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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
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. Her Jewish family background remained a strong motivator to leave, however. They moved to Paris, and a few years later were lucky to get away in time to the US.
Nab always claimed that despite his many years of living in Berlin, he never learned German. This is doubtful, and probably a political statement. Other writers have traced some of Nab's texts and letters to sources such as Schopenhauer or H.C.Andersen, an important source and probably in the German translation. It is even likely that he did read his favorite subject of ridicule Thomas Mann in the original. Possibly also Freud, who was his supreme bete noire.
If you want to look at Nab's Russian novels, my suggestion would be The Gift, Lushin's Defense, Bend Sinister, and the Invitation to a Beheading. But actually, go for all of them, and don't forget the short stories.
The American years of the 2nd volume include the Swiss years. He spent the last years of his life in a hotel on the Lac de Geneve. Odd that he never owned a house after losing the 'paradise' in Russia. He refused to try to replace the loss.
His work in the US can be divided into 3 categories: museum work as a curator for the enthomology department, classifying butterflies; teaching work as professor for European literature (from which came some volumes of highly interesting texts on literature); and writing novels and stories, plus the so-called non-fiction of Speak, Memory (a most fantastic autobiography); and a Gogol monography; and a Pushkin translation plus some minor translations. The man did work a lot. For fun he went hunting butterflies all over the US. From this came Lolita, which made him rich.
Asked why he chose to live in La Suisse despite his professed good American citizenship, he said that he and Vera wanted to be near their son, who was a professional opera singer with assignments in Italy, plus a mountain climber and race car driver.
Among his English books my favorites are Speak, Memory and Pale Fire.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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.
N's life is portrayed as an emerging talent, rather than a natural genius who could command language and characters as well at 20 as at 70. This humanizes Nabokov, a figure who can sometimes seem a little god-like to his devotees. Expelling mist and myth is the mark of a good biography, next to joyously reporting the life of the subject. The analysis provided by Boyd in the sections dealing with early literature (such as the comparative criticism of his first novel "Mary" and the story "Return of Chorb") is revealing in this case because he can explain what Nabokov lacks here, or does not do so well early on.
Extensive references and a collection of satisfying photographs complete the package. One of the best photos being a shot of the Rohzdestveno manor that Nabokov inherited from his Uncle Vasily at age 17. A 17 year-old with his own mansion. Can you say harem?
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 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. Nabokov, in spite of his poverty managed to continue to live with aristocratic non-chalance and was always able to afford extensive and elaborate holidays that nowadays are only possible for the very well-to-do. The book ends as the Nabokovs and young Dmitri move to America, barely escaping France before the German invasion. Better times were yet to come, and they are aptly told in the second volume.
Most of the books Nabokov wrote in this period were in Russian and thus they have not been as widely divulged as his books in English. I can't appreciate their quality, not reading Russian, but Boyd notes many references of experts which regarded them as some of the best writing in Russian in the 20th century, and more deserving of a Nobel prize than either Pasternak or Solzhenitzn.
The title of my review will probably be deplored by many Nabokov fans, but in fact I was deeply attracted to Nabokov's elegance, charm and tolerance, by his revulsion to snobbery (he was always annoyed by some Europeans' disdain for US culture or some Russian emigrés' disgust at the accent of Jewish Russian speakers), by his unerring political sense that led him to distrust most extremisms of the last century (he was one of the few important authors not to have written blatant political nonsense), and very much enjoyed his curious interest in butterflies (his fantasy of a lavish, multi-volume Encyclopedia of butterflies of the Russian Empire smacks of Borges to me), and his extensive work at Harvard concerning them (he does have a species to his name). Boyd's descriptions led to me seek Nabokov's literal translation of Pushkin's epical poem, Eugene Onegin (I found the translation unreadable, as many people have), and, in spite of Boyd's wonderful summaries, I couldn't really get into some of Nabokov' other works in English (Ada or Ardor and Pale Fire I thought too modernist for my taste- his literary criticism was great, although I winced at his evident distaste for Jane Austen- and shared his love for Dickens). But Nabokov is as great a writer as he as a biographer's subject, and Boyd's book is probably the best literary biography after The Life of Johnson. I heartily recommend it (it's great even if you haven't actually read Nabokov).
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Brian Boyd's work on Nabokov has been hailed by scholars around the globe; this biography (and the companion volume on The American Years) proves Boyd's brilliance.
When I purchased the two volumes of the biography, I was a bit intimidated by their sheer size. The Russian Years alone is nearly 700 pages, and The American Years even larger. Yet I soon found myself enthralled in Boyd's detailed portrait of Nabokov and his work.
In The Russian Years, Boyd, as a good non-Freudian reader of Nabokov (as Nabokov would have wished), provides intimate details of Nabokov's early family life and his trials and tribulations as an emigre writer in Europe. Boyd provides a fascinating account of Nabokov's father, who's assassination would impact young Nabokov so much (and later, provide inspiration for the "assassination" in Pale Fire). But Boyd, thankfully, does not try to explain Nabokov through the death of his father; he meticulously lays out the facts and builds a complex portait of the man, and his fiction.
To be honest, I was far more interested in reading about Nabokov's American years, but after reading this book, I am grateful to Boyd for his serious scholarship, his lively prose, and his close analysis of Nabokov's oeuvre. I'm glad that I didn't pass up the chance to read this wonderful work.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
Both volumes of this set are excellent. This is the way literary biography should be done. It's so good, in fact, that you wouldn't necessarily have to be a huge Nabokov fan to want to read both books. (Of course, I am a diehard Nabokovian, so I raced through them even more eagerly.) Bravo to Brian Boyd.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I am about halfway through this book, and fully intend to pick it up in the future and finish it. The book is a challenging and highly informative read, and I am at a point where there is less of a focus on what his life was like in pre-Revolutionary Russia, a prime area of my interest, and is instead focusing more heavily on literary criticism, which at some points can be quite dense. Nabokov moved to Berlin after he left Russia, married a Jewish woman who became his life partner and the book is about to go into the Hitler years in Germany, the Nabokovs' move to Paris (which Nabokov apparently hated), and their subsequent move to the US, just one step ahead of the Nazis.

I think part of the reason I am taking a breather on the book is that Mr. Boyd makes it quite clear that Nabokov was virulently anti-gay, yet had no hesitation accepting an enormous inheritance from his mother's gay brother (I would have to recalculate, but I think the sum was close to $35 million in today's dollars plus a 2000 acre estate with mansion). The Nabokovs also had no hesitation accepting the help of Nabokov's father's gay brother in England as they lived hand to mouth after the Revolution, and Nabokov slept in the same bed with, and spent almost all of his time for a period with, a closet case. Yet, Nabokov's parents fired a lesbian governess; the last disparaging conversation Nabokov had with his father about Nabokov's own gay brother was the night before the father was killed,and throughout the period of his life when he had the opportunity, Nabokov made no effort to be close to his gay brother (the brother showed incredible bravery before he died in a concentration camp, while Nabokov was the toast of the American literary scene). Nabolov's son, before he died, was also an insulting homophobe.

I think another reason I have taken a break from this VERY well written biography is that the author makes no attempt to sugar coat Nabokov's personality. Nabokov's parents had 50 servants and it the author seems to convey that Nabokov thought he was a superior human being to those less fortunate (Nabobov had no problem with his parents' instruction not to talk to the servants); Nabokov seemed to use women like objects before he found the love of his life, and purposely played with their emotions, in the process emotionally hurting the multiple women he had sex with before finding the love of his life. Nabokov's enduring hobby was chasing down the most beautiful and rate butterflies he could find, killing them in a jar, then pinning them in an exhibition box.

In sum, Boyd does an excellent job portraying Nabokov, his surroundings, and dealings with others and his inner thoughts. Its an excellent highly intelligent biography about a man I happened not to like after learning about him. I look forward to finishing the book, but do not know if I will buy the second volume about Nabokov's life in the US, as it apparently focuses on close examination of Nabokov's works which I have not read.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Pretty boring and too much about novels.
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