Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Vladimir Nabokov

Go To

“My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.”
— On his favorite language, 1964 Life Magazine Interview

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков, 22 April [Old Style 10 April] 1899 – 2 July 1977) was a novelist, polyglot, genius, entomologist, Caustic Critic and (occasionally) right bastard; and a close relative of the authors V. Sirin and Vivian Darkbloom.

Born in Russia, Nabokov was forced to flee the country at the age of 19, due to some revolution or other, which left him with very anti-communist feelings. His father was a liberal politican and member of the provisional government after the February Revolution. After the rise of the Bolsheviks, he and his family went to Berlin, but Nabokov's father ended up being assassinated by pro-Tsarist right-winger Sergey Taboritskynote  while trying to stop him from assassinating Pavel Milyukov, leader of Liberal Kadets. This episode is reflected in many of Nabokov's writings. He spent the next two decades in Europe writing novels in Russian, then brought his family to the United States in 1940, where he taught literature and wrote novels in English (making him one of very few authors to be able to write good literature in more than one language).note  The controversial subject matter of one of these made him very famous, and he was able to quit teaching and write full time.

Eventually he and his family settled in Switzerland, where he continued writing novels in English, and eventually died at the age of 78 in July 1977. Despite insisting in his will that all copies of his final, incomplete novel, The Original of Laura, should be burned, his son and executor of his literary estate, Dmitri Nabokov, ended up publishing it posthumously in 2009.

He experienced synesthesia (in his case, he saw letters as colors), and was an accomplished amateur lepidopterist (that means he loved butterflies). Nabokov's study of butterflies was significant enough that an entire genus of butterflies, Nabokovia, was named after him. He was also very fond of unreliable narrators.

Works written in Russian:

  • Mary (a story of memory and first love, as well as a snapshot of émigré life, made into a film starring Cary Elwes)
  • King, Queen, Knave (a story of adultery with a playing card motif)
  • The Defense (metatextual portrait of a chess prodigy, made into a film starring John Turturro; also called The Luzhin Defense)
  • The Eye
  • Glory
  • Laughter in the Dark
  • Despair (thriller involving doppelgangers, one of Nabokov's favorite themes, adapted into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  • Invitation To A Beheading (Kafkaesque tale of a man in a baffling prison for the crime of nonconformity)
  • The Gift (his masterpiece in Russian, the story of Fyodor, a young émigré Russian writer in interwar Berlin and his attempt to make a name for himself and find love: contains an epic show within a show in the form of its fourth chapter, which in its entirety consists of Fyodor's short biography of the 19th century writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky)
  • The Enchanter (written in 1939 but unpublished until 1985, it shares many themes and events with the later Literature Lolita)

Novels written in English:

  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (the story of a man's attempt to write a biography of his brother, a dead novelist; also the biography itself)
  • Bend Sinister
  • Lolita
  • Pnin
  • Pale Fire
  • Ada, or Ardor (Nabokov's Doorstopper, an epic tale of obsessed love in an alternate 19th century)
  • Transparent Things
  • Look at the Harlequins! (the autobiography of a novelist eerily similar to Nabokov in many ways and dramatically different in others)
  • The Original of Laura (incomplete, and published posthumously by his son, after 30 years of soul searching as Nabokov wanted the rough draft destroyed after his death)
He is also the author of numerous short stories, poems, plays, lectures, translations (most notably of Eugene Onegin), and biographies (Nikolai Gogol's and his own). Incidentally, he said his first name rhymes with "redeemer" and his last name is pronounced "nuh-BOCK-off," and indeed in Russian it does and it is, though English-speakers rarely say it that way — largely thanks to The Police, whose "Don't Stand So Close To Me" popularized the mispronunciation.


  • Author Appeal: Butterflies. They appear frequently in his fiction, and his memoir features an entire chapter focused on them.
  • Self-Deprecation: Nabokov had some sense of humor about the fact that his most (in)famous work, Lolita, would probably also be the one he would be most remembered and judged for. When asked in an interview about how he managed to get into the mindset of someone as depraved and despicable as Humbert Humbert and if there where any similarities between himself and his creation, Nabokov joked that there was plenty of differences between him and Humbert, his example being that Humbert didn't share his interest in butterflies.note 
  • Trolling Creator: His interviews, published lectures, forewords, and general comments are littered with mocking references to authors he had no respect for (including but not limited to Bertolt Brecht, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud...), as well as ideas or habits of thought he had no time for. His habit of not-always-ironic self-admiration also comes under this category. He was so well known for it, that another Trolling Creator (who was one of the few contemporary writers Nabokov admitted to liking) called him for it:
    Jorge Luis Borges: In the preface to an anthology of Russian literature, Vladimir Nabokov stated that he had not found a single page of Dostoevsky worthy of inclusion. This ought to mean that Dostoevsky should not be judged by each page but rather by the total of all the pages that comprise the book.
  • Unreliable Narrator: As noted above. Best known would be, of course, Lolita, but Despair also features a notable example. In case of Pale Fire, it would be more accurate to call him an unreliable commentator.
  • Write What You Know: Nabokov would downplay it somewhat when asked about it, but he did occasionally mention in interviews and his own memoirs that he had been a victim of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle, Vasiliy Rukavishnikov (whom Nabokov referred to as "Uncle Ruka"note ), as a child, and that it had played at least some role in why child abuse was such a frequently featured theme in his novels, most prominently Lolita. Especially one scene, where Humbert masturbates under the pretense of bouncing Dolores on his knee, was specifically mentioned by Nabokov as having been directly inspired by an incident that said uncle had subjected him to.