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Thread: Vladimir Nabokov

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    Russia Vladimir Nabokov

    Some of Nabokov's more famous works may be in English, but he wrote nine novels in Russian. And since I'm currently reading his first novel, Mary, I figure it would make sense to have a thread in his name.

    Without wanting to liberally borrow a biography from Wikipedia, let's just say that he was born in April 1899 (dates differ, depending on the calendar in use) and died in July 1977. Aside from being arguably one of the 20th Century's best English prose stylists, his interests also extended to lepidoptery and chess problems.

    Much is made of his switch from Russian to English at the halfway point of his writing career, about how someone whose first language was Russian can make the leap to another language and do it better than native speakers. From what I understand he was bilingual from the start - the Wikipedia articles states that:
    The family spoke Russian, English and French in their household, and Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. In fact, much to his father's patriotic chagrin, Nabokov could read and write English before he could Russian.
    Whether this is true or not - and why shouldn't it be? - I suspect may be expanded upon in his autobiography, Speak, Memory.

    BIBLIOGRAPHY (Russian)

    • Mary (1926)
    • King, Queen, Knave (1928)
    • The Luzhin Defence (1930)
    • The Eye (1930)
    • Glory (1932)
    • Laughter In The Dark (1933)
    • Despair (1934)
    • Invitation To A Beheading (1936)
    • The Gift (1937)
    • The Enchanter (1939)

    BIBLIOGRAPHY (English)

    • The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight (1941)
    • Bend Sinister (1947)
    • Lolita (1955)
    • Pnin (1957)
    • Pale Fire (1962)
    • Ada Or Ardor (1969)
    • Transparent Things (1972)
    • Look At The Harlequins! (1974)
    • The Original Of Laura (unfinished)

    Add to those novels and novellas collections of short stories, poetry, some drama, a number of translations back and forth between Russian and English, a few titles of literary criticism, and more pertaining to lepidoptery and you have a prolific body of work. It's interesting to note the frequency in which his Russian novels appeared, and how - no doubt as they got more playful - the gaps grew between English novels.

    While I have a number of his books amongst my collection, the only one of his I've read in full is Lolita, so I'm no position to wax lyrical about him. But he's an interesting character, his books and their trickery are intriguing still, and the recent controversy over the will he/won't he burn it, as regards Dmitri Nabokov and The Original Of Laura ensures that he will continue to be talked about, respected, and read.

    RELATED THREADS


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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Quote Originally Posted by Stewart View Post
    The Original Of Laura ensures that he will continue to be talked about, respected, and read.
    There's a photograph of The Original Of Laura in Le Monde.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Actually from what I've been able to gather, Speak, Memory and Brian Boyd's bio[s] of Nabokov my main sources, Nabokov was actually tri-lingual early on. English and French as a very young child, and when his father realized that young Vladimir [at age 5] barely spoke any Russian at all, he immediately engaged a tutor in same.
    "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader." Vladimir Nabokov [Lectures on Literature]

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    A previously unpublished short story by Nabokov, appearing in the New Yorker: Natasha (1924).

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Thanks for the link Stewart.

    Beautiful.
    "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader." Vladimir Nabokov [Lectures on Literature]

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    More Nabokov news, this time pertaining to The Original Of Laura, with a quote from Nabokov's biographer, Brian Boyd:
    I think it is a fascinating novel. It is very fragmentary, people shouldn?t expect to be swept away. He is doing some very brilliant things with the prose, the story just flashes by, the characters are rather unappealing. It seems a technical tour de force, just as Shakespeare?s later works where he is extending his own technique in very, very concentrated ways. [The text is as] grotesque in some ways as, and unsavoury in different ways from, Lolita. It?s the kind of writing that induces admiration and awe but not engagement.
    Apparently it's full title is The Original Of Laura: Dying Is Fun and features a main character called Philip Wild,
    a brilliant neurologist. He is fat, very fat. Comically fat. Comically ugly. And tormented by a marriage to a woman much younger than he and terribly fickle. At a certain moment, he begins, humorously, playfully, to reflect on the question of self-destruction. But soon after, he decides that he absolutely does not want to think about the idea of definitive suicide. He wants, on the contrary, a reversible suicide.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    The story is nice, Laura sounds intriguing. But I still haven't read enough of his major works, written originally in either Russian or English, as listed by Stewart at the beginning.

    Nabokov's son Dmitri certainly caused a stir when he recently threatened to burn one of his father's unpublished manuscripts. Dmitri plays a pivotal role, being both his father's translator and the copyright holder.

    Bi- and trilingualism aren't that rare in many countries in Europe. It's only Britain where you are almost a genius if you're bilingual, and a demigod if you can speak three languages. As Russian was the language of the Russian Empire, French the language of the Russian aristocracy at the time, German a popular technical language, and English ditto, Nabokov is impressive, but not so unusual for his time. As his nanny was English, you can see where he got the rudiments of that language from. She evidently read "Little Lord Fauntleroy" aloud to him. Later, Nabokov studied at Cambridge. Being a member of the upper class does have its advantages. And living in Berlin will have helped Vladimir Nabokov's German, no end.

    In several cities on the edge of what was the Russian Empire, people would hear perhaps four or five languages spoken daily on the streets. Viborg, now a forgotten hole in Western Russia between Saint Petersburg and the Finnish border, used to be the crossroads of several cultures. Finnish, Swedish, Russian, German and Yiddish were spoken there until about World War II, when everything fell apart. That strikes me as a lot more multicultural than buying Polish sausage from the deli and eating tandoori chicken once a week, but doing it all in Britspeak.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Dmitri didn't threaten anything; Slate's Ron Rosenbaum sensationalised the matter (whether in cahoots, who knows?). The current issue of the Nabokov Online Journal includes an interview with Dmitri (who is, as Eric noted, after Vladimir, the primary Englisher of the Russian works) that sets some matters straight. (Incidentally, Vladimir routinely disclaimed any knowledge of German -- implausible, though Berlin did have a large Russian emigre community in the 20's [and there are places in Brooklyn today where that's all you hear].) I've speculated elsewhere on what's-her-name, but I've had a lot to say elsewhere, having read everything he wrote (that's available in English, including his translations of other Russians, excepting only his commentary to Eugene Onegin). I sporadically participate on the Nabokov listserv (archived online); sporadic will be my metier here as well, so that those unfamiliar with his work can enjoy their own discoveries in due course.

    (FWIW, my favorites, saving the memoir Speak Memory, are packaged together in the LoA edition.)
    Last edited by nnyhav; 03-Jun-2008 at 22:27. Reason: recommendment

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    nnyhav, I was going to say just that about VN's German. I've read the same, probably in Brian Boyd's bio, or possibly Speak, Memory. I believe his dislike of everything German could be a reason, although it is also possible he was in denial.
    I've only read about half of his work though, somehow other books keep intruding on my progress. Oh well.
    "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader." Vladimir Nabokov [Lectures on Literature]

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    I must say that the name of the interviewer that nnyhav directs us to, Suellen Stringer-Hye, sounds like a Nabokovian fiction in itself. Is that the interview you mean, as I haven't had chance to read the pdf document yet? (Irritating format.) I do get the feeling, skimming the interview, that Dmitri comes across as oddly self-absorbed and eccentric. Rather gushing in his prose, too.

    As to whether Nabokov spoke or read German, and at what level, I have no proof from the Nossik biography, which I have looked at. He appeared to mix mostly with Russian exiles while living in Berlin, and didn't like his German landlady. But as for the German language, given his visits to and stays in Berlin and Prague during the 1920s and 1930s, I too cannot believe he knew no German at all.

    By the way, is the Boris Nossik biography available in English? I only have it in German (plus the Boyd in English). The original title of the Nossik is: Mir i dar Nabokova i.e. the world and gift of Nabokov.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Oddly enough, the interviewer was a high school classmate of mine (before she got Hye ). We reconnected via the listserv.

    Boyd's is the definitive biography, I've never seen Nossik's (Dar is Nabokov's best novel in Russian). The other comprehensive bio in English, by another Aussie, Andrew Field, is less well regarded. There's also a pictorial biography ...

    (Lots to see in Zembla)
    Last edited by nnyhav; 04-Jun-2008 at 00:46.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Nnyhav, thanks for the Zembla lead. My Russian, though no great shakes, does tell me that the reason there is no "y" after the "b" is because a soft "l" is transliterated...

    Anyway, I'm amused to hear that Mrs Suellen Stringer-Hye is a real person. At a banal, almost adolescent level, I couldn't help reading her name as Sullen Stringer-High, reminding one of the jokes in Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, when mocking reactionaries, with the expression: "string 'em up, it's the only language they understand".

    I see from the website, that "zembla" is a kind of Russian "Ultima Thule". (Who's the knock-kneed calf in the white socks, by the way...?)

    I started reading "Ada", then decided to retreat in time to an earlier, easier, novel and build up to "Ada", then broke off, as is the wont of someone who reads books to review, and translates them. But I was much encouraged by "Pnin", and will return to VladNab as soon as I decently can. I want to read a few of his Russian-period novels first.

    The Nossik seems serious enough. I have not read it cover-to-cover in German, as the Boyd, in English, is more enticing, but it looks to be a thorough and gr?ndlich tome of some 450 pages. It quotes Boyd on a couple of dozen occasions, implying the chronology, and appeared in German in 1997, in the Russian original in 1995.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    titania7 asked otherthread about my favorites (and has mentioned hers, Laughter in the Dark and King, Queen, Knave elsewhere as well). My partial (and certainly not impartial) answer above can be elaborated as 1) Pale Fire =2) Pnin, Speak Memory 4) Lolita 5) The Gift. Many honorable mentions as well, but these are all .

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    Russia Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Nnyhav,
    Thanks for the reply.

    Also, while I'm at it, a thank-you is overdue for replying so specifically to what you don't like about Thomas Wolfe's work. I really appreciate it when someone can elaborate on the reason they
    don't like a writer. And even if it is has nothing to do with literary
    merit and everything to do with their own personal tastes, that's
    fine with me.

    I will definitely put Pnin, Speak Memory, and The Gift on my
    to-be-read list. I just procured a copy of Speak Memory
    at a recent book sale.

    Any thoughts on Ada, Invitation To A Beheading, or Look at the Harlequins? I just
    ordered all three from the library. I'm in the middle of so many other books,
    I may have to put them off until a later date. But of course,
    if you recommend any of these *extremely* highly, I might
    try to squeeze it into my reading schedule sometime soon .

    ~Titania

    "The future enters into us, in order to transform
    itself in us, long before it happens."
    ~Rainer Marie Rilke
    Last edited by titania7; 20-Oct-2008 at 23:11.
    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Of those three, Invitiation to a is my preference, though some find it too fabular (or Kafkaesque, though Vlad prob hadn't seen); The other Russian honorable mention from me goes to The Luzhin Defense, but then I was a chessplayer.

    Ada is hada, much more ambitious (family chronicle in alternate universe) and a tad overrated in my book. Look at the Harlequins is self-parodic.

    You've chosen the more cinematic examples of Nabokov's novels, and may find Transparent Things luminous. (Bend Sinister is a good book but a very unpleasant movie.) Our preferences may better intersect in The Luzhin Defense, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, or The Gift (Dar in Russian). Oh, and Pnin.

    (But if I could write as well as the least of his novels, I might well have become a novelist ...)
    Last edited by nnyhav; 21-Oct-2008 at 03:42. Reason: oh, and ...

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    Russia Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Nnyhav,
    I knew I could rely on you! Thanks for answering me so thoroughly...and so swiftly. Goodness gracious me, it seems it would be difficult to find a Nabokov novel you haven't read! If my schedule allows me any breathing room (which I seriously doubt), I will take a look at Invitation to a before it goes back to the library.
    However, what I think I may read before any of the others is The Luzhin Defense. I saw a film adaptation of this book many years ago and was very drawn into the story. Did you ever see the movie version? (stars Emily Watson and John Turturro, two excellent actors).

    Ada has intrigued me for quite some time; however, it is a tad lengthy. Not that I mind long books, mind you. I just want to make sure they're well worth the time it takes to get through them. I believe I'll save up Ada for a rainy week (or weeks??) in the future.

    I didn't even know there was a film adaptation of Bend Sinister. I'm always finding out the most interesting tidbits of information from you, nnyhav! I do own the book, but haven't given it a real "once-over" yet.

    Overall, I think I'll go with the four books you seem to think we might share an affinity for: The Luzhin Defense, The Gift (Dar),
    The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and Pnin. On the plus side, I happen to have my own copies of all these novels. Thus,
    there won't be any time constraints. Of course, since I like Nabokov, I'll probably get around to reading all of his books eventually. Up until now, the only question has been: what order should I read his books in?

    But I think you've helped me make up my mind.

    Thanks again, nnyhav .

    ~Titania


    "Oh courage...oh yes! If only one had that.....
    Then life might be livable, in spite of everything."
    ~Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler
    Last edited by titania7; 21-Oct-2008 at 05:52.
    "All men have the same defect: they wait to live, for they have not the courage of each instant.
    Why not invest enough passion in each moment to make it an eternity?" ~E. M. Cioran

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Quote Originally Posted by titania7 View Post
    Nnyhav,
    I knew I could rely on you! Thanks for answering me so thoroughly...and so swiftly. Goodness me, it seems it would be difficult to find a Nabokov novel you haven't read!
    Glad to be of service. Only novel I haven't read is the incomplete The Original of Laura, but then only a chosen handful have. In fact, the only Englished thing of his I haven't read is Vol2 commentary on Eugene Onegin. Yet. (I include not only his poetry [passable] and plays [impassable] but his translations [The Song of Igor's Campaign, Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time] and lectures and so on. Yes even chess problems.)
    I didn't even know there was a film adaptation of Bend Sinister. I'm always finding out the most interesting tidbits of information from you, nnyhav! I do own the book, but haven't given it a real "once-over" yet.
    There isn't. Sorry, inside joke. There is a film within the book upon which the plot turns. It's not pretty.

    I mention upthread, sporadic will be my metier here as well, so that those unfamiliar with his work can enjoy their own discoveries in due course. I've already made most of mine, and mustn't ruin others' fun.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    A new edition of the Nabokov Online Journal is up; of particular interest hereabouts will be Maurice Couturier's travelogue of Nabokovland [pdf], which recounts 4 decades of interpretation annotation and translation.
    sempiternally offtopic: Stochastic Bookmark

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    Vladimir Nabokov is a writer I esteem highly, and in the course of the last few years I've read quite a bit of his works. I started with Lolita and The Defense, then went on to Mashenka (only recommended to fans, for one does notice it's his first novel on every page) and King, Queen, Knave, The Eye, Pnin and The Gift. I also read most (if not all?) of the shorter prose from his Berlin period, and a bit of his literary criticism. My favourite works so far are The Defense and The Gift. I intend to read his whole opus by and by.

    I appreciate him for the playfulness of his language, and the lightness with which he looks at life. His style is very pleasant, and I've seen few other writers who talk so wonderfully about nothing at all.

    Concerning the language discussion, as far as I know Nabokov spoke Russian first, but was due to his anglophile father early surrounded with English; he learnt French a bit later, still as a child, though. When he had to emigrate he decided against Paris (which was the centre of Russian immigration) and for Berlin instead, because he feared he might lose his Russian. The circles of immigrants formed a very closed society that had almost no contact to the German outside world, so I guess he isn't lying when he says he didn't really speak German, although of course he surely was able to read books in it. He cultivated a certain animoosity towards German and German culture generally, especially visible in The Gift, but that's most likely because it was in Germany that he first came into contact with the vulgus.

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    Default Re: Vladimir Nabokov

    He cultivated a certain animoosity towards German and German culture generally, especially visible in The Gift, but that's most likely because it was in Germany that he first came into contact with the vulgus.
    I am not sure about this-I am sure he stated that Godunov-Cherdynstev's animosity towards German culture/the German people, was not a reflection of his own viewpoints-Nabokov had an inherent dislike for such cliched thinking, but he did say he, naturally, had an inherent dislike for the German political system which was developing at the time. On an interesting side note, have you heard the story of Nabokov and Kafka sitting opposite each other on a Berlin tram? (Though whether this meeting actually took place is up for debate.)

    As far Nabokov goes, he is my favourite writer-Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada, Speak, Memory are my favourite English titles, and The Gift, Glory and Invitation to a Beheading my favourite Russian ones.

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