The Works of Vladimir Nabokov – suggested by Thomas Robb
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (April 1899 – 2 July 1977) was a multilingual Russian novelist, poet and short story writer. Nabokov’s first nine novels were in Russian. He then rose to international prominence as a writer of English prose. He also made serious contributions as a lepidopterist and chess composer.
Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as among his most important novels and is his most widely known, exhibiting the love of intricate word play and synesthetic detail that characterised all his works. The novel was ranked at No. 4 in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels. Pale Fire (1962) was ranked at No. 53 on the same list. His memoir, Speak, Memory, was listed No. 8 on the Modern Library nonfiction list
Nabokov’s first writings were in Russian, but he came to his greatest distinction in the English language. For this achievement, he has been compared with Joseph Conrad; yet Nabokov viewed this as a dubious comparison, as Conrad composed in French and English. Nabokov disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson, “I am too old to change Conradically” – which John Updike later called, “itself a jest of genius”. Nabokov translated many of his own early works into English, sometimes in cooperation with his son Dmitri. His trilingual upbringing had a profound influence on his artistry. Nabokov himself translated into Russian two books that he had originally written in English, Conclusive Evidence and Lolita. The first “translation” was made because of Nabokov’s feeling of imperfection in the English version. Writing the book, he noted that he needed to translate his own memories into English, and to spend a lot of time explaining things which are well known in Russia; then he decided to re-write the book once again, in his first native language, and after that he made the final version, Speak, Memory (Nabokov first wanted to name it “Speak, Mnemosyne”). Nabokov was a proponent of individualism, and rejected concepts and ideologies that curtailed individual freedom and expression, such as totalitarianism in its various forms as well as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Poshlost, or as he transcribed it, poshlust, is disdained and frequently mocked in his works.
Nabokov published under the pseudonym “Vladimir Sirin” in the 1920s to 1940s, occasionally to mask his identity from critics. He also makes cameo appearances in some of his novels, such as the character “Vivian Darkbloom” (an anagram of “Vladimir Nabokov”), who appears in both Lolita and Ada, or Ardor.
Nabokov is noted for his complex plots, clever word play, and use of alliteration. He gained both fame and notoriety with his novel Lolita (1955), which tells of a grown man’s devouring passion for a twelve-year-old girl. This and his other novels, particularly Pale Fire (1962), won him a place among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His longest novel, which met with a mixed response, is Ada (1969). He devoted more time to the composition of this novel than any of his others. Nabokov’s fiction is characterised by its linguistic playfulness. For example, his short story “The Vane Sisters” is famous in part for its acrostic final paragraph, in which the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave.
Nabokov’s stature as a literary critic is founded largely on his four-volume translation of and commentary on Alexander Pushkin’s epic of the Russian soul, Eugene Onegin, published in 1964. That commentary ended with an appendix titled Notes on Prosody which has developed a reputation of its own. It stemmed from his observation that while Pushkin’s iambic tetrameters had been a part of Russian literature for a fairly short two centuries, they were clearly understood by the Russian prosodists. On the other hand, he viewed the much older English iambic tetrameters as muddled and poorly documented. In his own words:
I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little—in comparison to the forced preliminaries—namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.
Nabokov’s translation was the focus of bitter polemics by Edmund Wilson and others; he had rendered the very precisely metered and rhyming novel in verse to (by his own admission) stumbling, non-rhymed prose. He argued that all verse translations of Onegin fatally betrayed the author’s use of language; critics replied that failure to make the translation as beautifully styled as the original was a much greater betrayal.
Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature at Cornell University where he was appointed an instructor in 1948, reveals his controversial ideas concerning art. He firmly believed that novels should not aim to teach and that readers should not merely empathise with characters but that a ‘higher’ aesthetic enjoyment should be attained, partly by paying great attention to details of style and structure. He detested what he saw as ‘general ideas’ in novels, and so when teaching Ulysses, for example, he would insist students keep an eye on where the characters were in Dublin (with the aid of a map) rather than teaching the complex Irish history that many critics see as being essential to an understanding of the novel. During his ten years at Cornell, Nabokov introduced undergraduates to the delights of great fiction, including Bleak House by Charles Dickens, in fifty-minute classroom lectures. Not until glasnost did Nabokov’s work become officially available in his native country. Mikhail Gorbachev authorised a five-volume edition of his writing in 1988.
In 2010, Kitsch Magazine, a student publication at Cornell, published a piece that focused on student reflections on these lectures and also explored Nabokov’s long relationship with Playboy Magazine.
Nabokov’s detractors fault him for being an aesthete and for his over-attention to language and detail rather than character development. In his essay “Nabokov, or Nostalgia”, Danilo Kišwrote that Nabokov’s is “a magnificent, complex, and sterile art”. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the clatter of surgical tools in Nabokov’s prose.