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Vladimir Nabokov | Biography

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Personal and Professional Life

Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899, to an aristocratic Russian 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. He learned to speak and read English and French as he learned Russian—he was trilingual, and his family spoke all three languages at home. In 1919 after the fall of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II during the Bolshevik Revolution (overthrow of imperial government), Nabokov's family escaped from Russia; they lived as émigrés in Europe, settling in Berlin. In Russia, Nabokov's father had been a member of a liberal political party that vehemently defended Jewish rights, and he had also been an official in the post-revolutionary provisional government. In 1922 Nabokov's father was murdered by a Russian extreme rightist who was attempting to assassinate another man.

Nabokov wrote many novels in his native Russian under the name V. Sirin, but he barely eked out a living teaching language lessons and doing other odd jobs. In 1925 he married a Russian Jewish woman, Véra Slonim, with whom he had a son, Dmitri. In 1937 the family moved to Paris. In 1940 they left Nazi-occupied France for the United States. Nabokov began teaching primarily at Wellesley College and Cornell University, lecturing on Russian, writing, and literature.

After arriving in the United States Nabokov published two novels in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Bend Sinister (1947). His next novel, Lolita (1955), recounts the European protagonist's seduction of his 12-year-old American stepdaughter. The novel became a best seller, enabling Nabokov to quit teaching and devote himself to writing. His other English-language novels include Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada (1969). In 1960 Nabokov and his wife moved to Switzerland to be near their son Dmitri, an opera singer. Nabokov died in Switzerland on July 2, 1977. At the time of his death, he was working on a novel. He instructed his wife, Vera, to burn the incomplete manuscript. Instead, she kept it in a Swiss bank vault and in 2009 their son, Dmitri, published it as The Original of Laura.

Works

Over the course of his literary career, Nabokov wrote poetry, plays, literary criticism, translations, and novels in Russian and later in English. He also wrote an autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951). However, he is best known for his novels, particularly the English-language novels Lolita and Pale Fire. These books feature complex wordplay, allusions, and poetic prose. In a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, Nabokov said, "I have never been able to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic prose." He added that, as in poetry, "in plain prose there are also certain rhythmic patterns, [and] the music of precise phrasing."

Style

In addition to crystalline prose, Nabokov's novels are admired for their use of parody, metafiction, and unusual structures. A parody is an exaggerated imitation of another author or work. Nabokov's novel The Gift (1952) parodies Russian émigré writing. Lolita parodies American commercial culture of the 1950s in its lists of motel names. Pale Fire has an unusual novelistic structure. It consists of a long poem by a fictional poet and a parody of ambiguous academic commentary by a fictional professor. This structure makes Pale Fire a work of metafiction. Metafiction means fiction that emphasizes its own literariness or artificiality. Nabokov's literary output was extensive during his lifetime and his "legacy of challenging but playful fiction ... continues to ... dazzle scholars and casual readers alike."

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