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First page of Nabokov's Lolita | © Laura/Flickr
First page of Nabokov's Lolita | © Laura/Flickr

11 Things You Didn't Know About Nabokov

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 12 January 2018

The name of Nabokov is largely associated with the scandalous novel Lolita. Once published, it was banned in a number of countries, diminished by certain critics and praised by others. A sensation nonetheless. But the book often outshines the man behind the pages, the great American-Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov.

In his biographic works, he describes himself as “an American writer, born in Russia, educated in England, where I studied French literature before moving to Germany for fifteen years”. And this is only one fact of his fascinating life. Here’s 11 more things you didn’t know about Nabokov.

He collected butterflies

Yes, the flying kind. It all started when as a young boy he started catching butterflies at his family’s country house. His collection boasts an impressive gathering of 4,000 types of butterflies. Moreover, 20 of those were his own discoveries later named after the characters of Nabokov’s novels. When Nabokov moved to the US in 1940, he was employed for seven years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University, studying and dissecting butterflies. Over the course of his entomology career he published a number of research papers on butterflies. Now, after his death, the collection is spread across the world in the US, Switzerland and Russia.

 

He was a synesthet

Synesthesia is a neurological condition when one sensory experience involuntarily leads to another, for example you can hear or smell colours. One example of how Nabokov’s synesthesia manifested is associating letters of the alphabet with colours, something he discovered at an early age. In Nabokov’s family it was not only him who was a synesthet, but also his mother and son. It is not a psychological illness, but affects the perception of the world, so unsurprisingly many famous synesthets were artists

He wanted to burn his last novel

Nabokov was a demanding writer who paid a lot of attention to the literary qualities of his novels, innovative word play, use of language. He wasn’t the man to settle for second best. Out of these beliefs, Nabokov’s last wish was that his last novel, The Original of Laura, would be burnt after his death, as it was not completed. His wife Vera did not fulfil his wishes and kept it, then asking their son to burn it after her death. Luckily for readers, their son did not obey his parents’ last wish and published the novel 32 years after Nabokov’s death.

He was a descendant of Russian nobility

Nabokov was born into a wealthy family of St Petersburg nobility. His father was a lawyer and politician, one of the leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party. His mother was from the Rukavishnikov family that made their wealth in gold mining. The family lived in a mansion on Bolshaya Morskaya street in St Petersburg, where Nabokov spent the first 18 years of his life. Their home has now been transformed into a museum dedicated to the writer.

He held dual citizenship

Nabokov was forced to move across countries throughout his life. The Nabokov family decided to immigrate when he was fairly young. As the Russian revolution struck in 1917, the family moved to Crimea, to wait for the political troubles to calm down. But they didn’t and the family left Russia forever. The family moved to Germany, while Nabokov completed his education at Cambridge University. He then also joined them in Berlin and got married. Prior to the Second World War, as the antisemitic movement grew, the family moved to France and then to the USA, where the Nabokovs were granted citizenship. His last home was Switzerland where Nabokov died in 1977.

He was an avid chess player

Nabokov took this hobby very seriously, and passionately played throughout his life. He began spending a lot of time composing chess problems at a young age, but then there was a long silence of him being only a player rather than a composer. Later in his life, in the 1970s, he began composing chess problems again and publishing them in the journal The Problemist. 18 of his problems were later published in the book Poems and Problems.

He had a talent for languages

Since he was born in high society, it was common practice to use a number of languages. He learned to read in English before he could read in Russian. Thus from a young age, Nabokov spoke English, French and Russian. Nabokov would say about himself: “My head speaks English, my heart speaks Russian and my ear speaks French”. Although he first started writing in Russian, after immigrating Nabokov then switched to English. He was the only Russian writer who could write in English just as well as he did in his native language. Nabokov translated some of his works himself, but rather than doing verbatim translation he would rewrite to adjust to the language. Such was the case with his scandalous novel Lolita.

He has a literary award named after him

The PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature awards $50 000 to a writer born or residing outside of the US, whose work was written or translated into English. These works have the aim of “[evoking] to some measure Nabokov’s brilliant versatility and commitment to literature as a search for the deepest truth and the highest pleasure”. The award is supported by the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation, founded by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri.

He first suggested the smiley

Our messaging cannot be imagined without the smiley: a simple combination of colon, hyphen and closing bracket that adds positive emotion to any ordinary message. Few of us imagine that the idea to use the smile came from Vladimir Nabokov. In a 1969 interview, Nabokov mentioned that written language needs a symbol that would represent a smile, to graphically display emotion. He never implemented his idea though, only in 1982 was the smiley first used on a bulletin board of Melon Carnegie University.

He was a teacher

Nabokov proved to not only be a talented creator of literature, but also had an in-depth understanding of the world’s literary past. In the 1940-50s, Nabokov taught a course of Russian literature in translation at Cornell University. After his death, with the help of his wife and son, his lectures were published in English. Among them are Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote.

He completed translation work

It would have been a shame not to put Nabokov’s linguistic skills to good use, but luckily he did. One of his first major translation works was translating Alice in Wonderland into Russian. He then contributed greatly to the translation of Russian literature into English. Among his translations are many poems by Pushkin, Lermontov and Tutchev that he published in a joint book called Three Russian Poets. He translated A Hero of Our Time, a major novel of Lermontov, the 15th-century Russian epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign and Pushkin’s monumental work Eugene Onegin with extensive commentary.