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Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years Hardcover – August 22, 1990

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Boyd's intimate, magisterial, prodigiously researched biography pulverizes the notion that Nabokov was a minimalist, a solipsist or trickster with nothing to say. He views the Russian emigre novelist as a moral philosopher, ruthlessly skeptical of all traditions and conventions, who saw life as full of the promise of happiness if only we approach it with detachment. Nabokov's own life was one of massive disruptions--born to a wealthy Russian noble family, his politician father assassinated in 1922, the writer's existence became a succession of rented rooms, from Cambridge to Berlin to Paris. The "true" story of Nabokov's art, as told here, was how he invented the fictional forms to express his philosophy. With great empathy and verve, Boyd ( Nabokov's "Ada" ) tracks his metamorphosis up to 1940, when he, his Jewish wife and son fled Nazi-occupied France. Boyd has written a superb biography. Photos.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This is the first volume of a detailed critical biography of the Russian-born author of Lolita ( LJ 8/58) and Pale Fire ( LJ 5/15/62). Boyd's analysis of Nabokov's works is bracing, but his summary of the man's life is sometimes infelicitous: "His heart and mind set on love and verse, young Vladimir Nabokov had neither eyes nor ears for the smoke and rumble of history." We last see Nabokov, clearly alive to history by now, fleeing France with his wife and son just ahead of Nazi troops; a second volume, The American Years, is to follow. Boyd's biography supersedes Andrew Field's VN ( LJ 9/1/86), which Boyd and others have criticized as inaccurate. Recommended for collections of modern literature.
- Grove Koger, Boise P.L., Id.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 619 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; y First edition edition (August 22, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691067945
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691067940
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #580,996 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand, has published on American, Brazilian, English, Greek, Irish, New Zealand and Russian literature, from Homer to the present and from child to adult, and on biography, comics, drama, essays, fiction, film, literary theory, poetry, philosophy, science, and translation. His writing has appeared in eighteen languages and has won awards in four continents.

He has worked especially on Vladimir Nabokov, as annotator (see AdaOnline,, archivist, bibliographer, biographer, consultant, critic, donor, editor, expert witness, historian, lecturer, lepidopterist, museum advisor, negotiator, reviewer, supervisor, teacher, translator. Most recent: Letters to Véra, co-edited and co-translated with Olga Voronina.

He also works on literature and evolution, including his recent Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 2012).

His other Shakespeare work includes Words That Count (University of Delaware Press, 2004).

He is currently researching and writing Karl Popper: A Life.

For key publications, see

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on July 5, 2008
Format: Paperback
Who would have thought that the world's foremost Nabokov expert is a Kiwi? Amazing. Boyd's two volume bio is a must for all Nabokovistas. He splits the life neatly between the Russian Years, ie from birth until emigration to the US, and American Years, ie the rest.
Boyd tells us Nabokov's life story and interweaves the main prose works and their interpretations. While still a Russian novelist, Nab published under the pen name Sirin, which means Bird of Paradise. How appropriate this choice of name!
The man was born towards the end of the 19th century in Zarist Russia to an aristocratic family of latifundistas and jurists in parlament and government service on cabinet level. He grew up in riches, spending his childhood between the town appartment in St.Petersburg (to which I made a pilgrimage in 2006) and a splendid country mansion in the vicinity. He began collecting butterflies as a boy; he started painting, but dropped that, it was not his real talent. He started writing poetry early.
He became personally rich as a teen, when he inherited a fortune from an uncle. He lost it all in the Bolshie revolution. He escaped to Western Europe with the family as a young man. He studied in England and was a notorious playboy, a gifted chess player, soccer goalkeeper, tennis coach and poet. He moved to Berlin, which was the center of Russian emigration. His father was killed by Monarchist assassins, perversely. (One of the assassins later became a Nazi spy on emigrants.) He earned the family upkeep with English and tennis lessons. He became a well established novelist as Sirin. He met Vera and married her and had a son with her. When the Nazis took over, they prepared to move to France, which however took a few more years, partly because Vera earned well as top secretary to Berlin businesses.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A. Fondacaro on May 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
The man himself once said, "Biographies are generally fun to write, less fun to read." The implication is that the person who authors the biography becomes so immersed in the life of their subject that biographies end up being labors of love. However, take that biography and assign it to a student...
I would have to say that this two-volume biography of Nabokov is the mathematical proof that disproves the formula above. Boyd plays the role of historian/biographer, spending time explaining the political scene of Russia early on in N's life, and traces the movements of the most significant person in N's first twenty years; his father. Of course, this is probably out of necessity considering his father's position in the whole political mish-mash that was fin-de-siecle Russia. I might gripe and say that there's too much attention paid to the politics, but that's because I'm an English major, not a historian or a politician, and I'm reading for pleasure. Were I reading for a thesis, these excerpts would be invaluable.
I'm thrilled about the chapters of Russian emigre life in Europe following the Bolshevik Revolution. Not only does it trace the influence that wafts through N's early stuff (and follows through his life), but it also gives us a taste of the climate of those years, plus a roster of sorts of who was part of that microcosm. This is going to be, in my estimation, a highly researched period of literature, once it becomes fashionable that is, and this biography will be a resource for all those students looking for a glimpse into that world. Studies in Nabokov are really beginning to blossom, and this will spur interest in that era as well.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Antonio on April 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
Having read what little Nabokov anyone has read (Lolita) I exchanged this book for a Bogart biography I received as birthday present. I was hooked and, having read the whole book through in a few days, I bought the second volume and I wasn't let down. The book is a jewel and Nabokov becomes almost as close an acquaintance of the reader as Johnson became per Boswell's book.
The elegiac childhood that Nabokov enjoyed as the son of an upper class family of political liberals and Russian patriots is hard to imagine given the awfulness of Russian history since the 1905. After the death of his grandfather Nabokov became a millionaire at age 10. His family was close knit and loving (which may explain his deep love for his wife Véra and his son Dmitri, named after Vladimir's father). The Nabokovs managed to escape Russia from their Crimean summer house and eventually ended up in Germany, where they endured hardship and persecution. Nabokov's father, who had been an Education Minister during Kerensky's brief democratic administration, was murdered by an extreme-nationalist from the "Black Hundreds", a paramilitary organisation. Amazingly, Nabokov never bored to learn German although he lived in Germany for twenty years because he felt German would destroy his gift for Russian. His French was flawless, though (he died in French Switzerland). His meeting of the beautiful, brilliant Véra is touching, a rare moment of perfection on this cursed globe, and they became a very close couple. Mrs Nabokov was much more than a wife: she was a soul-mate and a loving collaborator in all Nabokov's efforts.
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