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date: 14 June 2024

Nabokov, Vladimirfree

Nabokov, Vladimirfree

  • Ellen Pifer


  • North American Literatures

On a summer's day in 1950, Vladimir Nabokov, fifty-one years old and riddled with doubts about the novel he was working on, headed for the garden incinerator to burn his drafts of Lolita's first chapters. His wife, Véra, caught up with him, and at her urging Nabokov paused to reconsider. Slowly, and with many interruptions, Nabokov resumed work on the novel, which he completed in the spring of 1954. And the rest, as they say, is history—literary history. Not only did the publication of Lolita (1955) and its succès de scandale eventually make the novelist world famous, but they allowed him to give up his teaching post at Cornell University and devote himself full-time to writing. Lolita marked a turning point in Nabokov's life and literary career in another crucial way. Because few Americans had read any of his Russian books, Nabokov could say in 1956 that their appraisal of his English ones was necessarily skewed. Lolita's arrival on the scene would soon change that situation. The economic and professional freedom granted Nabokov by Lolita's success allowed him to embark on a systematic translation of his Russian work into English—a project that would, at last, begin to close the linguistic and cultural divide separating the two spheres of his literary production. By healing this rift at long last, Nabokov was able to realize in his own life—subject for decades to repeated upheaval, dislocation, and disruption—the elegant figure of the ampersand, or figure-eight, that recurs throughout his art and culminates in the pattern of a spiral whose overlapping arcs unlock the vicious circle of time.

Russian Roots

Born to wealth, privilege, and social prominence in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 23 April 1899, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was destined to lose, while still a teenager, both his homeland and a vast estate inherited from his maternal uncle, Vasily Rukavishnikov, when the latter died in 1916. Although exile, loss, and longing are recurrent themes in his fiction, Nabokov remained remarkably serene throughout his life about the bouts of poverty and destitution that he and his family suffered, especially during the late 1930s, and the loss of what he jokingly called his “unreal estate.” Infinitely more tragic was the loss of his beloved father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, shot to death at a public meeting in Berlin on 28 March 1922, while trying to shield a colleague from the bullets of a Russian ultrarightist.

In Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966), the revised version of a memoir originally published as Conclusive Evidence (1951), Nabokov paints an idyllic picture of his early life as the eldest child of parents he adored. Initially educated at home by a series of English and French governesses and later by Russian tutors, Nabokov attended the liberal Tenishev School in St. Petersburg from 1911 to 1917. The family divided their time between an elegant town house in a fashionable district of St. Petersburg and their large country estate, Vyra, located fifty miles to the south. Nabokov's mother, born Elena Rukavishnikov, was a highly intelligent, cultivated woman who, like her husband, was a frequent traveler to Europe and fluent in several languages. Nabokov, who was trilingual, once said, “I don't think in any language, I think in images” (Strong Opinions, p. 14). His visual acuity and skills as a draftsman contributed to another lifelong pursuit, lepidopterology. As a researcher at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology during the 1940s, he made painstaking drawings of butterflies based on his microscopic study of their anatomical features. The published results of his research, most notably his discoveries relating to a group of butterflies known as blues, are now recognized as pioneering contributions to the field.

In Nabokov's greatest Russian novel, Dar (1937–1938), later translated into English as The Gift (1963), the protagonist's father is a famous naturalist and explorer whose portrait is lovingly based on Nabokov's father. According to Nabokov's biographer, Brian Boyd, Nabokov's mother was astounded by the depth of her son's insight into the life and character of her husband. V. D. Nabokov, whose own father was state minister of justice under the czars Alexander II and III, trained as a jurist but dedicated himself, as a liberal politician and journalist, to the fight for constitutional democracy in Russia. An Anglophile and intellectual, Nabokov's father took a vital interest in literature, as his expressed admiration for Charles Dickens and his 5,000-volume library attest. It was in his father's paneled library that young Vladimir, between the ages of ten and fifteen, read more fiction and poetry than in any other five-year period of his life.

That the precocious youngster read these works in English, Russian, and French proved invaluable for his future: first as a student at Cambridge University; then as an émigré writer living in Berlin and Paris; and, most important, as a forty-year-old Russian novelist, midway through life and career, faced with the task of transforming himself into an American writer. “It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe,” Nabokov said of his arrival in the United States, “and now I was faced by the task of inventing America” (Lolita, Afterword, p. 312). By the time Nabokov arrived in America, he had every reason to be personally and artistically exhausted. Yet through a monumental feat of imagination he managed, as the American writer John Updike wrote, “to bring an entirely new audacity and panache to American literature” (Lectures on Literature, pp. xxvi–xxvii).

European Expatriation

Forced into exile by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917, Nabokov's family fled first to the Crimea and then to London; they ultimately settled in Berlin, where Nabokov's father became editor of the newly established Russian newspaper Rul' (The Rudder), which became a leading publication in émigré circles. Nabokov stayed on in England to continue his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, while pursuing a B.A. degree in Russian and French literature, he devoted the majority of his time to becoming a Russian writer. At Cambridge he wrote his first story, filled notebooks with verse, translated the poetry of Rupert Brooke into Russian, discovered the work of James Joyce, played soccer and tennis, and engaged in a number of romances. By the time Nabokov graduated from Cambridge in 1922, he had published widely in émigré periodicals and had two volumes of poetry in press. Taking up residence in Berlin, a major center for expatriate Russians, Nabokov launched the career of V. Sirin—a nom de plume he had adopted in 1921 to distinguish himself from his father, V. D. Nabokov, and would maintain throughout his career as an émigré Russian writer. To supplement his literary earnings, he gave tennis lessons, tutored pupils in English and French, and devised chess problems for the émigré dailies. In May 1923, he met and fell in love with Véra Slonim, a cultivated young woman born and raised in St. Petersburg and already an admirer of Sirin's work. They were married on 15 April 1925.

In the same year that Nabokov met Véra, he published a Russian version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (Ania v strane chudes, 1923), whose mirror world of absurd characters would be replayed, to nightmarish effect, in two of his later works of fiction reflecting the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia: Invitation to a Beheading (Priglashenie na kazn', 1938; trans. 1959) and his second novel in English, Bend Sinister (1947). For Nabokov, Carroll's Alice embodied all the qualities of wonder and imagination that the English Romantics celebrated in the child. He said in a lecture delivered in the mid-1950s, “In a sense we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth…and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles, these asides of the spirit,…are the highest forms of consciousness” (Lectures on Literature, pp. 373–374). In Nabokov's view, consciousness, our “being aware of being aware of being,” is what distinguishes humankind from the beast. “All the rest follows—the glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe” (Strong Opinions, p. 142). Consciousness not only shapes the world each of us inhabits, it calls “reality” into being—which is why the word “reality” must be enclosed in quotation marks (Lolita, Afterword, p. 312). In one sense, each of Nabokov's novels traces the way in which a central character constructs, out of myriad surrounding phenomena, the world he or she perceives as real. If he is a philosopher, like Adam Krug in Bend Sinister, he may come to the realization that consciousness “is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all” (p. 188). Few of Nabokov's protagonists achieve this overarching insight, however; gifted though they often are, they remain confined within the circle of their own solipsistic obsessions—whether in the guise of nymphets, chess patterns, an imagined “double,” or a fantasized lost kingdom.

Early Novels

Nabokov's first novel, Mary (Mashen'ka, 1926; trans. 1970), offers a detailed picture of Berlin's émigré culture during the early 1920s. As Ganin, a young Russian exile, dreams of reuniting with a former sweetheart, her image becomes the focus of intense yearning for his lost homeland. After Mary was published, Nabokov was reportedly dissatisfied with its lack of aesthetic detachment. In his second novel, King, Queen, Knave (Korol', dama, valet, 1928), he achieved that detachment by calling attention to the fictional status of his universe—a construct of words taking life from the pen of the author. An arsenal of literary techniques—including wordplay, allusions, self-conscious references, and authorial intrusions—interrupts the reader's sympathetic participation in the characters' lives and world.

As the title King, Queen, Knave suggests, the main characters, like a “royal” triad of cards, play out the hand dealt them by their author as he plays with a favorite cliché of detective fiction: the adulterous love triangle. Franz, the myopic (in both senses) young knave of the novel, arrives in Berlin to work for his wealthy uncle, a prominent businessman named Dreyer. Martha, Dreyer's discontented wife, promptly seduces him, embroiling Franz in a scheme to murder her husband and get his money. The author's overt manipulations notwithstanding, each of the protagonists demonstrates the extent to which character—the psychology and moral consciousness of each character—is fate. Unable to resist Martha's despotic will, the cowardly Franz becomes not only her accomplice but also her puppet. She, on the other hand, is energized by her hatred for her husband, whose elusive inner life is a source of mysterious energy she cannot control and whose unpredictable actions inevitably thwart her plans. For each, “reality” proves to be a psychological construct, an incomplete but significant fusion of individual perception and the phenomenological world.

In The Defense (Zashchita Luzhina, 1930; trans. 1964), Nabokov, himself a composer of chess problems, deploys all the deceptive feints and false leads of the game to narrate the story of an inspired chess genius. Grand master Luzhin is a man rescued from the daunting confusion of life, its relentless sallies against his reclusive nature, by the elegant order of chess. The cold strategies of the chessboard have virtually eclipsed Luzhin's awareness of the world around him. The safety of his retreat is undermined, however, by an extraordinary woman who enters his life. When she and Luzhin's doctor convince him that he must, for the sake of his health and sanity, give up chess altogether, Luzhin tries, but fails, to ward off the deadly encroachments of the game. He ultimately seeks escape by leaping from a window. As he plummets to his death, the shadows in the courtyard declare his defeat as they “divide” before his eyes into the “dark and pale squares” of a chessboard.

The first of Nabokov's novels to receive wide recognition by Russian émigré critics, The Defense is paradigmatic of his later fiction. Sustaining dual, if not multiple, perspectives, it places unique demands on the reader. Luzhin, the hapless genius, is one of Nabokov's most touching protagonists, but his fate, while it provokes sympathy, is not to be “identified with” by the reader, who acquires a more detached perspective. From this vantage, the apparently three-dimensional world recedes into the artist's two-dimensional canvas, itself a kind of game board on which the reader and writer face off. The Eye (Sogliadatai, 1930; trans. 1965), Nabokov's fourth novel, plays with the relationship between life and art, imagination and reality, even more radically. It skillfully creates the illusion that the narrating “I” (and “eye”) of the novel, a nameless Russian émigré living in Berlin, possesses a unique identity, distinct from that of a character named Smurov whom the narrator purports to be observing. In the end, Smurov turns out to be the narrator's projected self, or alter ego. Employing all the devices of a verbal illusionist, Nabokov constructs a hall of mirrors through which the delusional narrator leads his readers.

A Literature of Exile

At the end of 1930, when The Eye was first published, Nabokov was already putting the finishing touches on his next novel, Glory (Podvig, 1932; trans. 1971). By 1931, fascist ideologues were taking to the streets of Berlin, and the offices of Rul' were attacked. Despite the threatening nature of these events, Nabokov continued to write at an astonishing rate, his imagination focused on the past rather than the present. The exile's longing to return to the land of his childhood constitutes Glory's nostalgic theme. Martin Edelweiss, a romantic young Russian, dreams of returning to his beloved homeland, now in the grip of Soviet rule. Near the novel's end, as Martin entertains the possibility of his own death at the hands of executioners, he invokes the brave figure of the Russian Acmeist poet Nikolai Gumilev, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Although it received faint praise from émigré critics, Glory remained a favorite of its author, who counted Martin Edelweiss among his most “resplendent characters.” Present-day readers may detect early soundings of some prominent Nabokovian themes. At one point in the novel, for example, Martin conjures an imaginary land called Zoorland, now bent under the weight of totalitarian rule—an image that would recur in many of Nabokov's later stories and novels, including Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, and would receive its apotheosis in the remarkable design of Pale Fire.

In contrast to Glory, the last of Nabokov's novels to be translated into English, Laughter in the Dark (Kamera obskura, 1932) received its first English translation as Camera Obscura in 1936. Dissatisfied with the translator's version, Nabokov retranslated it several years later as Laughter in the Dark (1938). Despite its flaws, the novel offers insight into some of the most important and least understood aspects of his fiction. The narrator's opening statement introduces the novel's detached perspective: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” True to this fablelike tone, the disaster in which Albinus's life ends is the result of his own moral failings. Psychologically blind from the story's outset, Albinus Kretschmar is, by the time he tries to murder his mistress, physically blind as well. The car crash that destroys his sight is brought on by his jealous rage at Margot's infidelity. His attempt at revenge similarly backfires: the gun goes off, but it is he who is fatally shot. These chilling ironies are greatly relished by the central villain of the tale, a sadistic artist named Axel Rex, who happens to be Margot's lover and delights in toying with the unwitting Albinus. A professional cartoonist, Rex proceeds to turn the rituals of daily life into clever vignettes evincing the same blend of cruelty and credulity that he creates in his newspaper sketches. His attempt to turn life into art for his own amusement represents a particularly vicious form of the misperception that befalls many a Nabokov character—from kindly Luzhin in The Defense to perverse Hermann in Despair and, most eloquently, to tormented Humbert in Lolita. Each fails to recognize the distinction between life and art and the laws governing the individual's prerogatives with respect to both.

Nabokov, by contrast, was rigorous about the distinction between life and art. Outside “that private world” in which the artist reigns as “perfect dictator,” the rights and freedoms of the individual must obtain (Strong Opinions, p. 69). “Democracy is humanity at its best,” he said, “because it is the natural condition of every man since the human mind became conscious not only of the world but of itself” (cited in Field, p. 375). To Nabokov, the artist's control over his fictional universe obviates his characters' autonomy—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on which democracy is founded. Because his highly wrought works of artifice underscore rather than hide this fact, he is often accused of the kind of aesthetic arrogance evinced by Axel Rex. The best argument against such a view is made by the novel itself. In one telling scene from Laughter in the Dark, Rex is engaging in his favorite pastime, taunting the blind Albinus, when Albinus's brother-in-law Paul arrives in search of his missing relative. Bursting into the room to find the naked Rex seated next to the blind man, tickling his face with a stem of grass, Paul delivers a blow to Rex's head, instantly reducing Albinus's tormentor to the naked wretch that he is.

The protagonist of Nabokov's sixth Russian novel, Despair (Otchaianie, 1936; trans. 1966), is another wretch with artistic pretensions. Hermann Karlovich, the first-person narrator, serves as a parody of the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's confessional narrators. In the end, Hermann's plan to commit the “perfect” murder, which he repeatedly compares to the perfect work of art, proves to be a consummate bungle. Savaging Hermann's artistic pretensions, Nabokov subverts the assumptions of detective thrillers as he critiques Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment for its elevation of murder to the status of a philosophical paradigm. From Martha's thwarted attempt to murder her husband in King, Queen, Knave to Humbert's failure to redeem his crime against Lolita by murdering his rival, Clare Quilty, Nabokov's fiction demonstrates that the act of murder is never inspired, merely vicious and intrinsically banal.

Totalitarian Nightmares

It took Nabokov “one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration” to compose his next-to-last novel in Russian, Invitation to a Beheading (Priglashenie na kazn', 1938; trans. 1959) (Strong Opinions, p. 68). The protagonist, Cincinnatus C., has been accused of an indefinite crime, “gnostical turpitude,” apparently meaning that he is guilty of possessing a soul. Gradually, Cincinnatus comes to see that the fortress in which he is imprisoned is only a stage set; the functionaries who run it, interchangeable dummies. The primary role of consciousness in Nabokov's world and vision here receives its most radical expression. As the sole prisoner in this macabre farce, Cincinnatus alone can grant it power. Whenever fear clouds his consciousness, Cincinnatus begins to conjure the farcical prison with dangerous intensity, inadvertently bestowing life on the dummies around him as he “inspire[s] the meaningless with meaning, and the lifeless with life” (p. 155). In the end, Cincinnatus holds on to his head in both senses. His delicate neck poised on the executioner's block, he suddenly rises and asks, “Why am I here?” With this simple challenge, the world of Invitation collapses: the fake scenery breaks up in a whirlwind of “dust, rags, chips of painted wood,” the executioner's platform dissolves “in a cloud of reddish dust,” and Cincinnatus makes his way toward “beings akin to him” (p. 223). Whether Cincinnatus finds liberation in death or in a world existing beyond the flimsy trappings of the prison is a question left for readers to ponder.

Depending on one's critical approach—political, metafictional, or metaphysical—Cincinnatus can be perceived as imprisoned in a fictionalized totalitarian regime, the author's plot, or the inferior world of matter. In each case, Nabokov's use of theatrical metaphors—the fortress's freshly painted walls, greasepainted characters, hastily improvised props—suggests the individual's entrapment in a sham world. If the fraudulent political trials staged by Stalin and his henchmen during the 1930s had some bearing on Nabokov's use of theatrical devices in Invitation, so did his own early activity as a playwright. The Waltz Invention (Izobretenie val'sa, 1938; trans. 1966), the only one of Nabokov's handful of Russian plays to be translated during his lifetime, is set in an invented country that offers some parallels with Invitation. Just as Cincinnatus's jailer, lawyer, and warden—Rodion, Roman, and Rodrig—turn out to be interchangeable dummies, so the government officials in Waltz—Grab, Grob, Gerb, Grib, and others—are similarly devoid of individual identity. Evincing characteristics of both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, Waltz anticipates the dropping of the atomic bomb seven years after its publication.

Nabokov's Gift

Published serially in a Paris émigré journal during 1937–1938, The Gift (Dar, trans. 1963) is the crowning achievement of Nabokov's career as a Russian writer. The complete text of the novel did not appear in book form until 1952, however, when it was brought out in Russian by a publisher based in New York. Displaying all of the stylistic and structural features that characterize Nabokov's most celebrated masterpieces—including Lolita, Pale Fire, and AdaThe Gift is set in émigré Berlin during 1926–1929. It centers on a young writer in exile named Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, his growth as an artist, the evolution of Russian literature, and the intensely debated issues defining Russian émigré culture of this period. For non-Russian readers there is much to appreciate as well. Interweaving themes and motifs from Nabokov's own personal history—Fyodor's loss of a cherished parent as well as of his native land and language—The Gift also depicts the profound literary and emotional rapport that develops between Fyodor and Zina, the young woman he meets and intends to marry. As he reviews the pattern of events that has led to his discovery of Zina, Fyodor gleans the operation of some benign force or fate at work in his life: “And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensible, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them” (p. 189).

From one vantage, the operation of a “painstaking fate” signals the author's controlling presence in the novel, guiding Fyodor toward his happy encounter with Zina. From another, it bespeaks Fyodor's apprehension of a realm existing beyond the world accessible to mortal sense. Although hints of a transcendent world, or “otherworld,” tantalizingly recur throughout Nabokov's fiction, it was not until the 1970s—and, most particularly, not until his widow called explicit attention to this “principal theme” in her late husband's poetry and prose—that most critics began to explore this dimension of his work (Preface, p. 3). Whether or not individual readers wish to tease out this aspect of Nabokov's fiction, they can appreciate the value and meaning assigned to Fyodor's “gift” of creative vision. Inspired by love of art, of life, of Zina, he discovers in the dreary trappings of émigré life, with all of its poverty and dislocation, the sheer wonder of existence.

In The Gift, Fyodor's progress from talented young poet to mature prose writer echoes Nabokov's own literary career, launched by the private publication of his first book of poems at age seventeen and succeeded by what Nabokov would later dismiss as “a steady mass of verse” produced “with monstrous regularity” throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Poems and Problems, p. 13). Half a century later he would translate a small fraction of his Russian verse into English, publishing it alongside the fourteen poems he wrote in English in Poems and Problems (1970). Another aspect of Nabokov's personal history reflected in The Gift is Fyodor's abiding admiration for Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837), acknowledged by most Russians as the nation's greatest poet. The genius of Pushkin presides over The Gift as it does over Nabokov's monumental four-volume translation of and commentary to Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (Evgenii Onegin, 1833; trans. Nabokov, 1964). Nabokov's insistence on providing a literal translation of Pushkin's narrative poem, whose nuances he addresses in a thousand pages of scholarly commentary, sparked his public debate with the American critic Edmund Wilson. Their argument over the principles of translation and of Russian usage became so bitter that it ultimately ended the friendship. Chronicled in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, that friendship began with Wilson's early championship of Nabokov's work after Nabokov arrived in the United States.

Even before Nabokov set sail for America with his wife and six-year-old son, Dmitri (his father's future translator), he had made the decision—“one of the most difficult” in his life—to abandon his native tongue and henceforth write in English. By the time the threat of war was dismantling Europe's émigré communities, Nabokov had written nine novels, fifty-plus short stories, and a handful of plays, and was widely recognized as the leading Russian émigré writer of his generation. Launching his linguistic metamorphosis by translating two of his Russian novels into English (Despair in 1935, Laughter in the Dark in 1938), Nabokov began work in Paris, during the winter of 1938, on his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Its narrator, identified only as V., is at work on a biography of his dead half brother, Sebastian Knight, a novelist whose personal history and idiosyncratic literary style bear marked affinities to Nabokov's. As V. attempts to bring the dead writer to life, his quest alludes to the process of artistic metamorphosis in which Nabokov himself was engaged. In his debut performance as an English writer, Nabokov sought to bring his own style and vision to life in another language. He was, moreover, about to do something still more extraordinary: to bring onto the stage of American letters a literary giant whose fame and influence even he could not have foretold.

Journey to America

During the winter and spring of 1940, while still engaged in the arduous process of obtaining visas for his family to flee Europe, Nabokov prepared for anticipated employment in America by writing a series of lectures on Russian literature. (Forty years later they were edited and published as Lectures on Russian Literature, a companion volume to his Lectures on Literature, devised for his classes on world literature at Wellesley and Cornell.) In May 1940, just before Hitler's armies marched into Paris, the Nabokovs set sail from St. Nazaire, Brittany. With the help of other Russian émigrés, they initially settled in New York and later in Massachusetts—first outside Boston and then in Cambridge. During his first five years in the United States, Nabokov worked on translations of Russian writers, conducted intensive research on Lepidoptera at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and completed a commissioned study, Nikolai Gogol (1944), on one of his favorite Russian writers. In 1946, a year after Nabokov became a U.S. citizen, he completed his second novel in English, Bend Sinister (1947).

Bend Sinister and Invitation to a Beheading are, Nabokov said, “the two bookends of grotesque design between which my other volumes huddle” (“Anniversary Notes,” p. 4). The metaphor aptly suggests the exposure to outside forces that the main characters of these novels suffer, imprisoned as they are in absurd but brutal regimes bent on the destruction of the individual. Both novels reflect in their “grotesque design” the repressive regimes that Nabokov was lucky enough to escape. (His younger brother Sergey, who died in a German concentration camp, was less fortunate.) In Bend Sinister, the totalitarian regime's hostility to individual identity and freedom is exercised by the Party of the Average Man, under the direction of a dictator named Paduk, in an invented country whose inhabitants speak a motley language comprised of Slavic and Germanic roots. Having recently suffered the death of his beloved wife, Olga, Adam Krug mourns her throughout—only to have his agony redoubled when the regime kidnaps his eight-year-old son, David, in an attempt to force Krug, a celebrated philosopher, to comply with the regime's ideological aims. In a manner grotesquely reminiscent of the Nazis' “scientific” experiments on concentration camp inmates, the child is mistakenly murdered. The novel's remarkable ending, which abruptly delivers readers back to the “comparative paradise” of the author's study, proved confusing to many of its early readers. Today those familiar with the self-referential, postrealist narrative strategies of younger American writers, from John Barth and John Hawkes to Don DeLillo (all keen admirers of Nabokov's fiction), are more intrigued than troubled by the prominent role played by Nabokov's authorial persona—in his words, “an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me” (Bend Sinister, p. xviii).

Although the setting and theme of Bend Sinister appear to look back at Nabokov's Russian and European past rather than toward his American present, references to the life and landscape of the United States are scattered throughout the text. Allusions to Melville's Moby-Dick, the drawings of Saul Steinberg, and American immigration procedures are interwoven with a host of references to European literature from James Joyce and Stéphane Mallarmé to Shakespeare, whose Hamlet is discussed for the better part of a chapter. This density of cross-cultural and multilingual allusions has become a hallmark of Nabokov's American fiction. Otherwise, very little about Bend Sinister could have prepared readers for Lolita's arrival on the scene.

Lolita and Fame

Considered too hot to handle by five American publishers, Lolita was finally published in Paris, in 1955, by the Olympia Press. One can only guess how long the novel would have remained hidden between pale green covers, muffled by the imprint of a press known for its “sexy” books, if Graham Greene, a prominent British novelist, had not rescued it from near-oblivion. Speaking to the London Sunday Times on Christmas Day (the timing could not have been lost on Nabokov), Greene named Lolita one of the three best books of the year. Once “discovered,” it quickly became the focus of a legal and literary controversy. Despite its championship by writers and critics in the United States, Lolita did not receive an American edition until 1958—after which acclaim for its artistic merit quickly grew.

Since its publication, more than a few critics have proved unequal to the task of reading Lolita wisely or well. Ignoring the shifting tones and devious rhetorical strategies of the novel's first-person narrator—as well as the false leads provided by the author to trip up the inattentive—they have condemned the novelist's alleged identification with its scurrilous protagonist; some have even denounced Nabokov for his implicit promotion of the child's sexual exploitation. Yet all the puns, patterns, and wordplay spawned by Humbert's narration underscore the reader's need to stay alert, to maintain a critical distance from this most unreliable of narrators. As Humbert's voice shifts from rapturous evocation to mocking self-denigration, the narrative spins comedy out of despair and tragedy out of farce. Set in prosperous postwar America, the novel paints an incongruous, often hilarious picture of a cosmopolitan European set adrift in a New World provincial backwater. Lolita's adolescent infatuation with handsome “Hum” quickly turns to contempt when, after the death of her mother (whom Humbert married to get at the daughter), he turns out to be a grotesque parody of the strict European papa, refusing to let her out of his clutches.

By all accounts, including Humbert's own, he is a pervert. What makes him so interesting, if untrustworthy, a character is the nature of his infernal passion, which derives not from some clinically definable disorder but from the depths of his fevered imagination. The nature of Humbert's quest is revealed early on by the “time terms” he substitutes for “spatial terms” when describing the “perilous” beauty of nymphets. Among young girls between the ages of nine and fourteen, he says, the bewitched nympholept discovers those rare few whose true nature “is not human but nymphic,” or “demoniac” (p. 16). As readers soon discover, it is Humbert's own fantasizing imagination that works the demonic magic he ascribes to the nymphet. Only belatedly does he admit that, prey to his ardent imagination, he is the predator who captured Lolita and destroyed her childhood. If Humbert's confession of guilt at the end of the novel does not manage “to save his soul,” as he hopes, it does afford him a modicum of saving grace (p. 308). The awakening that triggers his qualified redemption is both moral and aesthetic, because it depends both on the intensity of his remorse and on his vital perception of the child's autonomous identity. This link between ethics and aesthetics in Nabokov's fiction has generated increasing interest among scholars and critics, laying to rest his early reputation as an aesthete indifferent to the ethical concerns of human beings.

Once published in the United States, Lolita sold 100,000 copies in the first three weeks, catapulting it to the top of the best-seller list, where it remained for months. By this time Nabokov's next novel, Pnin (1957), had received its own share of acclaim. Pnin's success, in contrast to Lolita's, can largely be explained by the appeal of its main character, Timofey Pnin, a Russian émigré who teaches his native language at a New England college called Waindell. Awkward, absentminded, pedantic, Professor Pnin is, according to his author, not in the least a “clown”—although this assertion might surprise some of the nastier members of the Waindell faculty, whose lampoons of Pnin constitute a major pastime. The petty cruelty evinced by these and other characters is a reminder of the viciousness of which human beings are capable—a viciousness amply demonstrated by the recent history through which Pnin has lived. Less fortunate were many of Pnin's friends and acquaintances who, like his former sweetheart, Mira, perished in a Nazi concentration camp or were similarly “murdered” and “forgotten.”

While Lolita declared Nabokov an American writer—its worldwide success making him an international celebrity—Pnin calls attention to the polarities of the novelist's cultural and linguistic identity. Timofey Pnin's hopeless grasp of English offers a comic counterpoint to Nabokov's mastery of his adopted language, just as Pnin's cultural dislocation and dismay contrast radically with Nabokov's expertise: the way he captures with perfect pitch the tones and rhythms of mid-century American life in Lolita. Indeed, so thoroughly had Nabokov steeped himself in his new language and country, so successful was he at transforming himself into an American writer that, when he turned his hand to translating Lolita into Russian, he was dismayed to find himself on the other side of the linguistic divide. Despite the admiration that Nabokov's translation of Lolita (1967) has won from leading Russian critics, Nabokov himself, as Alexander Dolonin points out, “expressed bitter disappointment with his own performance and complained that his old Russian strings had gotten rusty” (The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, pp. 323–324).

The Last Arc of Exile

In 1959, a year after Lolita's arrival in America, Nabokov bid good-bye to academic life and to Cornell University, where he had taught for over a decade. After writing a screenplay of Lolita for Stanley Kubrick, which was later published (in 1974) but which the director largely ignored, Nabokov settled with Véra in Montreux, Switzerland, where he continued to reside until his death on 2 July 1977. Commenting on this ultimate phase of his life, Nabokov said, “I think I am trying to develop, in this rosy exile, the same fertile nostalgia in regard to America, my new country, as I evolved for Russia, my old one, in the first post-revolution years of West-European expatriation” (Strong Opinions, p. 49). Both phases of exile were recast in Nabokov's next novel, Pale Fire (1962), which juxtaposes a cozy American college town called New Wye, apparently located in upstate New York, with the remote kingdom of Northern Zembla, located in a fictional, Russified Scandinavia.

The novel opens with a brief foreword by Charles Kinbote, who introduces a 999-line narrative poem in rhyming couplets penned by a fictional American poet, John Shade. (It is worth noting that in Shade's poem Nabokov creates, for the first time in his career, a purely American voice—and does it within the strict parameters of rhyming couplets.) Recently deceased, Shade was for five months Kinbote's neighbor in New Wye, where he, like Kinbote, taught at Wordsmith College. Shade's poem in four cantos, “Pale Fire,” occupies thirty-seven pages of the novel's text and is followed by Kinbote's lengthy commentary and index. By composing his huge commentary, Kinbote intends to reveal what he believes is the true subject of Shade's meditative poem: the story of Zembla's exiled king, Charles the Beloved, forced to flee after a revolution staged by the Extremist Party and pursued by an assassin sent to track him down in the United States. Kinbote's outrageous contention, that “without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all,” testifies to the delusion of a madman who believes himself to be the exiled king and reads Shade's poem through the distorting lens of his fantasy (p. 28). Conjuring a fairy-tale kingdom possessing its own unique history, politics, and people, Kinbote's riotous imagination and paranoid impulses trace a wild course over Shade's contemplative verse, which quietly explores the nature of art and the possible key to life's meaning. In his poem, Shade fashions a window through which to peer beyond the limits of the present; Kinbote gazes through it to discover a remote and mythical past.

Pale Fire's four distinct sections—Shade's poem and Kinbote's foreword, commentary, and index—constitute an intricately patterned, overarching design. As numerous critics have shown, many details of Kinbote's fantasized kingdom mirror elements of his academic life—from his anxieties about being exposed as a homosexual to the ridicule he suffers at the hands of certain colleagues. Threaded through Kinbote's commentary, moreover, are numerous skeins of interwoven images and motifs that resonate with and reflect elements of Shade's poem, beginning with its title. The opening lines of Shade's poem introduce the theme of reflection, a theme sustained and developed by the poem's recurrent images of windows, mirrors, and other shimmering surfaces: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the windowpane” (p. 33). This image of “false azure,” while bearing no literal relation to Kinbote's presumed identity as Charles the Beloved, resonantly comments on the illusory reality Kinbote has conjured to escape the confines of his unhappy existence. The kingdom of Zembla is a virtual world of mirrors—it has a palace of stained glass windows, a skyscraper of ultramarine glass, and a glass factory that serves as a focal point for the country's political crises. And just as Zembla reflects, as in a distortive mirror, Kinbote's life in New Wye, so the design of Shade's poem not only reflects details of Shade's domestic life but also at times appears, without the poet's knowing it, to foreshadow his untimely death. The agent responsible for these telling patterns of interlinking images is neither Kinbote nor Shade, as some critics have insisted, but Nabokov himself. At the end of the novel, John Shade dies senselessly, shot through the heart by a convict who mistakes him for someone else. But the “web of sense” he has sought to unravel by means of art's “combinational delight” emerges in the text's overarching design, in which Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary play their assigned parts (pp. 63, 69).

Ada and Antiterra

At the apex of his celebrity as an American writer, Nabokov published his longest and most difficult novel, Ada; or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). The event was lavishly announced by Time magazine in its 23 May issue, which had the author's picture on the cover. How many of those who bought the book actually finished it poses an interesting question. What cannot be questioned is the complexity of its artistry. In Ada the artifice is more intricately contrived, the texture of allusions more densely interwoven, than in any previous or subsequent Nabokov novel—and that is saying a lot. By distorting and recombining the geographical, social, and historical facts of terrestrial life, Nabokov invents a world that leaves nothing to chance—and everything to art. The inhabitants of Antiterra are as extraordinary as their planet's topography; their experience, like Antiterran history and geography, is a dazzlingly distorted version of earthly existence. The characters pursue lives of remarkable excess: an excess both moral and material, from which the middle ground of human experience—the routine demands, constraints, and consolations—has been largely obliterated. Imbued with prodigious intelligence, energy, and appetite, Van and Ada Veen, siblings as well as lovers, are both monstrous and magnificent. Driven by a relentless capacity for “inhuman passion,” they have little time and less inclination for the humbler forms of human affection (p. 252). From this perspective, Antiterra's alternative name, Demonia, suggests the demonic, or infernal, nature of the passion that rules not only their lives (the name of Van and Ada's father is Demon Veen) but the lives of virtually every other character in the novel.

As Van narrates, with Ada's help, the history of their lifelong love affair, the gardens of Ardis, where he and Ada first discovered the ecstasy of incest, exist in his memory as a perfect world of delight—one that parodies the myth of Eden and original innocence. The branches of the Zemski family tree, of which Van and Ada are the last surviving members, bear numerous forebears whose predilection for “old masters and young mistresses” offers suggestive variations on the siblings' own carnal and creative energies (p. 4). The interlinking relationships everywhere present in Ada are by no means confined to the familial, however. The text teems with linguistic references and intertextual allusions that investigate the interconnections between art and ardor, literature and painting, science and art, writing and acrobatics. On a global plane, myriad aspects of Antiterra tantalizingly evoke its possible relationship to a “sibling planet” that some Antiterran believers call Terra. In his novel, Letters from Terra, Van debunks the “strain of sweet happiness” pervading such visions of “Terra the Fair.” The “purpose of the novel,” he explains, “was to suggest that Terra cheated, that all was not paradise there, that perhaps in some ways human minds and human flesh underwent on that sibling planet worse torments than on our much maligned Demonia” (p. 341). True, Demonia's privileged and powerful practice every form of aesthetic and erotic indulgence at the expense of the lowly and weak. On the other hand, the scourges of war, revolution, and genocide are unknown to its inhabitants, who have enjoyed a “cloudless course of Demonian history in the twentieth century” (p. 580). In contrast to our Earth, Demonia appears to be, if not a “comparative paradise,” a rather charming, old-fashioned version of hell.

Nabokov's Shades

Following in the wake of Ada, Transparent Things (1972) marks a radical departure from Nabokov's previous novels in English. Brief in length and laconic in style, the novel centers on an inept protagonist whose name, like his character, lacks the dynamic features of a Humbert or a Kinbote, a Van or Ada Veen. Nor can Hugh Person claim any of these characters' prodigious talents. While he is affectionately regarded by the narrator, such fondness derives from sympathy rather than admiration. “Hugh, a sentimental simpleton, and somehow not a very good Person,” says the narrator, “was merely a rather dear one” (p. 77). The novel, set in the 1950s and 1960s, follows Hugh Person from his days as a college student to his fortieth year. Events center on several European trips that he makes, the first with his widowed father and the last as a widower himself. An editor for a New York publisher, Hugh is assigned to work with Mr. R., a German-born novelist living in Switzerland, “who wrote English considerably better than he spoke it” and is known in his “adopted country” as a “master stylist” (p. 43). If these parodic references to the author's persona replay a familiar Nabokovian device, Mr. R. proves highly original in other ways. Not only is he an intrusive narrator, he is a posthumous one, having died by the time the novel opens.

Shortly after the publication of Transparent Things, Nabokov, taking note of the general incomprehension expressed by most reviewers, pointed to the novel's “behind-the-cypress inquiry into a tangle of random destinies” (Strong Opinions, pp. 194–196). Guided by this clue, critics returned to the novel to discover its ghostly theme and, subsequently, to trace that theme in other Nabokov novels. The information they have culled about these shades or ghosts suggests why notice of their presence came relatively late. Contrary to the conventions of folk or fairy tales, Nabokov's shades do not meddle directly in a person's life, dictating the course of the action or a character's fate. The influence they exert is both limited and oblique: by creating sudden shifts in the atmosphere, they encode phenomena with cryptic signs and messages. In Transparent Things, Mr. R. brings an otherworldly perspective to Hugh's story by revealing “things” that are “transparent” to a ghostly eye but opaque to those included among the novel's living. With the help of his fellow shades, the ghostly Mr. R. tries to assist Hugh as best he can; as the novel's narrator, he calls attention to patterns in Hugh's life that signal or foretell the design of his death. In the end, Hugh, like Cincinnatus and Krug before him, is liberated from the local landscape, gathered into a stylized eternity by the novel's invisible shades. “Easy…does it, son,” says Mr. R., as he helps Hugh in the transition “from one state of being to another” (p. 158). The game of worlds in which this and other Nabokov novels playfully engage casts a speculative light on the nature of our own world and what may lie beyond its perceived confines.

Just as Transparent Things treats the theme of the otherworld more directly than any of Nabokov's previous fiction, so Look at the Harlequins! (1974) explicitly plays with and parodies the figure of the authorial persona—the shadowy V. in pursuit of Sebastian Knight's “real life,” the N. who relates Pnin's history—that reappears throughout his fiction. LATH, as Nabokov referred to his last completed novel, is cast as the memoir of a successful Anglo-Russian writer, Vadim Vadimovich N., or VV, whose life, like his name, is a distorted (and reductive) version of the author's. (Nabokov's own initials, V. V., stand for Vladimir Vladimirovich.) Born, like his near namesake, in 1899, VV has suffered a paralytic stroke that appears to have triggered or exacerbated his headaches and nervous disorders. He is haunted by the sense that he is only a pale reflection, or “parody,” of a much greater writer, his life “an inferior variant” of “another man's life, somewhere on this or another earth” (p. 89). At the end of the novel, the tormented VV is able to break through the confines of his solipsistic perception and, in the form of the woman he loves, to embrace the larger world of “Reality.” This theme has been sounded throughout Nabokov's novels and, it must be said, often to greater effect. Readers can trace its development from Ganin's awakening to the world around him, to Cincinnatus's epiphany concerning the flimsy trappings of the prison in which he is incarcerated, to Humbert's recognition that the real loss has been Lolita's, not his. In each case revelation, like a butterfly, breaks free of the cocoon spun by desire or obsession, fear or nostalgia—and makes contact, however briefly, with some higher truth or reality.

The dominant themes of Nabokov's career are also highlighted in the posthumously published collection The Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995), which joins some fifty of the stories he wrote in Russian during the 1920s and 1930s with the ten he composed in English. The majority of these stories previously appeared in four definitive collections brought out in the aftermath of Lolita's success—beginning with the English stories in Nabokov's Dozen (1958) and followed by three volumes of translations from the original Russian: A Russian Beauty (1973), Tyrants Destroyed (1975), and Details of a Sunset (1976). Unlike these volumes, however, the 1995 collection is organized chronologically and contains thirteen newly translated Russian stories to boot. It allows Nabokov's readers to trace the development, and intriguing metamorphoses, of themes and techniques he explored throughout his longer fiction. Those familiar with his novels will note the variations that both early and late stories ring on such dominant themes as the narrator's imaginative return to an idyllic first world; the presence of authorial agents or representatives within the text; the role of individual perception in creating or determining the nature of a character's “reality”; imagination's discovery of the extraordinary within the ordinary; the creative gestation of the work of art in the writer's consciousness; hints of an otherworld or metaphysical realm embedded in the fabric of existence, and the power of human thought, curiosity, and love to make fleeting contact with it.

Nabokov's Gift to American Literature

Rehearsing the dominant themes of Nabokov's fiction cannot begin to suggest, however, the impact and effects of his audacious language and style. The surprise of a Nabokov sentence, the charge of its linguistic layers and lapidary wit, defy description: you have to see (or read) it for yourself to believe it. Better to try capturing the arc of an airborne skater's triple axel or the leap of human thought as it soars like an acrobat into space. The self-conscious, self-referential nature of Nabokov's fiction celebrates the most daring feats of imagination, memory, thought, and art. The game of worlds in which Nabokov invites readers to participate is neither a superficial sport nor an escape from the exigencies of human experience. Rather, it serves as a model or reflection of the processes by which all of us, each in his or her own way, intimately register and record, shape and make known the world we inhabit. Nabokov liked to compare the artist to a conjurer and the tricks of his trade to the magician's sleights of hand. But the strategies of self-conscious artifice point to more than the prestidigitator's performance: like the magician whose deft fingers pluck a live bird from his hat, Nabokov summons the “real” in the very act of creating illusion.

Thirty years after Nabokov arrived in America, the journal TriQuarterly devoted its Winter 1970 issue to his achievement, celebrating the author's seventieth birthday and declaring him the greatest living American writer. Joining in the celebration was an impressive array of younger American writers, including John Updike, Herbert Gold, Richard Howard, and John Barth—each of whom paid his respects to the master. Speaking for a still younger generation of American writers, Edmund White, in a 1984 essay, said that Nabokov must ultimately be ranked alongside two other Russian artists of his generation who emigrated to America: the choreographer George Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky. All three Russians, their genius “clarified” by French culture, embraced the “breezy short-order cook of American informality” (Achievement, pp. 25–26). White here alludes to the impact of New World culture on these formidable Russian innovators who, in their different media, would help fashion a new definition of American art and culture. When Nabokov arrived in America in 1940, many readers and writers were still caught in the spell of Ernest Hemingway's minimalist style, his code of understatement. But new voices—those of Jewish, African-American, and regional writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Eudora Welty—were making themselves heard. To this vital infusion of new ethnic and racial perspectives, Nabokov added the charged rhythms of his language and the cross-cultural dimensions of his expatriate vision—helping to change forever what it means to write in the American grain.


  • Laughter in the Dark (Kamera obskura, 1932) (1938)
  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
  • Nikolai Gogol (1944)
  • Bend Sinister (1947)
  • Lolita (1955)
  • Pnin (1957)
  • Nabokov's Dozen (1958)
  • Invitation to a Beheading (Priglashenie na kazn', 1938) (1959)
  • Pale Fire (1962)
  • The Gift (Dar, 1952) (1963)
  • The Defense (Zashchita Luzhina, 1930) (1964)
  • Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin, trans. with commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, 4 vols. (1964; rev. ed. 1975)
  • The Eye (Sogliadatai, 1930) (1965)
  • Despair (Otchaianie, 1936) (1966)
  • The Waltz Invention (Izobretenie val'sa, 1938) (1966)
  • Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966)
  • King, Queen, Knave (Korol', dama, valet, 1928) (1968)
  • Ada; or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
  • Mary (Mashen'ka, 1926) (1970)
  • Poems and Problems (1970)
  • Glory (Podvig, 1932) (1971)
  • Transparent Things (1972)
  • A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973)
  • Strong Opinions (1973)
  • Lolita: A Screenplay (1974)
  • Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
  • Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975)
  • Details of a Sunset and Other Stories (1976)
  • Lectures on Don Quixote (1980)
  • Lectures on Literature (1980)
  • Lectures on Russian Literature (1981)
  • The Man from the USSR and Other Plays (1984)
  • The Enchanter (1986)
  • The Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1995)

Further Reading

  • Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton, N.J., 1991. A detailed exploration of the metaphysical dimension of Nabokov's fiction and the relationship between ethics and metaphysics in his universe.
  • Alexandrov, Vladimir, ed. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York, 1995. A comprehensive collection of authoritative analyses of Nabokov's works by many of the world's recognized experts.
  • Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley, Calif., 1975. Alter's seminal discussion of Pale Fire, in chapter 6, offers the most concise and illuminating introduction to the novel's structure and themes.
  • Appel, Alfred, Jr., ed. The Annotated Lolita. Rev. ed. New York, 1991. Appel's introduction to the novel offers valuable insights into Nabokov's major techniques and narrative devices.
  • Appel, Alfred, Jr., and Charles Newman, eds. For Vladimir Nabokov on His Seventieth Birthday. Supplement to TriQuarterly, no. 17 (Winter 1970).
  • Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J., 1990.
  • Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J., 1991. Boyd's definitive two-volume biography, covering the Russian and American phases of Nabokov's life, offers critical insights into virtually all of his Russian and English works.
  • Connolly, Julian W., ed. Nabokov and His Fiction: New Perspectives. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.
  • Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art. Boston, 1967. An early critical biography that contains some insightful readings of Nabokov's fiction.
  • Grayson, Jane, Arnold McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer, eds. Nabokov's World. Vol. 1, The Shape of Nabokov's World. Vol. 2, Reading Nabokov. Houndmills, U.K., 2002.
  • Johnson, Kurt, and Steve Coates. Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Cambridge, Mass., 1999. A fascinating account of Nabokov's pioneering contributions to the field of lepidoptery.
  • Karlinsky, Simon, ed. Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971. Rev. ed. Berkeley, Calif., 2001. The correspondence between Nabokov and the American writer and literary critic, Edmund Wilson, is helpfully annotated by the editor.
  • Nabokov, Dmitri, and Matthew J. Bruccoli, eds. Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940–1977. New York, 1989.
  • Page, Norman, ed. Nabokov: The Critical Heritage. London, 1982. A guide to the critical response to Nabokov from the 1930s through the 1970s, including samples of his early Russian and European reviews.
  • Pifer, Ellen. Nabokov and the Novel. Cambridge, Mass., 1980. A critical reassessment of Nabokov's highly wrought works of artifice, arguing for an ethical as well as aesthetic dimension in his art.
  • Pifer, Ellen, ed. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: A Casebook. New York, 2002. A representative collection of essays on Nabokov's most famous, and controversial, novel.
  • Rivers, J. E., and Charles Nicol, eds. Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work. Austin, Tex., 1982.
  • Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York, 1989. In chapter 7 of his study, this prominent American philosopher offers an interesting, if not always convincing, reading of Nabokov's treatment of human cruelty.
  • Schiff, Stacy. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). New York, 1999. A portrait of the artist's wife that lends insight into their remarkable literary partnership.
  • Shapiro, Gavriel, ed. Nabokov at Cornell. Ithaca, N.Y., 2003. Selected essays by an international gathering of scholars who participated in the Nabokov centenary festival held at Cornell University in 1999.
  • Shrayer, Maxim D. The World of Nabokov's Stories. Austin, Tex., 1999. A comprehensive study of Nabokov's short stories that illuminates his Russian literary origins.
  • White, Edmund. Nabokov: Beyond Parody. In The Achievements of Vladimir Nabokov, edited by George Gibian and Stephen Jan Parker. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.