5 Things You Didn't Know About Vladimir Nabokov

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You may know him as the author of such masterpieces as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin, but how well do you know Vladimir Nabokov? Here are five things you might not have known about the man who described himself by saying, "I am an American author, born in Russia, educated in England, where I studied French texts."

1. He Came From Cash

Nabokov was born in 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to the aristocratic family of a liberal lawyer and politician. Nabokov's upbringing reflected the culture and wealth of his family. The author was raised trilingual "“ the family conversed in Russian, English, and French.

Nabokov's father, who was also named Vladimir, had a fairly successful political career during his son's childhood. After the defeat of the White Army in 1919, though, the family had to flee the country. The Nabokovs first went to England, where the sale of a single strand of his mother's pearls financed two whole years of Vladimir's study at Cambridge. They eventually settled in Berlin, though, where Nabokov's father remained active in the politics of the Russian exile community. This involvement soon proved fatal for the elder Nabokov, as he died while trying to protect former Russian foreign minister Pavel Milyukov from an assassination attempt in Berlin.

2. He Really Knew His Butterflies

Even most casual Nabokov fans know that the writer had a butterfly-collecting hobby, but they might not know just how serious he was about his sideline as a lepidopterist.

Nabokov was actually a world-renowned expert on butterflies, so much so that in the 1940s he became curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's butterfly collection.

Nabokov actually discovered and named several species and families of butterflies, and he also assembled a new taxonomy system that's still in use. What was his secret weapon in these studies? He investigated the butterflies' "sculpturesque" genitalia under a microscope. His collection of dissected blue butterfly genitalia is still in Harvard's holdings.

Just how much of a stickler was Nabokov when it came to butterflies? When a publisher sent him a mockup of a cover for his collected poems, the author positively flipped out over the illustrations of butterflies and wrote back, "I like the two colored butterflies on the jacket but they have the bodies of ants, and no stylization can excuse a simple mistake"¦I would be the laughing stock of my entomological colleagues if they happened to see these impossible hybrids"¦I want to be quite clear and frank: I have nothing against stylization but I do object to stylized ignorance."

3. He Inadvertently Gave Pavarotti a Boost

Nabokov and his wife, Vera, only had one child, but their son, Dmitri (b. 1934), led quite a life in his own right, including stints as a mountaineer and professional race car drive. After graduation from Harvard, Dmitri turned down an offer to stay there for law school and instead launched a career as an opera singer. In 1961 he finally made it to the stage in a production of La Boheme in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

His father arranged for the performance to be recorded. While Dmitri was good as Colline, he couldn't hold a candle to the unknown tenor who was also making his operatic debut in the role of Rodolfo. The tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, quickly grew to worldwide fame, and thanks to Nabokov's doting fatherhood, the world still has documentation of the revered singer's very first performance.

4. He Wasn't Afraid to Hurl Some Criticism

If Nabokov disliked someone or something, he didn't go out of his way to be diplomatic about it. Here are a few of his choicer barbs:

On Freud: "I think he's crude, I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me. I don't have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don't see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons."

On Doctor Zhivago: "A sorry thing, clumsy, melodramatic, with stock situations and trite characters.''

On screen adaptation of Lolita: "'My supreme, and in fact only, interest in these motion picture contracts is money. I don't give a damn for what they call 'art.'"

To a biographer of himself whose work he did not approve: "The style and tone of your work are beyond redemption, but if you wish to publish it at all you must accept all the deletions and corrections in the present list.''

5. You Haven't Read Everything He Wrote Yet

Nabokov has been dead since 1977, but there's good news for those of us who have already wolfed down all of his novels. There's another one on the way!

original-lauraAfter years of consideration, son Dmitri, who serves as executor of his father's literary estate, has decided to publish The Original of Laura, the novel Nabokov was frantically trying to finish at the time of his death.

Nabokov specifically requested that Dmitri destroy the novel's manuscript, which consists of 125 handwritten index cards "“ Nabokov always wrote on index cards "“ but his son just couldn't bring himself to torch the book. Instead it spent three decades in a Swiss bank vault while Dmitri tried to decide what to do with it. He eventually became worried what would happen to the manuscript after his own death, so last year Dmitri decided to publish the work. Now you can hit bookstores this November 17th when Knopf releases The Original of Laura and get one last taste of Nabokov's inimitable genius.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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August 28, 2009 - 8:03am
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