Born in 1899 in St. Petersburg to an aristocratic, wealthy, highly educated, and liberal family, Vladimir Nabokov became one of the 20th-century’s greatest writers.
He published his first four books in America with New Directions: Nine Stories, his novels Laughter in the Dark and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, as well as his fabulous study of another Russian genius, Nikolai Gogol.
Nine Stories and Laughter in the Dark were both written in Russian and translated by the author into English; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) was the first novel Nabokov wrote in English. Nikolai Gogol, a biography which goes to considerable lengths to skewer existing English translations of Gogol’s works, was also written in English.
Nabokov fled with his family to Berlin after the Russian Revolution but attended Trinity College, Cambridge (graduating in 1923), before returning to live for another fifteen years in Berlin, writing and working as a translator, tutor, and tennis coach. In 1924 Nabokov married Vera Evseekna Slonim; they had one son, Dmitri. He published his first nine novels in Russian, under the nom de plume Vladimir Sirin, bringing out his first novel Mashenka in 1926. In 1936 the Nabokovs moved to Paris and three years later the family emigrated to the United States. Nabokov taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University, delivering astonishing lectures on literature. He was also a renowned, self-taught lepidopterist and held a position at Harvard’s Museum of Contemporary Zoology: some of his far-sighted theories about the Polyommatus blues (he envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves) have only been recently confirmed by new gene-sequencing technology, and one buttefly has been named in his honor: Nabokovia cuzquenha. “My pleasures,” he stated, “are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.”
Nikolai Gogol (1944) was his last book with New Directions; James Laughlin declined to publish the literary bombshell and masterpiece Lolita, which rocketed Nabokov to worldwide fame. Outstanding among his many other books are the brilliant novels Pnin and Pale Fire, and his memoir, Speak Memory. Nabokov also brought forth, after ten years of labor, a four-volume translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.