Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), born in Russia of a patrician family, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, came to the U. S. (1940) and was naturalized in 1945. He was a professor of Russian literature at Cornell (1948-59) until his own literary success allowed him to retire. His ingenious, witty, stylized, and erudite novels include Laughter in the Dark (1938), published in England as Camera Obscura (1936), after the original Russian title, about the moral deterioration of a respectable Berliner; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), in which the narrator, a young Russian in Paris, discovers the true nature of his half-brother, an English novelist, by writing his biography; Bend Sinister (1947), about a politically uncommitted professor in a totalitarian state who tries to maintain personal integrity; Pnin (1957), amusing sketches about the experiences of an exiled Russian professor of entomology at an upstate New York college; Lolita (Paris, 1955, U.S., 1958), a farcical and satirical novel of the passion of a middle-aged, sophisticated European emigré for a 12-y3ar-old American "nymphet," and their wanderings across the U.S.; Invitation to a Beheading (Russia, 1938; U.S., 1959), a Kafkaesque story of a man sentenced to die for some unknown expression of individuality and his resultant discovery that he has a real soul; Pale Fire (1962), a satirical fantasy called a novel, which is a witty, ironic, and complex tour de force concerning a poem about an exiled Balkan king in a New England college town and the involved critical commentary of the poem by the king himself;The Gift (Russia, 1937; U.S., 1963), a pseudo-autobiography about Russian expatriates in Berlin after World War I; The Defense (Germany, 1930; U.S., 1964), about a young Russian master of chess who treats life as another game; The Eye (1965), about a Russian emigré living in Berlin; Despair (1966), about a man who contrives his own murder; King, Queen, Knave (1968), his second novel, originallly published in Germany (1928), also the setting for the story of a young man's affair with his married aunt; Ada or Ardor (1969), a witty parody whose involved plot, set in a fanciful land, deals with a man's lifelong love for his sister Ada; Mary (1970), the author's first novel (Germany, 1926), about a young Czarist officer exiled in Berlin and his first love affair; Glory (1971), the fifth (Paris, 1932) of his nine novels written in Russian, a comic portrait of a Russian émigré's wanderings; Transparent Things (1972), a novella about a rootless American's marriage and murder of his wife; and Look at the Harlequins! (1974), a novel about an author who very much resembles Nabokov himself. His stories have been gathered in several collections; his light, witty verse appears in Poems (1959) and Poems and Problems (1971), the latter including also problems in chess, and The Waltz Invention (1966) is a play. Conclusive Evidence (1951), revised as Speak, Memory (1966), gathers autobiographical sketches of life in Imperial Russia. Strong Opinions (1973) prints replies to journalists' questions about himself, literature, and public issues. He wrote a study of Nikolai Gogol (1944) and made a translation with commentary of Eugene Onegin (4 vols., 1964, revised 1977). The correspondence of Edmund Wilson and Nabokov, much of it about his translation of Pushkin, appeared in 1979. Other posthumous publications include Lectures on Literature (1980) and Lectures on Russian Literature (1981).
Invitation to a beheading, novel by Nabokov, published in Russia in 1938 and in the U.S. in 1959.
Cincinnatus C. is in prison awaiting execution for his crime of "gnostical turpitude" or "opacity" since his soul has been impenetrable and not open to other people. There he recalls his past life, including marriage to Marthe, a nymphomaniacal mother of two defromed children, and his own teaching of crippled children in a kindergarten. He also spends time thinking of ways to escape or talking with the prison director, Rodrig Ivanovich, and M'sieur Pierre, ostensibly another prisoner but actually his executioner. In time he learns to avoid his confusion of dreams of the past with present reality and discovers how to surround his soul with a structure of words that permits him to communicate with others. Nevertheless he is led to his execution, but as one part of his puts his head on the block, another part leaves to join the onlooking crowd of people who are "beings akin to him."
Lolita, novel by Nabokov, published in Paris (1955) and in the U.S. (1958).
In the psychopathic ward of a prison while awaiting trial for murder, 37-year-old Humbert Humbert writes out his life story. Though once wed to a woman about his age, he has long been obsessed by a passion for nymphets: girls between the ages of nine and 14. Coming from Europe to the U.S. on business, he meeets and marries the widowed Charlotte Haze only to be near her 12-year-old daughter Lolita. To achieve this he considers murdering Charlotte, but when she is killed by accident he takes Lolita on a cross-country junket, planning to seduce her, only to be seduced by her, for she is no longer a virgin. Lolita escapes from his jealous protection, and he does not learn of her again until she is 17, married, and pregnant. Then she tells him that during her days with hem she had love Clare Quilty, a famous playwright. Even though their affair is long in the past, the infuriated Humbert Humbert murders Quilty and is jailed but dies of a heart attack before his trial.
Pale Fire, novel by Nabokov, published in 1962.
An unfinished poem of 999 lines of heroic couplets, titled "Pale Fire," by John Shade is the subject of an inept but lengthy exegesis of 160 pages by Charles Kinbote. Although ostensibly a literary scholar, Kinbote admits he is actually Charles Xavier, last king of Zembla (1936-58), overthrown in a revolution. One of the revolutionary leaders, Gradus, has pursued the monarch to New Wye, Appalachia, in the U.S., where as Kinbote he is teaching at Wordsmith College. There Kinbote has made friends with the poet John Shade in the hope of persuading him to write an epic immortalizing Zembla and its last monarch. However, Gradus accidentally kills Shade while trying to assassinate the ex-king. Charles makes off with the manuscript of the unfinished poem that he persuades himself is a cryptic version of the desired epic, and therefore in editing the work for publication he creates the very elaborate commentary that forms the body of the novel.