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Vladimir Nabokov On Art And Life

| Updated: January 15, 2022 08:52

The name ‘Vladimir Nabokov’ evokes all kinds of associations in the minds of people, some not favourable too. However, what most people miss out is that he was one of the greatest stylists of the English language in the twentieth century. In 1988, I had entered BA, I was barely seventeen and I issued Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, yes, the same novel, from the American Center Library and read it. I was quite scandalized, to say the least. And thought it was a porn novel at that age. Then, I wondered why it wasn’t banned! Then, in 1992, when I was pursuing my Masters, I read it the second time. A lot more dawned upon me in my second reading. Much later in my life, I had it a third time and I could then appreciate the great stylist that he was.

In conservative societies, or semi-conservative ones—and most parts of the world are so too—Nabokov’s Lolita would surely cause a scandal. Fair enough. That is because of the subject of the novel and the story it tells. However, a close reading of the novel would bring out two specific issues: one of unrequited attraction and the second, a probable satire of the consumerist American way of life, or certainly, a commentary on human affairs. In fact, if one didn’t allow oneself to be prejudiced by the subject of the novel, one would also realize that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a picaresque novel. This statement ought to raise the heckles of many people, I suppose, because then, it would mean stating Lolita is in the same literary tradition as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but that it is. Or that it is in the same tradition as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

I’ll narrate a funny incident. After my MA, I applied for my MPhil and at the interview, I was asked by one of the professors, “What would you like to work on for your MPhil dissertation?” This was in 1994, the dissertation would only begin after a year of coursework. I was so drunk on Nabokov, I said, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Sir.” The faces of the people present in the interview board were quite a sight to see. Also, I do not know of any Indian university, which teaches Nabokov’s Lolita in its BA or MA curriculum. For a long time in my youth, I thought that he was a Nobel Laureate but then I realized that he wasn’t. 

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) came from Russian aristocratic stock and though, he didn’t speak much about his past in public, the Russian Revolution meant that he had suffered huge losses in terms of money as well as social clout. He wrote his early novels in Russian and later wrote in English. In fact, he was a trilingual author, writing in Russian, French and in English. He was a prolific translator as well. And, a poet. 

You can read more about him at the Poetry Foundation website.

I had read an interview of Vladimir Nabokov with The Paris Review and return to it sometimes. Many might find him pompous and arrogant as well. But it is an interview worth reading. This is The Art of Fiction No. 40 (Summer-Fall 1967).

Nabokov had an enduring, engaging and a scientific interest in studying butterflies. Literary scholars, often, pay little attention to this aspect of his work. He was a lepidopterist. And his work was hailed after his death. 

A genus of butterflies, Nabokovia, has been named after him in his honour as also several butterflies and moths. You could see a list of butterflies and moths named after him here: Butterflies and moths bearing Nabokov’s name

Thomas Pynchon, John Banville, Don DeLillo, Edmund White could be said to be differently influenced by Vladimir Nabokov’s work. Quite possibly, Salman Rushdie too. Nabokov had taught as a Professor at Cornell University, where Pynchon had attended his lectures. Nabokov wrote his novels on index cards and his wife, Vera was his typist, who diligently typed out everything he wrote. His Lectures on Literature are brilliant too.

You might like to check out this online celebration of Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell University: Nabokov’s Lolita

After the stupendous success of his novel, Lolita, Nabokov was able to devote himself fully to his art, without teaching anywhere. It allowed him to retire to Switzerland, where he stayed in a hotel with his wife till his death, pursuing art, writing, studying butterflies. He was also an avid composer of chess problems. It certainly sounds ‘odd’, staying in a hotel but that is how he was: a classical liberal, who lived life on his own terms; someone who did not take a ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ view of most things. His study of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is a classic too. Nabokov’s novels had complex plots and there were occasions where ‘Vladimir Nabokov’ himself made an appearance in his novels, albeit in a different spelling. His penchant for detail as an author was breathtaking and unparalleled. This penchant for detail also influenced a generation or two of writers.

You might like to look at this course (Fall 2014) taught by a Professor at Arizona State University on the works of Vladimir Nabokov: Art in Exile: Vladímir Vladímirovich Nabókov – Fall 2014

To me, he appears to be a multifaceted genius, an author, who pushed the boundaries of public morality and who was immersed in art all his life. He was also a known insomniac and had trouble getting into sleep. One of Vladimir Nabokov’s books is Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time (Princeton University Press, 2017).  

The reasons for the controversy surrounding his novel, Lolita are not far to seek. For instance, this is how the novel begins.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of

the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. 

Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was 

Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in 

my arms she was always Lolita. 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

In fact, the author and professor, Umberto Eco also wrote a satirical spoof of Lolita called “Granita”, which has been published in his book, Misreadings. The interesting thing about the quote above from Lolita is that the act of kissing—the three taps in the mouth– and the time taken to pronounce the words, ‘Lo-Lee-Ta’ is the same. These are the kind of nuances and details that Nabokov weaves into his novels.

Vladimir Nabokov ‘s autobiography, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Vintage International Edition, 1989) and Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews and Letters to the Editor are also works worth discussing in detail. But another day. Nabokov’s interview with Alvin Toffler for The Playboy (January 1964) is quite insightful too and well worth reading in whole. 

Here is the interview: (I’m not linking to The Playboy website but to a reproduced version

I would like to leave you with a few quotes from the interview. They should be self-explanatory about the complexities of his art. Adieu till next week.


(Alvin Toffler): What one critic has termed your “almost obsessive attention to the phrasing, rhythm, cadence and connotation of words” is evident even in the selection of names for your own celebrated bee and bumblebee– Lolita and Humbert Humbert. How did they occur to you?

(Vladimir Nabokov): For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is “L”. The suffix “-ita” has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita. However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy “L” and a long “o”. No, the first syllable should be as in “lollipop”, the “L” liquid and delicate, the “lee” not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress. Another consideration was the welcome murmur of its source name, the fountain name: those roses and tears in “Dolores.” My little girl’s heartrending fate had to be taken into account together with the cuteness and limpidity. Dolores also provided her with another, plainer, more familiar and infantile diminutive: Dolly, which went nicely with the surname “Haze,” where Irish mists blend with a German bunny– I mean, a small German hare.

(Alvin Toffler): You’re making a word-playful reference, of course, to the German term for rabbit– Hase. But what inspired you to dub Lolita’s aging inamorato with such engaging redundancy?

(Vladimir Nabokov): That, too, was easy. The double rumble is, I think, very nasty, very suggestive. It is a hateful name for a hateful person. It is also a kingly name, and I did need a royal vibration for Humbert the Fierce and Humbert the Humble. Lends itself also to a number of puns. And the execrable diminutive “Hum” is on a par, socially and emotionally, with “Lo,” as her mother calls her.

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