With thanks to Tom:
New York Times
July 5, 1977
Vladimir Nabokov, Author of ‘Lolita’ and ‘Ada,’ Is Dead
By ALDEN WHITMAN
Vladimir Nabokov, a giant in the world of literature, died Saturday at the age of 78. The author of such works as “Lolita,” “Pnin” and “Ada” succumbed to a virus infection in the suite at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, where he and his wife, Véra, had lived for the last 18 years.
Mrs. Nabokov, who was with him when he died, disclosed the death yesterday and said that her husband “had been very sick for the past year and a half. He had some good moments but was very ill,” she said, adding that the exact virus that killed him had not been identified.
Mr. Nabokov was born in Russia and settled in the United States in 1939, living here until 1959. With the publication of “Lolita” in 1958, he received popular recognition. His later works, combined with the publication of earlier novels in translation from the original Russian, saw him elevated to the first rank of world authors.
His writing often perplexed his readers. “For some weeks now I have been floundering and traveling in the mind of that American genius, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Nabokov,” wrote the critic Alfred Kazin on reading the writer’s novel “Ada” in 1969. His remark echoed the attitude of many readers who became an adoptive American after many years of exile in Europe and who in 1959 took up residence in Switzerland.
These readers recognized Mr. Nabokov’s technical brilliance and mastery of form, but were frequently baffled by his irrepressible sense of flippancy and his penchant for parody. Was he, it was asked, a gifted artificer entranced by fun and games, or was he a creative and profound artist?
The perplexity sprang in part from the fact that Mr. Nabokov possessed such a cultivated mind (he was Cambridge-educated and a Cornell professor) and had such a cosmopolitan upbringing (“I was a perfectly normal trilingual child”) that he tended to emphasize the paradoxes and humor of life rather than it congruities and dolorousness. “Every artist,” he once remarked, “sees the comic and cosmic side of things.”
Indeed, his explosion to prominence was based on a paradox, the public reaction to his novel “Lolita,” which was published in the United States in 1958, when he was 59 years old. Intended as a metaphor for the eternal quest for innocence that is resolved in satiric terms, the book sold in the thousands as an erotic story of Dolores Haze, a 12-year-old nymphet (the author’s coinage) and Humbert Humbert, her middle-aged pursuer.
The serious novel succeeded for salacious reasons, which, of course, aroused its author, but it also cost him many hours of explanation. “My knowledge of nymphets is purely scholarly,” he was obliged to say. Ironically, the royalties gave him long- sought freedom to devote himself wholly to writing.& “Lolita,” like most Nabokov stories, can be read on several levels: as a narrative, as an exercise in logodaedaly, as a search for meaning and truth, as a tantalizing flight of imagination, as an exploration of a dreamlike confusion of time and place, and as an elaborative spoof. “He is not the kind of novelist whom you sit down to with a Scotch or an apple,” Anthony Burgess, the British critic, declared.
This dazzling multifariousness gave employment to many academic exegetes. In addition to a quarterly devoted to Nabokoviana, at least one full-dress critical study has been produced along with two books, one offering a “key” to “Lolita” and the other annotating that novel. And there are scores of glosses on his other works.
One book, Carl R. Proffer’s “Keys to Lolita,” was seriously discussed as actually coming from Mr. Nabokov’s pen because its pedantry was such that it could be read as a parody on pedantry and because the name Proffer, with its scholastic implications, seemed like one Mr. Nabokov might adopt as a pseudonym. But Mr. Proffer, it turned out, was a very serious Indiana University scholar.
Mr. Nabokov did employ pseudonyms. “My main pseudonym, Sirin, thrived from 1920 to 1940,” he said in an interview for this article. “Occasionally I used the little silk mask of an additional pen name in order to deceive this or that captious criticwith most gratifying results (“At last a great writer!” cried my favorite Zoilus in 1939).
Delight in Humor While insisting on his underlying seriousness, Mr. Nabokov admitted to delight in humor and the necessity for it. “While I keep everything on the brink of parody,” he explained, “there must be on the other hand an abyss of seriousness, and I must make my way along this narrow ridge between my own truth and the caricature of it.”
He maintained that all writers worth anything are humorists. “Give me an example of a great writer who is not a humorist,” he demanded. “The worst tragedian is O’Neill. He is probably the worst writer. Dostoyevsky’s slapstick is wonderful, but in his tragedy he’s a journalist.
“The writer creates his own kind of life. Seeing things in a singular, unique, extraordinary way sounds funny to the average person.
“Seeing things as if they were new is funny in itself. The unusual is funny in itself. A man slips and falls down. It is the contrary of gravity in both senses. That is a great pun, by the way.”
In addition to its humor (much of it donnish to a degree, or Joycean), a Nabokov novel was a game, with the reader invited to figure out the illusive reality that the writer offered. “In a first-rate piece of fiction, the real clash is not between the characters,” he contended, “but between the author and the world.”
“Ada” (Mr. Nabokov pronounced it Ah-dah) was such a novel, and to get the most out of it, a reader could benefit from some knowledge of the theory of matter and antimatter, John Milton, T.S. Eliot, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and the 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell. Acquaintanceship with Russian and French was also helpful, not to mention an inkling of theological speculation about prelapsarianism.
Furthermore, a reader who knew something about butterflies could gain valuable insights into what Mr. Nabokov was trying to say, for the author, a distinguished and passionate lepidopterologist, put butterflies and moths into virtually everything he wrote. (As a butterfly expert, Mr. Nabokov discovered several species and subspecies, made scholarly contributions to scientific literature and served from 1942 to 1948 as a research fellow in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.)
In his later years, when he had become famous, Mr. Nabokov loved to make pronouncementssome plainly outrageous, some mystifying, some obviously designed to sustain his self-assessment that “I am a very funny man.” In an interview for this article in the spring of 1969, for example, he pronounced merrily on the pronounciation of his name. After reciting in mock horror several variants that he considered vulgar, he said, twinkling:
“My name, if you must know, is vla-DEE-mir, to rhyme with redeemer, na-BOAK-off. But only a Russian can say it with its true inflections.”
In another utterance he offered a new English word for vulgarity the Russian word Poshlost (pronounced PUSH-lost), which means, he said, “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudoliterature.” Pressed for examples, he said:
“Poshlost speaks in such concepts as ‘America is no better than Russia’ or ‘We all share in Germany’s guilt.’ The flowers of Poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as ‘the moment of truth,’ ‘charisma,’ ‘existential’ (used seriously), ‘dialogue’ (as applied to political talks between nations) and ‘vocabulary’ (as applied to a dauber).”
A few of Mr. Nabokov’s other declarations were:
“Of course everybody has his bête noire, his black pet. Mine is that airline ad: The snack served by the obsequious wench to a young couple she eyeing the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, ‘Death in Venice,’ [a novella by Thomas Mann].”
“Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others, mean absolutely nothing to me. I must fight a suspicion of conspiracy against my brain when I blandly see accepted as ‘great literature’ by critics and fellow authors Lady Chatterley’s copulations or the pretentious nonsense of Mr. [Ezra] Pound, that total fake.”
“How can I talk about the novel when I don’t know what a novel is? There are no novels, no writers, only individual books.”
“I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embryos spying from their natural nooks upon the love life of their parents.”
“I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to analysts, or take part in any demonstrations. I’m a mild old gentleman, very kind.”
Six feet tall and sturdily built, Mr. Nabokov resembled an athlete (he was an excellent tennis player most of his life), yet when he donned his shell glasses he seemed like an avancular professor. His manner was courtly, his green and amber eyes merry, his lips seemed always to be pursed for a joke or a jape. His voice was that of a skilled actor; he could project it to any emotion or range, so that his conversations had a quality of drama that transfixed listeners.
“I was born a cosmopolite, and my Russia is little more than the park of an ancestral estate in the latitude of Yukon,” the writer said in his 1969 interview. Born April 23, 1899 (he shared Shakespeare’s birthdate, he maintained), he was the son of a wealthy jurist and was brought up in a St. Petersburg townhouse and at a country estate by a series of nannies and governesses. He learned to speak and read English before he could read Russian.
As a youth, he was handsome and talented, disciplined and competitive. He learned to box and to play tennis, to become an expert at chess problems and to collect butterflies. He also wrote at 15, his first poem after seeing a raindrop cause a cordate leaf to flutter.
In 1919 he inherited $2 million from an uncle, but the Bolshevik Revolution obliged the entire family to flee Russia for Germany with only a few jewels and clothing. Three years later the elder Nabokov was killed at an émigré political rally in Berlin.
The same year Mr. Nabokov was graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, (“I played soccerthe great love of my life”) after studying French and Russian literature on a scholarship. Rejoining his family in Berlin, he made a modest living for a number of years by teaching boxing, tennis and languages, by constructing Russian crossword puzzles and by compiling a Russian grammar. Unlike many émigrés, Mr. Nabokov did not anguish over a lost life or engage in endless intrigues and interminable argument.
Meanwhile, he was determined to write (indeed, he could not help himself) as an outlet for his rich nostalgia for Russia, as a way to express his fantasies and inventions and emotions. He earned his living by day and wrote mostly at night, sometimes in the bathroom where the light disturbed no one. In this unorthodox fashion, pursued over 15 years, he created nine novels, nine plays and dozens of stories and plays in Russian, but was virtually unknown outside Russian circles.
Most of this output was later translated (in part by Mr. Nabokov himself) into English, including the novels “Mary,” “King, Queen, Knave,” “The Great Deed,” “The Luzhin Defense,” “Despair,” and “Laughter in the Dark.”
A Decisive Turn
Mr. Nabokov’s life took a decisive turn in 1939, when he accepted an invitation to lecture on Slavic languages at Stanford. Staying on in the United States for 20 years, he became a citizen and found a new emotional homeland. “It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russian and Western Europe,” he said, “and now I was faced with the task of inventing America.” Ultimately, he categorized himself as an American writer, telling this reporter in 1969:
“An American writer means, in the present case, a writer who has been an American citizen for a quarter of a century. It means, moreover, that all my works first appear in America. It also means that America is the only country where I feel mentally and emotionally at home.”
After Stanford, Mr. Nabokov taught at Wellesley from 1941 to 1948, first as a lecturer, then as a professor of literature. Simultaneously he was a working entomologist at Harvard, for which he discovered several species and subspecies of butterflies, including Nabokov’s wood nymph. And, of course, he was writing poems, essays, stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Partisan Review.
He was introduced to the American literary scene by Edmund Wilson, the late critic, in whose home at Westport, Conn., he wrote his first poem in the United States. The two were intimate friends until the late 1950’s, when, according to Mr. Nabokov, “a black cat came between usBoris Pasternak’s novel ‘Doctor Zhivago.'”
Mr. Nabokov called the book third-rate and clumsy while Mr. Wilson praised it. “He started the quarrel,” Mr. Nabokov said, and it was exacerbated in 1963 when Mr. Nabokov published his annotated English version of “Eugene Onegin,” Alexander Pushkin’s romantic novel in verse form. Mr. Wilson attacked the translation, hinting that Mr. Nabokov’s Russian was faulty. Their donnish dispute raged in The New York Review of Books until their friendship was ruptured.
Mr. Nabokov’s first novel written in English came out in 1941″The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.” It was the life story of a gifted novelist reconstructed after his death by a half-brother. It was followed by “Bend Sinister” in 1947, a Kafkaesque novel about an intellectual’s vain effort to maintain his integrity in a totalitarian environment; “Conclusive Evidence” (also known as “Speak, Memory,”) in 1951, a vivid account of the writer’s life in Russia; “Pnin” in 1957, about a Russian émigré’s life in an American university; “Lolita” in 1958; “Pale Fire” in 1962, a parodistic novel written in the form of a 999-line poem, with a lengthy commentary by a demented New England scholar who turns out to be an exiled king of a mythical country.
As he was writing novels in the 40’s and 50’s (plus poems and short stories), Mr. Nabokov continued to teach. He was at Cornell from 1949 to 1959 as a professor of Russian literature and he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard in the spring of 195. Popular, provocative and tough with his students, he wrote out his lectures in advance, delivered them sonorously (with a bit of acting) and upset a number of cherished values. He didn’t care for Cervantes, for example, and delighted in taking “Don Quixote” to pieces.
Summers he toured the United States in search of butterflies (“a passion and a madness”), stopping at motels and absorbing roadside culture. Many of his observations were incorporated in “Lolita,” leading to a charge that the book was intended, among other things, as a mockery of America. Discussing this in 1969, the writer said:
“Poking fun at suburban genteelness or inventing a half-dozen grotesque motels does not mean sneering at America. Let us not make a mockery out of a mock-up.”
“Lolita” was turned down as lewd by four publishers before G. P. Putnam’s Sons issued it. Even then it was banned by several public libraries, and The Chicago Tribune refused to review it. Its critical reception was mixed. Orville Prescott of The New York Times termed the book “highbrow pornography,” while Graham Greene acclaimed it was a distinguished novel. It has since come to be regarded as a classic, and was made into a movie with Sue Lyon in the title role.& With his royalties and $150,000 for screen rights, Mr. Nabokov went back to Europe for the first time in 20 years. He established himself in the Montreux-Palace Hotel, a marvelous Victorian and Edwardian pile on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, which he eventually made his home. “Sheer laziness” was one of the reasons he gave for remaining there; he also wanted to be near his only son, Dmitri, an opera singer in Italy, and a sister in Geneva.
At the Montreux-Palace, Mr. Nabokov had a warren of small rooms where he lived with his wife, Vera, who was his confidante, typist, chess partner, Scrabble adversary, butterfly-hunting companion and conversational jouster. Their dedication to each other was total.
Mr. Nabokov’s writing habits were unusual. Although he might have the general conception of a novel or a story in his mind, he worked it out as one would a crossword puzzle. Sentences, bits and scenes were jotted down in longhand on 3-by-5-inch index cards, and the grand design filled out a section at a time, in no special order. An insomniac, he kept his cards under his pillow, to make use of wakeful moments at night.
“Writing for me has always been a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime,” he once said. And the product often baffled critics and readers.
“Ada,” which was published in 1969, was an example. Sometimes called “the last of the mandarins,” Mr. Nabokov wrote the best- selling novel as a family chronicle, he said, but it was so full of allusions, commentaries on incest (some of them quite obscure) and ruminations on the nature of time that interpretation of it varied with the critic. The author hardly dispelled the confusion when he described the novel in his 1969 interview by saying:
“‘Ada’ is a leisurely, ample, old-fashioned family chronicle some 600 pages long. A childhood romance between closely related Van Veen and Ada Veen in an unspoiled part of New England develops into a lifelong obsession, with tragic interludes, reckless trysts and a rapturous end in the 10th decade of their cosmopolitan existence.
“The crucial chapter in ‘Ada’ is the penultimate part of the book, entirely concerned with an explorationa scholarly exploration — of the texture of time mainly by means of metaphors. The two leading characters die. Indeed, they die away to a built-in blurb, with a sort of perdendosi [a musical term meaning to lose strength] effect.”