- Paperback: 619 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; Second printing edition (January 11, 1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691024707
- ISBN-13: 978-0691024707
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,609,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Vladimir Nabokov : The Russian Years Paperback – January 11, 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
These intimate, magisterial, prodigiously researched biographies illuminate the contours of the great author's mind with sensuous precision. Photos.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1991
Mr. Boyd has a remarkable gift for drawing life and literature together. . . .[What he does] in this impressive biography reveals to us a Nabokov who has been far too little known. . . . As a biography [Boyd's] book can hardly be surpassed. It is a definitive life of the man and a superbly documented chronicle of his time.---Sergei Davydov, The New York Times Book Review
A terrific biography: intelligent, compulsively readable, indispensable. Brian Boyd brings to his work a passionate scholarship comparable to that in Nabokov's own encyclopedic edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. You just can't do better than that.---Michael Dirada, the Washington Post Book World
To the short list of outstanding literary biographies in our time there must now be added another remarkable achievement. . . . Brian Boyd had a great story to tell, and he has told it superbly.---Hilton Kramer, The Wall Street Journal
Boyd has many qualities which mark him as Nabokov's natural biographer.---Jane Grayson, The Times Literary Supplement
"This is the first comprehensive account of Nabokov's life and oeuvre. The book's wide-ranging research and deep affinity for Nabokov's writings should establish it as the single indispensable source on its subject for many decades to come."―Simon Karlinsky, University of California, Berkeley
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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.
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.