Today is Vladimir Nabokov's birthday, so we asked Russian Life contributor and Nabokov expert Diana Bruk where to start when reading the master...
People often ask me, “What is Vladimir Nabokov’s greatest novel?” I know that they want me to say something completely unexpected, but I must perpetually disappoint them, for Lolita is not only his most famous book, but also indubitably his magnum opus. Luckily for my listener, however, there are five other amazing Nabokov works that I can urge people to read to initiate them into the master’s oeuvre:
Speak, Memory Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir is a wonderful way of getting to know the elusive author and his prose. In a language that is lushly lyrical and soaked in nostalgia, he describes his wealthy, aristocratic upbringing in St. Petersburg, his precious summers on his mother’s country estate, his first love, and leaving it all behind when they fled Russia during the revolution. He touches upon his time at Cambridge and his years as a Russian expat in Berlin and (briefly) Paris, but the focus of the text is really a celebration of how we can revisit what we have lost in the invincible shrine of fiction.
Pnin It’s hard to believe that Nabokov could have written such a great book as a way of taking a break from the “difficult birth” that was Lolita. The novel, which Nabokov swore wasn’t autobiographical, concerns a Russian expat professor who teaches at an American college very similar to Cornell, who has a hard time adjusting to American life. The language of the book is remarkably simple for a Nabokov work, but the way it blends pathos and comedy is truly astounding.
Pale Fire Although Lolita was widely hailed for its experimental embellishments, this book was really what earned him a place as a master stylist. It begins with a brilliant 999-line poem written by John Shade, followed by a lengthy commentary by his neighbor and alleged friend, Charles Kinbote. It initially comes across as a parody of the way critics infuse themselves into the lives of their subjects, but it quickly turns into a stylistic tour de force and a postmodern thriller.
Lectures on Literature. Between 1941 and 1959, Nabokov taught Russian (and later European) literature, first at Wellesley and then at Cornell. His classes were popular not only because of his unique teaching style (he wrote out all of his lectures and read them out loud to the class, never pausing for discussions), but also for this original approach to literary criticism. He was disdainful of picking apart fiction in the scientific manner that was popular at the time, and instead encouraged students to “cherish the details” in fiction and read for the sake of “aesthetic bliss. The lectures themselves are funny, energetic, and very insightful.
Mary Before Nabokov moved to America in 1940, all of his works had been written in Russian. Of the nine Russian novels, it is his last, Dar (The Gift) that is largely considered to be the best. But it’s very dense and stylistic and therefore similar to his later work. Which is why I instead always propose his first novel, Mary. Published in 1926, it’s unabashedly autobiographical, as it concerns a Russian expat living in Berlin who find outs that his lost love, Mary, will soon be arriving, a discovery which evokes beautiful memories of the beloved Russia he has left behind. Unlike his later works, it’s very short and sweet and written in a Chekhovian style, but even so one can find traces of that characteristic Nabokovian magic.
Diana Bruk was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and emigrated to New York at the age of five. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and completed a Masters in Comparative Literature (English and Russian) at the University of Oxford. She has taught English language and literature in the Czech Republic, Russia, the UK, and the top university in China. She wrote about Nabokov in Russian Life's March/April 2014 issue. Her website is here.
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