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Nabokov, Lolita


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Vladímir Nabókov
If nothing else, I hope you'll leave this class knowing the correct way to pronounce Nabokov's name: both first and last name are accented on the penultimate sylable--Vlad-EE-mir Na-BO-koff (the final "v" is devoiced in Russian; cf. "Rachmaninoff").

Vladimir Vladimirovich ["son of Vladimir"] Nabokov was born in in 1899 into a wealthy St. Petersburg family, which emigrated from Russia in 1919, in the so-called "First Wave" of emigration.[1] The young Nabokov attended Cambridge, where he took a degree in Slavic and Romance literature, and then moved to Berlin, where he lived from 1922 to 1937; wrote his nine Russian novels, plus most of his poetry and short stories; and married Vera Slonim (in 1925). The Nabokovs moved to France in 1937, and to America in 1940, where Nabokov taught literature at Wellesley College and pursued his professional interest in lepidoptery at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. From 1949 through 1959 Nabokov taught Slavic Literature at Cornell. Upon retiring, he moved to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1977.

Nabokov's departure from Europe in 1940 marked the end of his active career as a Russian writer. All his subsequent original fiction was in English. Only three novels were produced during his sojourn in America: Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955; not published in the USA until 1958), and Pnin (1957). The remaining English novels--Pale Fire (1962), Ada (1969), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974)--were written in Switzerland, where Nabokov also personally supervised the translation of his Russian novels into English. Nabokov is also known for his English translations of Russian classics--notably his pedantic, exhaustively annotated translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and his unsurpassed rendering of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time--and for his remarkable accomplishments as a lepidopterist (scholar of butterflies) and as a chess problemist.

Lolita, now among the 20 books named by the New York Public Library as literary "landmarks" of the 20th century, almost didn't see the light of day: early on, Nabokov nearly burned his notes for the manuscript, then, less rashly, considered using a pseudonym for the finished novel. Initially, he sought to bring it out in America. "Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb?" he wrote James Laughlin of New Directions.

But with his "time bomb" rejected by every major American house, he settled for the publisher he attracted, Olympia Press, a Parisian outfit whose list ran to titles like White Thighs, With Open Mouth, and The Story of O. Its imprimatur assured that Lolita would be neither advertised nor reviewed, and it went unnoticed until January 1956, when Graham Greene designated it one of the three best books of the previous year. Unearthed, Lolita became entrenched as the literary work least likely to inspire neutrality. "It shocks," Harvey Breit noted in The New York Times, "because it is great art." The editor of the London Sunday Express was of a different opinion, calling it "the filthiest book I've ever read."

By late 1956, Lolita was banned in France, and its British publication was delayed by an obscenity bill pending in Parliament. "My poor Lolita is having a rough time," Nabokov wrote to Greene. "The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, philistines might never have flinched." Two more years passed before G. P Putnam's Sons became the sole publisher prepared to unleash Lolita on Americans; on the afternoon of its publication, Putnam wrote to Nabokov, "Over twenty-six hundred reorders today." Four days later, Lolita entered its third printing.

1Russian emigration has a long history. Between 1861 and 1915, a total of 4,300,000 people left Russia, most of them for the USA. (You'll recall that this was Svidrigailov's plan in Crime and Punishment.) The so-called "First Wave" of emigration after the 1917 Revolution consisted largely of well-born (aristocratic) and well-educated people who saw the Revolution (correctly) as a fatal blow to their way of life. The emigrants of the First Wave established expatriate centres of Russian culture in several European cities (Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Sofia, Riga, Helsinki and Talinn), but Paris became the emigré capital of Russian culture, art and literature. Between 1917 to 1938, between 3.5 and 4 million people left the country.

The Second Wave of emigration lasted from 1939 to 1947, and accounted for the departure of 8 to 10 million people. The Third Wave is most often considered as lasting until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, accounting for the departure of a further 1,100,000. Compared to the First Wave, which included or produced many of the best Russian writers and poets of the 20th century (including Nabokov, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Blamont, Merezhkovsky, Bunin, Teffi, Remizov, and Hippius), the Second and Third Wave emigrants were less Westernized, less intellectual, and produced little literature of note.

Since 1990, the emigration has more or less stabilized, fluctuating from a maximum of 114,000 in 1993 to a minimum of 78,000 in 2000. The emigration from Russia over the last decade is widely considered to be a "brain drain": 60% of the Russian emigrés to Australia, 59% of the emigrés to Canada, 48% of the emigrés to the USA and 32.5% of the emigrés to Israel had a tertiary education. The Russian scientists' diaspora numbers as many as 30,000 people; the number of "contracted" Russian scientists abroad is four times largeró120,000. [back to Nabokov bio]

Study question

In lieu of a list of study questions, I have a single assignment for you: think about how Lolita fits into the Western Canon, as we've come to understand it over the course of the past year. Some points to bear in mind:
  • Nabokov is a highly allusive writer (even in bold, that's an understatement); many of the authors to whom he alludes are beyond the purview of Lit. Hum., such as as Edgar Allen Poe (whose shadow looms large over Lolita; Maurice Couturier called it "a Poerotic novel"), but many allusions will be accessible to you.
  • Nabokov plays games--word games and problem-solving games--with the reader. Some of the games are self-contained, like puns, internal rhyme, and tongue-in-cheek literary allusion (e.g., Macbeth's famous line "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" becomes "To borrow, and to borrow, and to borrow"); others are more involved and require you to keep track of a series of allusions or "clues" in order to appreciate the payoff at the end. If anything in Lolita strikes you as "weird" in a not-immediately-explicable sort of way, it's probably a "clue" of this kind. If you like mind games, play along; if not, there's plenty of more strictly "literary" material to keep you occupied.
  • Nabokov is writing in a land, and in a language, not his own. He is also the only writer on our syllabus to have been familiar with Dostoevsky in the original, as well as with Western European literature.

Web Resources
There are simply zillions of pages online devoted to Nabokov, but here are some of the more interesting links you might like to explore:

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