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Nabokov, Vladimir

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1899-1977) Russian-born US poet, translator, entomologist and author. Raised in Russia until the Revolution, and then educated at Cambridge, he lived between the wars in Germany and France, writing as by V Sirin; he emigrated to the USA in 1940 – at which point he began to write in English rather than Russian (he had been an accomplished translator from English into Russian for some years) – and from 1959 lived in Switzerland. His first books of poetry date from the teens of the century, his first novel from 1926, though he came to world fame only after the publication, many books later, of Lolita (1955 2vols). Several of his novels can be read precariously in terms of their fantasy or sf elements – including Korol', Dama, Valet (1928; trans Dmitri Nabokov and Nabokov as King, Queen, Knave 1968), which features "automannequins" whose natures hover between Automaton and Robot; "Soglyadatay" (1930 Sovremennïya Zapiski France; trans Dmitri Nabokov and Nabokov as The Eye 1965), an Afterlife fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; Priglashenie na kasn' (1934 Sovremennïya Zapiski France; 1938; trans Dmitri Nabokov and Nabokov as Invitation to a Beheading 1959), a fable whose protagonist, opaque to a bureaucratic state which requires transparency of its inmates, transcends execution through a powerful Slingshot Ending; the Dystopia, Bend Sinister (1947); and Pale Fire (1962), which transforms Ruritanian manias into deeply intricate parable while Parodying the Mysterious Stranger topos. But Nabokov's Fabulations tend to a sometimes ostentatiously austere self-referentiality, and are not easily pigeonholed. It has also been suggested that all Nabokov's novels from Pnin [1957] to Transparent Things [1972] contain attempts at Communication from dead characters to the living, though never perhaps as explicitly as in the last paragraph in "The Vane Sisters" (written 1951; Winter 1958-1959 [ie Autumn 1958] The Hudson Review), which is an acrostic (see Oulipo) created by the two dead sisters in an attempted contact with the narrator of the tale.

Nevertheless "Izobretenie Val'sa'" (1938 Russkie zapiski France; rev text trans Dmitri Nabokov as The Waltz Invention 1966) is a genuine sf play; its eponymous protagonist uses his Invention of an atomic Weapon to demand to rule his country or he will cause apocalypse. Some of his poetry is sf-tinged, most spectacularly perhaps "The Man of To-morrow's Lament" (written 1942; 5 March 2021 TLS), in which, inspired by Superman Comics #16 (May-June 1942), Superman depicts his frustration on contemplating sexual congress with Lois Lane:

For marriage would be murder on my part,
an earthquake, wrecking on the night of nights
a woman's life, some palmtrees, all the lights,
the big hotel, a smaller one next door
and half a dozen army trucks – or more.

Some of the stories assembled in Nabokov's Dozen (coll 1958) as well as "Poseshchenie muzeya" (1939; trans as "The Visit to the Museum" March 1963 Esquire) and "The Vane Sisters" [for details see above], both found in Nabokov's Quartet (coll 1966), and "Lance" (2 February 1952 The New Yorker), found in Nabokov's Congeries (coll 1968), are of sf or fantasy interest. The Oulipo-esque conceit of "The Vane Sisters" is that its final paragraph, unbeknownst to the narrator, carries the acrostic signature of the eponymous dead sisters. Nabokov's short work as a whole, Russian and English, has been assembled as The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (coll trans Dmitri Nabokov and/or Vladimir Nabokov 1995).

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) has likewise been treated as sf, though not entirely fruitfully. Certainly Ada depicts an Alternate History, whose highly fantasticated Jonbar Point would be a Russian Revolution that takes place around the middle of the nineteenth century. Whether or not this mirroring, incestuously twinned Anti-Terra has been created by protagonist Van Veen as a Godgame to counterpoint and justify and lead inexorably to incest, the book can be read with some interest for its rendering of sf elements, including the time theories of J W Dunne, though the novel itself comprises much, much more. However individual texts might be defined, Nabokov was concerned in all his work to shape versions of the creative act. The materials he used were subjunctive to the shaping, not vice versa as in sf. [JC]

see also: History of SF.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

born St Petersburg, Russia: 23 April 1899

died Montreux, Switzerland: 2 July 1977

works (selected)

  • Korol', Dama, Valet (Berlin: Slovo, 1928) as by V Sirin [pb/]
    • King, Queen, Knave (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968) [trans of the above by Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov: hb/nonpictorial]
  • "Soglyadatay" (1930 Sovremennïya Zapiski France) as by V Sirin [Sovremennyya Zapiski being a magazine published in Berlin: not published separately in Russian: binding unknown/]
    • The Eye (New York: Phaedra, 1965) [trans Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov of the above: hb/uncredited]
  • Priglashenie na kasn' (Paris: Dom Knigi, 1938) as by V Sirin [first appeared in 1934 in Sovremennïya Zapiski in Paris: binding unknown/]
    • Invitation to a Beheading (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1959) [trans of the above by Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Bend Sinister (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947) [hb/uncredited]
  • Pale Fire (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1962) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969) [hb/nonpictorial]

collections (English language collections only)

  • Nabokov's Dozen (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1958) [hb/]
  • Nabokov's Quartet (New York: Phaedra Publishers, 1966) [coll: Russian-language stories trans from various sources by Dmitri Nabokov: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Nabokov's Congeries (New York: The Viking Press, 1968) [coll: hb/Mel Williamson]
  • The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995) [coll: Russian-language stories trans Dmitri Nabokov and/or Vladimir Nabokov: collected but seemingly not complete: hb/Drenttel Doyle Partners]
  • Lance (London: Penguin Modern, 2018) [coll: chap: pb/nonpictorial]


  • "Izobretenie Val'sa'" (1938 Russkie zapiski) as by V Sirin [Russkie zapiski being a magazine published in Paris: not published separately in Russian: binding unknown/]

about the author (highly selected)


previous versions of this entry

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