Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 23, 1899, into a family with a long history of public service and scholarship. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nabokov and his family went into exile in England. Trilingual in Russian, English, and French from an early age, Nabokov earned an honors degree in Slavic and Romance languages from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1922. He embarked upon a literary career, writing primarily in Russian. Among his notable early works was a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In 1925, Nabokov married Vera Slonim, and in 1934 their only child, Dmitri, was born. The Nabokovs lived in both Germany and France before emigrating to the United States in 1940, where Nabokov taught literature courses at Wellesley and Cornell Universities. The move to America also inspired Nabokov to begin writing in English.
By 1955, Nabokov had already published a number of novels but had yet to create his masterpiece Lolita, which Nabokov began writing in 1949. It was originally rejected by no fewer than four American publishers, who found the story of a middle-aged professor’s lust for his preteen stepdaughter too inflammatory for publication. Undaunted, Nabokov persisted, and Lolita was eventually published in France in 1955 by the marginally reputable Olympia Press. Though it was condemned in some corners as scandalous trash, Lolita became an underground literary sensation in France. Driven by the growing critical acclaim for the book, Putnam published an American edition of the novel in 1958. Some countries deemed Lolita obscene and banned it, but the novel became a best seller in the United States, despite its controversial subject matter.
Though Lolita is a fictional memoir, Nabokov actually shared many personality traits with his protagonist Humbert Humbert. Both men were highly educated, academically oriented European exiles who made their homes in America, and both possessed a compelling gift for language. However, unlike the pedophiliac, delusional Humbert, Nabokov was a devoted family man who lived a quiet, scholarly existence. Because of Lolita’s success as a novel and as a film, Nabokov had the funds to retire to Switzerland in 1960 and devote himself exclusively to writing until his death in 1977. A prolific author, Nabokov’s other notable works include Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1951), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). Nabokov also developed talents and hobbies besides writing. His passion for lepidoptera, the study of butterflies, earned him a position with the Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also a skilled chess player, a creator of Russian crosswords, and an avid tennis player.