Nabokov Recovered


For our October 2019 meeting Miles Leeson gave a presentation on why Nabokov should be considered one of the great writers of the twentieth century, in the company of Joyce, Woolf and Beckett.

He commented on his notoriety as the author of ‘Lolita’ the tale of a young, sexually provocative girl and a much older man, Humbert Humbert, who is obsessed by her. The book was banned in 1955 and his works were banned in Russia for decades because of his criticism of the totalitarian regime. He described Nabokov’s writing style as poetic, lyrical and funny. All his works are still in print and his novels are available in English and Russian.

Miles covered some interesting biographical information. The writer was a brilliant linguist (fluent in Russian, English, and French) and came from a wealthy, noble family. He was born in St Petersburg in 1899. His family fled Russia in 1919 and he lived in Berlin for fifteen years.  While living there his father was shot (1922) by a Russian monarchist as he was shielding the real target of the assassin.  This event has echoes in his novel ‘Pale Fire’ (1962) when the poet John Shade is shot. In Berlin he struggled financially and gave lessons in tennis and boxing and taught languages. He also lived in Paris for two years. He married Vera, a Russian /Jewish exile in 1925 and they had one son. He wrote under the pseudonym Sirin, which means ‘bird of paradise’.

In 1940 he arrived in the United States with his family, fleeing the advance of the Germans on Paris. Sadly, his brother died in a concentration camp in 1945.  In American he worked as a translator, and as a volunteer in the American Museum of Natural History. He had a scientific interest in butterflies and the book ‘Nabokov in America’ describes his travels and road trips collecting butterflies and documenting his finds on index cards. He also worked at Cornell University as Professor of Russian Literature.

Miles referred to an interview with Nabokov in which he said he did not want to go back to Russia but wanted to preserve his idyllic childhood memories. Nabokov’s writing shows his interest in the themes of exile, émigrés, and dispersal. From 1961-1972 he lived in a hotel in Switzerland to be nearer his son, who was an opera singer in Milan. He was a great raconteur and there is a contrast between the lyricism of his prose and what is actually going on in the novels. The theme of an older man and young girl re-occurs in four of his novels. Miles noted that Nabokov also wrote over 1,000 poems initially writing romantic poetry. Miles read his poem ‘Exile’ and from Ch. 16 of ‘Lolita’ and from ‘Pale Fire’. Nabokov also wrote very accessible short stories and at his death was writing “The Original of Laura”. His habit was to write numerous index cards and then write the novels from these notecards. He also made detailed scientific drawings on his butterfly finds on index cards.

The presentation was given added interest with photos of his palatial childhood home, of him as a young man at Cambridge University and on his travels and butterfly hunting trips in America.  Samples of his index card writing and detailed butterfly drawings were also shown.

Miles recommended a BBC documentary on Nabokov which can be found on You Tube.

Questions at the end of the presentation concerned his current standing in Russia and Miles noted that Russia has many outstanding writers and Nabokov has a place but he is not one of the “greats”. Another question concerned criticism of Nabokov’s dialogue which can be rather poor and stilted in his novels. Miles responded that the best of Nabokov’s writing is in his reminiscences, his lyricism and confessional style.

I think we all felt inspired to revisit Nabokov and perhaps read something other than ‘Lolita’, such as the short stories, poetry or ‘Pale Fire’ , which Miles indicated might be considered his masterpiece. Our thanks go to Miles for a most interesting presentation.

Lois Coulthart