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Behold the splendid Bird of Paradise!
on July 5, 2008
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.