Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899, to a Russian aristocratic family and educated at Cambridge University in England. He grew up on a large country estate near St. Petersburg where he collected and mounted butterflies. In winter he lived in St. Petersburg; he learned to speak and read English and French as he learned Russian—he was trilingual, and his family spoke all three languages around their homes. In 1919 after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in the Bolshevik Revolution, his family escaped from Russia; they lived as émigrés in Europe, settling in Berlin. In 1922 Nabokov's father, who was a democrat (member of a liberal political party who vehemently defended Jewish rights) and wrote political articles, was murdered by a Russian nationalist (member of conservative group later sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazi Party).
Nabokov wrote many novels in his native Russian under the name V.I. Sirin, but he barely eked out a living. In 1925 he married a Russian Jewish woman, Véra Slonim, and they had one child, Dimitri. In 1937 the family moved to Paris. After escaping Berlin in 1940 during the rise of Hitler, Véra and Vladimir Nabokov left Nazi-occupied Paris for the United States, where he taught primarily at Wellesley College and Cornell University, lecturing on Russian, writing, and literature.
Between 1948 and 1953 Vladimir and Véra traveled from New York through the Midwest and on to Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, and California. During these trips Véra drove so Nabokov could take notes on the hotels and motels they stayed in, as well as on the countryside, the mountains, the flowers and butterflies. These notes—written on index cards—made their way into Lolita. Véra also researched, edited, typed, and acted as agent for the novel. At one point in frustration with the writing of Lolita, Nabokov tried to burn its unfinished drafts, but Véra stopped him. The book was finished in Oregon in 1953.
At least four US publishers rejected Lolita, including Viking Press, which said, "We would all go to jail if that thing were published." As a result Nabokov took his manuscript abroad to be published by the Olympia Press in 1955. Olympia was a somewhat disreputable firm that published pornography as well as literature. When G.P. Putnam's Sons published the novel in the United States in 1958, aspects of the book were already well known. The condemnation of its salacious content may account for part of its sudden and spectacular success, spending six months as the number-one best-selling book in the United States. The idea of Lolita—an older man's lust for a very young girl—has worked its way into the general culture so thoroughly that even people who know nothing else about the book understand the connotations of the name Lolita. The book has since been regularly recognized as one of the most accomplished novels of the 20th century.
After the success of Lolita Nabokov was able to spend all of his time writing. In 1960 he and his wife moved to Switzerland to be near their son Dimitri, who had become an opera singer. Nabokov wrote poetry, literary criticism, and other much-admired novels, including Pnin, Pale Fire, and Ada. He died in Switzerland on July 2, 1977, at 79.