O Window in the Dark!

The Early Career of Vladimir Nabokov



I’m not sure that I had ever heard of Vladimir Nabokov when, some time ago, I began to read Lolita for a “Twentieth Century American Fiction” class. It was the most enjoyable reading experience of my life; why hadn’t I known about him before? Like Axel Rex in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, I feel as though I’m a co-conspirator whenever I encounter Nabokov. No other author gives me such “aesthetic bliss,” such a “stab of wonder.”

   In doing secondary research, I notice with amusement that critics have focused, with few exceptions, upon Nabokov’s more famous English novels, as though the Americanized Russian novels are only a minor curiosity, like juvenilia, in the development of an author who later flowered. Nonsense. Nabokov did not become a genius only upon being granted U.S. citizenship. His Russian work is every bit as important in his career as his later fiction. In learning about the (fascinating) details of his personal history, I became much interested in the ties between his early life and his art, and in this thesis I have chosen to focus mainly upon Nabokov’s first forty years: his Russian childhood and his European exile. In so doing, I have not limited myself only to Russian works, because much of the later English writing sheds a good deal of light on attitudes already formed but not always articulated explicitly. Speak, Memory, his English memoir of this 1899-1940 period, contains a wealth of material; so does Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews and articles.

   I think that I am well justified in my very extensive use of direct quotation in this paper for at least two reasons. First, any paraphrase of ideas as abstract and wide-ranging as his could only be reductive, and I have made it my main task to draw together his words on any one topic. (Nabokov has said that a scholar’s work should be the discovery and presentation of details.) Second, I think that Nabokov’s English is unequaled in contemporary literature, and the idea of rendering his lofty thoughts in my lowly prose is aesthetically appalling. Nabokov always reserved the right to speak for himself; far be it from me to attempt clumsily to usurp him. (In addition to my text, I have also provided appendices in which I keep my nose out of things almost altogether.) For the most part my creativity has been limited to organizational techniques that I learned from John McPhee and (I hope) from Vladimir Nabokov.


   I wish to acknowledge gratefully the assistance of: Ann Kirschner and Professor Henry Miller for their invaluable scholarly help; Kirsti Aho for proofreading; and especially my parents for their untiring support of their generally insupportable son.


© Michael Fleming

Princeton, New Jersey

March 1980


a note on the text . . .

You’ll soon see that I have quoted the various works of Vladimir Nabokov quite extensively throughout the following “pages.” What you won’t see are citations. HTML coding is nightmare enough (and a boring nightmare at that) without making hundreds of neat hypertext links to indicate all the sources; moreover, most of the editions I used when I first wrote this biography are now at least 20 years old and almost certainly out of print, so my page numbers would be of little use in any case. Please trust me that I have, in every case, quoted accurately, and if something is really bothering you, drop me an e-line and I’ll try to make it all better.

   I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Cathy de Heer for sharing her html expertise and her Dutchgirl website; Chris de Heer for pushing me along from 1 to 2 on the 1–10 scale of website sophistication; and especially the Ragdale Foundation of Lake Forest, Illinois, for providing me with the opportunity to renew my relationship with my long-lost brainchild.


© Michael Fleming

Lake Forest, Illinois

October 1998


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