1962

translations
Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tiutchev, 1944 (with Dmitri Nabokov)
Eugene Onegin, 1964 (of Alexander Pushkin’s novel)
The Song of Igor’s Campaign, 1960 (of the twelfth century epic Slovo o polki Igoreve)
Anya v strane chudes, 1923 (of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
A Hero of Our Time, 1958 (1958)

short fiction
Vesna v Fialte i drugie rasskazy, 1956
Nine Stories, 1947
Soglyadatay, 1938
Vozrashchenie Chorba, 1930
Tyrants Destroyed, and Other Stories, 1975
Nabokov’s Quartet, 1966
A Russian Beauty, and Other Stories, 1973
Details of a Sunset, and Other Stories, 1976
Nabokov’s Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories, 1958

poetry
Gorny put, 1923
Grozd’, 1923
Poems and Problems, 1970
Poems, 1959
Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951, 1952
Dva puti, 1918
Stikhi, 1916

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