Biography Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899 – 1977), Russian and American novelist, short-story writer, poet, translator, and lepidopterist was born into a wealthy St. Petersburg family. He grew up trilingual from childhood, studied at the Tenishev School. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, played a prominent role in the provisional government. In November 1917 the Nabokovs left for Crimea and in 1919, the family fled to England. Vladimir Nabokov enrolled in Cambridge. While Vladimir Nabokov studied at Cambridge where he took a degree in Slavic and Roman Literatures, his family settled down in Berlin where Nabokov’s father became an editor of the emigre newspaper The Rudder (Rul’). As Yulia Trubikhina 2019) noted, “In the summer of 1922, Gamaiun, a Russian publishing company in Berlin, commissioned the twenty-three-year-old Nabokov to translate Alice in Wonderland into Russian.” A brilliant translation entitled Anya v strane chudes and signed with the pen-name V. Sirin brought out in 1923. This was Nabokov’s first substantial publication.

From 1922 to 1937 Nabokov resided in Berlin. In 1922, his father V.D. Nabokov was murdered by the right-wing assassins who were attempting to kill the politician Pavel Miliukov. In 1925, Vladimir Nabokov married Vera Slonim, their son Dmitri was born in 1934. His nine Russian novels were written during the Berlin period. Before he turned to prose as his major medium, Nabokov published four volumes of poetry. In Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov earned a tenuous living by publishing short fiction and poetry, using the pseudonym Sirin to avoid confusion with his father (Pictorial Biography, 1991). He supplemented his income in a variety of ways: by giving lessons in English and tennis; translating; appearing as an extra in films; acting in theatrical productions; and by composing chess problems and Russian crossword puzzles. 

In 1936, Vera lost her job when the Nazis dismissed the Jewish owners of her firm (Schiff 2011). In 1937, the family left Berlin for Paris. In May 1940, the Nabokovs managed to emigrated to the US. ,

In America, Nabokov initially got a part-time job at the Museum of Natural History in New York, classifying butterflies. He published two papers, made entomological drawings. During the summer of 1941, he taught creative writing at Stanford University, before accepting the position as resident lecturer in comparative literature and instructor in Russian at Wellesley College. In 1951, Dmitri Nabokov enrolled in Harvard, and while his son was a student, Vladimir Nabokov taught as a visiting lecturer. From 1948-1959, he worked at Cornell University as professor of Russian and European literature. While teaching at Cornell, Nabokov translated The Song of Igor’s Campaign, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. There he also finished Lolita and began writing the novel Pnin

Lolita, a novel about a man’s affair with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, initially was rejected by many American publishing houses. Lolita was first published in France by Olympia Press in 1955 and generated moral outrage, as well as high praises for the aesthetic value. Eventually, the novel was published in America in 1958. With profits from the sale of the novel, combined with the sale of the movie rights and a screenplay deal, Vladimir Nabokov could afford to devote himself to writing. 

In 1961, Vladimir and Vera moved to Montreux, Switzerland, in part to be near Dmitri, who was studying for a career in opera in Milan. At first, considered a temporary move, they settled in at the Montreux-Palace Hotel. Vladimir Nabokov continued to write novels and translated his earlier work from Russian into English, often collaborating with his son Dmitri. It should be noted that during the translation process, Vladimir Nabokov occasionally did “self-editing” of his earlier works published in Russian.

The publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Selected Poems in 2012 was a major literary event. As the book’s editor Thomas Karshan writes, “the great novelist (Lolita, Pale Fire) was “first a poet”. Many of his poems were translated by Dmitri Nabokov, including The University Poem, a sparkling novel in verse modeled on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Vladimir Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, of a lung ailment.


Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton University Press. 2016.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years.  Princeton University Press. 2016.

Dolinin, Alexander. Kommentarii k romanu Vladimira Nabokova, “Dar”. 2019

Trubikhina, Julia. The Translator’s Doubts: Vladimir Nabokov and the Ambiguity of Translation. Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Schiff, Stacy. Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov. Modern Library, 2011.

Vladimir Nabokov: A Pictorial Biography, compiled and edited by Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, c1991