Vladimir Nabokov

Poems by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is that rare case of a writer who was equally brilliant in Russian and in English. Nabokov was a child of an upper-aristocracy family which had for many generations maintained close ties to the rulers of Russia. He was the grandson of the minister of justice under two Tsars, and his father was an important lawyer, liberal legislator, and member of the Provisional Government from which the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

Even before the Revolution Nabokov privately published two collections of poetry in St. Petersburg (1916 and 1918). He emigrated in 1919 and completed his education in French literature at Cambridge University, England. From 1922 to 1937 he lived in Berlin, where he was engaged in writing and translating. His poetry was regularly published in emigre newspapers and his numerous novels enjoyed critical and popular acclaim among Russian readers in Europe, but the circles of readership grew steadily smaller. After emigrating to the United States to teach, he determined to reach out to readers beyond the limited emigre community and wrote his notorious novel Lolita in English in 1955. The novel had his calculated effect, seizing the world’s attention and inducing people everywhere to read everything he wrote.

A brilliant master at whatever he tried, Nabokov strikes some readers as being too cold, like shining sterilized surgical instruments lying on a stainless steel operating table. His works call to mind the Hanging Garden of Semiramis, whose roots nourished themselves not from native soil, but from the air. His highly developed avocations of chess and entomology are often perceptible in his writing: he pins words as he would a butterfly and moves them as he would a chess piece, calculating many moves ahead.

When Bella Akhmadulina visited Nabokov in Switzerland not long before his death, he told her: “It’s a pity I didn’t stay in Russia, that I left...Nabokov’s wife shook her head and replied: “But they would have surely rotted you away in the camps. Isn’t that right, Bella?” Suddenly Nabokov shook his head. “Who knows, maybe I would have survived even. But then later I would have become a totally different writer and, perhaps, a much better one...” For a long time Nabokov had persistently repeated that he was not interested in what went on in Russia and did not care whether his books would return to his homeland. But this assertion seems belied by the fact that he performed the monumental work of translating Lolita into Russian. Now, Nabokov’s books have returned to Russia. The translations here are Nabokov’s own, as are the footnotes, which reveal much about their author.

1919

1920

1923

1924

1927

1928

1937

1939