The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The “Great American Novel”
Other Books From Region:
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born sometime around April 23, 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The oldest of five, he grew up wealthy, moving between St. Petersburg, and an estate fifty miles to the south in the countryside. He enjoyed tennis and soccer, and chasing and collecting butterflies.
Nabokov’s Russian adolescence was under the rule of Nicholas II. The Nabokovs were at piece with the czar’s regime, though Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a famous and controversial liberal politician. He was imprisoned in 1908 for ninety days for his involvement in a political manifesto.
Meanwhile, Nabokov’s mother, Elena Ivanova, raised the three boys and two girls in aristocratic fashion, using several governesses and tutors who taught the children French and English along with Russian. In 1911 Nabokov entered the highly regarded Tenishev School. He has been described as an arrogant student who came to school each day in the family’s Rolls-Royce. He wrote his first poem at the age of 15 and privately published two books of poetry before leaving the school.
This childhood of privilege ended with the Bolshevik revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Political unrest forced the Nabokov family to leave Russia for England in 1919. Nabokov and his brother subsequently enrolled at Cambridge University, where Nabokov majored in French and Russian literature.
Nabokov’s father chose to move the family to Berlin in order to settle down. However, in 1922 he was murdered while attempting to stop an assassination attempt targeting the politician Pavel Miliukov. Nabokov returned to school and graduated later that year, and decided to move to Berlin in 1923. He spent his time writing poetry and short stories for “The Rudder,” a Russian newspaper his father founded. Known as VN, he developed a following with fellow Russian emigres for his writings. He also met his future wife, Vera Slonim, a Russian emigre, whom he married in 1925.
Nabokov’s first Russian novel, Mary, was published that year, but received little attention. However, the rise of the Nazis interrupted his growing literary career and forced him to move to Paris. He continued to write, publishing the novels King, Queen, Knave in 1928 and The Defense in 1930. He soon developed a Russian and French readership that hailed his genius. The eruption of the war soon caused him to flee Paris for New York in 1940, along with his son Dmitri who had been born in 1934. Thus, at 41 years of age, Nabokov abandoned his budding fame in Europe for obscurity in America. Money was not a problem due to his inheritance, but he nonetheless chose to work. Returning to his passion for butterflies, he succeeded in getting a position at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He was rather successful in his Lepidoptera studies, and his work includes the naming of several butterflies and the publication of scientific studies.
In 1941 Nabokov accepted a position at Wellesley College as a resident lecturer in Comparative Literature. He also published his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which is full of references to chess. While at Wellesley, he continued to write and to pursue his study of lepidoptery; in addition, he participated in the founding of that school’s Russian Department. In fact, between 1944 and 1948, Nabokov was the only lecturer in the Wellesley Russian Department. During this time Nabokov also published in “The New Yorker” and other respected magazines, helping him gain a reputation. He also lectured at Harvard, where he was the curator of lepidoptery at the Museum of Comparative Biology. In 1948, he left Wellesley for Cornell.
During this time he continued collecting butterflies during visits to the Rocky Mountains. While on one of these trips in the early 1950s Nabokov composed his masterpiece, Lolita. The book proved initially difficult to sell to publishers, but within a decade it was such a success that it allowed Nabokov to give up teaching and concentrate solely on writing fiction.
In 1961 he moved to Montreux, Switzerland, in an effort to escape American publicity. He spent his last years publishing several novels, including Pale Fire in 1962. The book left his readers shaking their heads in confusion; it is a 999-line poem written by assassinated American poet John Shade, a poem which is then analyzed by the narrator. His work peaked in 1969 with the publication of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the book he considered his best. He and his son also spent time translating his Russian works into English and his English work into Russian. Nabokov remained in Switzerland until his death in 1977 of a viral infection, leaving an unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura. During his life he published eighteen novels, eight books of short stories, seven books of poetry and nine plays.
Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:
1) We talk about epigraphs and Tables of Contents a lot in this group (my fault), but Lolita opens with a foreword, what does the foreword do? What does the foreword do in the sense of this book, and what does it do in the general?
2) The subject matter of Lolita is difficult (rape in particular), but the book is very funny. How do these two things sit together? Does the humor soften the harshness, or does it make it even more difficult to take in?
3) How does Lolita work within the idea of genre? Is this a detective novel?
4) This is a road trip novel. What significance does the road hold for Humbert and Lolita?
5) What do you think the jurors will think of Humbert’s story?
6) Is Humbert a liar?
What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:
- Many of the people who came to this group were reading the book for the second (or 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th) time, their reading had changed drastically over the years. We discussed those changes.
- Can you find any empathy for Humbert? This is not the same thing as blaming Lolita, which we discussed briefly as well, but in terms of seeing Humbert as having a sickness. Does it help anyone to hate Humbert for all the hateful things he does?
- We had a great discussion about reading the novel in terms of a writing exercise, and, conversely, in terms of a Sociological novel. Can we read the book without disgust, and just love the craftsmanship? Or, more importantly, why did Vladimir choose this narrator?
- It is difficult to fully grasp the beginning until you reach the end, but once you finish the book, you realize everyone is dead. Even though the characters are fictional, how does this alter your second reading?