Looking back on his childhood in Russia, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) remarked that he was "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library." His prosperous father made sure he learned English and French as well as Russian. When he departed for Berlin in the early 1920s, followed eventually by moves to Paris and, after the Nazi invasion, the United States, he found this knowledge valuable. Short of money, he taught English (as well as tennis and boxing) to fellow emigres in Berlin. In the U.S. he finally made the transition from writing in Russian as a Russian to writing in English as an American.
This move seems, in retrospect, a notable literary event. It began almost exactly a century ago when Nabokov left his homeland, splitting the work of a great writer in half. It opened the imagination of his readers to a fresh understanding of two different cultures. To enjoy Nabokov you must appreciate the variety of thought he exhibits.
He acknowledged that "I am an American writer, born in Russia," but he resented giving up his first language. He wrote that his private tragedy was abandoning "my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English." He found the difference resembled "a champion figure skater switching to roller skates." Eventually, John Updike called him "the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship."
He and his wife Vera were glad to avoid a nation governed by Bolsheviks but for a long time they believed this situation was at most temporary. While living in Berlin they expected to hear any day that the Bolsheviks had fallen and a sane government had replaced them. By the time they were settled in the U.S. they realized that the bad times had come and they were not likely to see their end.
In 1955 his renowned and scandalous bestseller, Lolita, was a way of signalling that America had become one of his subjects. It remains, as many of his readers have noted, as much about his adopted country as about a middle-aged man and his 12-year-old lover. As the enraptured Humbert trails Lolita -- he calls her "my Lo" -- across the American landscape, Nabokov follows the example of James Joyce in Ulysses. He creates a densely textured feel, cramming in every detail of their movements, from the food they eat to the strangers they meet -- all of whom speak a version of American argot.
Alfred Appel, a Nabokov expert who edited a book about this book, The Annotated Lolita, needed 900 footnotes to explain every reference that Nabokov makes to an obscure detective novel or a fragment of American slang. That was the style of thinking Nabokov adopted in his new environment. Nothing in popular culture was lost on him. In the 1950s and 1960s he could talk about anything: soap operas, Lenny Bruce, Patti Page, westerns, Jack Paar, the structure of the dung beetle, Agatha Christie, Ed Sullivan. He could converse on any of them, and have an opinion about all of them.
He wrote often for The New Yorker, though not without discomfort. His friend Edmund Wilson advised him that New Yorker editors must be allowed, sometimes, to make minor changes in the work of their contributors, even distinguished writers in the Nabokov class. He wrote many stories for The New Yorker, and two series -- one series that became a comic novel, Pnin, the other his wonderful memoir, Speak, Memory. Still, he bridled at every cut they demanded.
In a letter Nabokov once wrote, "I divide literature into two categories, the books I wish I had written and the books I have written." Only a writer in love with his own work could set down that sentence. Nabokov was a prince of letters, and proud of it. When he taught in university -- Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell -- he shocked students by mentioning he loathed the works of Thomas Mann and William Faulkner. As for one of his fellow Russians, Boris Pasternak, he branded Dr. Zhivago as "clumsy, trivial and melodramatic."
For those who remember waiting anxiously for the next Nabokov novel, and for those who discover him in the future, he and his work remain permanently enriching.