By Ted Morrissey
Like many (most?) American readers, I came to Vladimir Nabokov via Lolita, the controversial novel that made him famous, if not infamous, and wealthy enough to quit his teaching gig at Cornell and concentrate on writing (as well as hunting butterflies and playing tennis) for the first time in his life. It was August 18, 1958, when Putnam’s released Lolita. Thanks in part to the publisher’s shrewd marketing—embracing the controversy attached to a book based on pedophilia instead of shying away from it—Lolita sold 100,000 copies in three weeks, constituting the most successful launch since Gone with the Wind, twenty-two years earlier.
I was working on my M. A. (maybe 1994) when Lolita appeared on a summer seminar’s reading list. Again, like many (most?) readers, I found the novel’s titillating plot combined with Nabokov’s gorgeous prose style almost literally mesmerizing. According to legend, Putnam’s president and publisher, Walter Minton, happened across a copy of Lolita at a cocktail party in Manhattan. It had been published in Paris in 1955 and was well known among American publishers because so many had turned it down for fear of lawsuits and other sorts of fallout. Minton lost a night’s sleep reading the novel in one sitting. With all due haste, he sent a letter to Professor Nabokov at Cornell inquiring as to his book’s availability for American publication. That was 1957, almost exactly a year before the release that would make Nabokov and Minton very rich men. As evidence of how lucrative the book business could be back then, Minton gave the hostess of the cocktail party a $22,000 finder’s fee, roughly equivalent to $208,000 today.
As I sat in my rented duplex that southern Illinois summer spellbound by Lolita, I had some awareness of Nabokov the writer, I suppose, but probably not much beyond his being Russian and the author of a notorious book, notorious enough to weave its way into popular culture, like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the hit song by the Police I must have heard a thousand times during my undergrad days as it was released in 1980, the same year I was released from high school. Besides the catchy title in the song’s refrain, the most memorable of Sting’s lyrics was “Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” It was likely the line that made me mispronounce the author’s name for the next decade or so, stressing the NA instead of the BO: Na-BO-koff, it should be. I still catch myself.
What I definitely didn’t know about Nabokov was that he’d had an illustrious literary career long before Lolita; in fact, a long and illustrious career before even beginning to compose in English. His first published piece of fiction, the short story “Nezhit,” appeared in 1921, when Nabokov was twenty-one; and his debut novel, Mashen’ka, was published in 1926. He published nine novels in Russian and more than fifty short stories before turning to English as his compositional language, near the very end of 1938. For a brief time, Nabokov wrote fiction in both English and Russian, but by 1940 he concluded that the approach was detrimental and committed to writing only in English. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) was his first English-language novel; “The Assistant Producer” his first short story in English (published in Atlantic Monthly, May 1943). Nabokov with his wife and son had emigrated to the U. S. in 1940, initially so that he could accept a teaching post at Stanford University.
This article focuses chiefly on Nabokov’s Russian works, especially the ones that are clear preludes to Lolita. It turns out, he’d been exploring similar themes—and courting similar controversy—since his earliest days as a writer. Fair warning: I’m not a Nabokov specialist, and after several months of reading, I have only begun to scratch the proverbial surface of his pre-English writing. Nevertheless, I hope to offer some information and observations that may prove interesting enough to spur the reader’s own inquiry into this prolific author’s work in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Luckily for us all, once Lolita became a smash-hit, publishers were eager to bring out Nabokov’s earlier work in translation—translations often carried out by his son, Dmitri, in collaboration with his father. While a few of Nabokov’s Russian works had been translated into English prior to Lolita, most were not undertaken until afterward, with 1936’s Priglashenie na kazn’ leading the way as Invitation to a Beheading i in 1959. The next decade or so saw the publications of The Gift (1963; Dar, 1938), The Eye (1965; Sogliadatay, 1930, 1938), Despair (1965; Otchayanie, 1934), King, Queen, Knave (1968; Korol’, dama, valet, 1928), Mary (1970; Mashen’ka, 1926), and Glory (1971; Podvig, 1932). Another novel appeared in 1933, Kamera Obskura, but it was translated into English quite quickly, in Great Britain as Camera Obscura (1936) and in America as Laughter in the Dark (1938).
In lieu of describing the publishing history of Nabokov’s fifty-plus Russian short stories, I will direct the reader to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, the most recent edition 2008), a comprehensive collection that includes detailed bibliographies and notes by both Nabokov and his son, Dmitri.
To be clear, Nabokov was writing in Russian but not in Russia. His father (also Vladimir Nabokov, also a writer) was politically active and outspoken, resulting in his being compelled to move himself and his family out of revolutionary Russia in 1919. They first emigrated to England, where our Vladimir Nabokov entered Trinity College, Cambridge, to study Modern and Medieval Languages (French and Russian) and Natural Sciences (Zoology). He received his B. A. degree with second-class honors in 1922. Even during his college years, Nabokov was prolific, churning out poems, plays, short stories, chess problems, crossword puzzles, reviews, and translations—much of which to be published in the Russian émigré newspaper Rul’, based in Berlin (1920-31). Nabokov’s family had settled in Berlin, and he returned there after graduating from Trinity.
Nabokov would call Berlin home for nearly the next twenty years, until the fascist rise of Hitler and the Third Reich led to his seeking a teaching position in either England or France (to no avail). In 1937, he gave a well-received reading in Paris, which (he was pleased to see) was attended by James Joyce. During this period, many Russian émigré writers moved from Berlin to Paris, but Nabokov resisted. Even though he was fluent in French, he preferred to live in a community where Russian was the primary language. Circumstances, however, forced him to leave Hitler’s Germany (his wife, Véra, was Jewish), and Nabokov lived briefly in Paris (1938-40). It was during his Paris years that he was writing in both Russian and English before deciding to focus exclusively on composing in English.
The reception of Nabokov’s early work—which appeared under the pen-name “V. Sirin” to distinguish his writing from his father’s—was mixed among its Russian émigré audience. There were enthusiasts from the start. The influential critic Yuly Aykhenvald hailed Nabokov as “a new Turgenev” following a literary club reading from his debut novel, Mashen’ka (Mary), in 1926. Others among the émigré literati, however, were less than impressed, claiming in essence that only Nabokov’s language was Russian: his artistic soul was not. Nabokov was style without substance, they said. Slavic studies scholar Simon Karlinsky described the chilly response to Nabokov’s early work with the following: His detractors believed “[the] originality and novelty of [Nabokov’s] craftsmanship serve[d] no discernible human purpose and [were] probably a mask covering up his indifference to his fellow human beings.”
The controversy surrounding Lolita—the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s pedophilic obsession with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze (a.k.a. Lolita)—overshadowed the fact that Nabokov had been writing about similar kinds of obsessions (and attracting similar kinds of controversy) since the 1920s. It’s certainly true that Dolores’s especially tender age—and the fact Humbert’s pursuit of Lolita is successful, in that he ultimately beds his stepdaughter and lives with her as his quasi-incestuous partner—places the novel in a category by itself among Nabokov’s work, but not by much. There is of course the early novella Volshebnik (written 1939; unpublished until its English translation, The Enchanter, 1986) that is often discussed as an ur-Lolita due to its protagonist’s obsession with a girl in early adolescence and the manipulation of her mother to gain access to her. There are other details that overlap with Lolita, and Nabokov himself described Volshebnik as “[t]he first little throb of Lolita.” It was Nabokov’s last manuscript written in Russian, and it was missing among the author’s papers, presumed lost, until it turned up in a batch of material being organized for the Library of Congress in 1959. Nabokov remembered the long story but not especially fondly, considering it an early, unsuccessful attempt to write what would become Lolita (begun again in 1949). But twenty years later when he re-read it, Nabokov experienced “considerably more pleasure” than anticipated, describing it as “a beautiful piece of Russian prose.”
Again, the obsession of the unnamed protagonist in Volshebnik was not wholly unique among Nabokov’s Russian novels and stories. Writing in the third-person about his alter-ego, V. Sirin (his Russian pen-name), Nabokov said, “His best works are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls.” Often, a man’s obsession with a woman (usually young and beautiful, sometimes attainable, sometimes not) is the instrument of his “solitary confinement.” Frequently she is either unaware of his preoccupation with her, or indifferent to it. This element is in Nabokov’s writing from the start. We find it in a host of early stories. A partial list includes “Zvuki” (1923; “Sounds,” 1995), “Udar krïla” (1923; “Wingstroke,” 1992), “Natasha” (c. 1924; unpublished until 2007, in Italian, 2008 in English), and “Vesna v Fial’te” (1938; “Spring in Fialta,” 1947). In some instances, the male protagonist is essentially the same age as the object of his desire, and one such example is “Vesna v Fial’te” (“Spring in Fialta”), noteworthy perhaps as it was written about the same time as the ur-Lolita novella, Volshebnik.
In “Spring in Fialta,” a married man, Victor, is hopelessly and desperately in love with a married woman, Nina, whom he encounters now and again in various places over several years. Their encounters are often intimate, yet for Nina they are casual, and she is seemingly oblivious to the depth of Victor’s feelings for her and to the suffering it causes him, knowing that she is casually intimate with a host of other men, including, presumably, her husband. Nabokov writes, “Every time I had met her during the fifteen years of our—well, I fail to find the precise term for our kind of relationship—she had not seemed to recognize me at once; and this time too she remained quite still for a moment, on the opposite sidewalk, half turning toward me in sympathetic incertitude mixed with curiosity. . . .” When Nina finally recognizes Victor, “she kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning, and then walked beside me, hanging on to me, adjusting her stride to mine. . . .” What is more, Victor knows his obsession is “absurd,” asking himself, “Was there any practical chance of life together with Nina, life I could barely imagine, for it would be penetrated, I knew, with a passionate, intolerable bitterness and every moment of it would be aware of a past, teeming with protean partners.” Nevertheless, at their final meeting, in Fialta, Victor confesses his love for her “but something like a bat passed swiftly across her face, a quick, queer, almost ugly expression and she . . . became embarrassed,” prompting Victor to pretend that he “was only joking.” His misery in the moment is palpable.
Barbara Heldt Monter, a scholar of Slavic languages and literatures, considers “Spring in Fialta” one of Nabokov’s masterpieces: “[W]e can note with delight in the story . . . all the most important Nabokovian artistic preoccupations and stylistic traits packed into a mere score of pages.” She goes on, “The protagonist-narrator of the story undertakes a quest similar to that which forms the structure of so many works by Nabokov. It is a journey without direction, unplanned and with an uncertain goal.” As stated earlier, in nearly every instance, Nabokov had a hand in translating his Russian work into English. As a rule, he tried to resist the urge of wholesale revision. This approach is reflected in “Fialta” as Monter notes, “When Nabokov changes some details from Russian into English, he of course makes the detail more appropriate to the particular language, but he often strengthens the thrust of the whole story.”
This dynamic—of a man made miserable due to his fixation on a beautiful woman—occurs regularly in Nabokov’s Russian work. In the early story translated as “Wingstroke,” the main character, Kern, visits a ski lodge in hopes of dispelling the melancholy that has gripped him for months. It is futile until by chance he meets Isabel, a fellow Brit who is beautiful, athletic, and vivacious: “He had come to this hotel, to this wintry, stylish nook called Zermatt, in order to fuse the sensation of white silence with pleasure of lighthearted, motley encounters, for total solitude was what he feared most. But now he understood that human faces were also intolerable to him, that the snow made his head ring, and that he lacked the inspired vitality and tender perseverance without which passion is powerless. While for Isabel, probably, life consisted of a splendid ski run, of impetuous laughter, of perfume and frosty air.” It is love at first sight for Kern, or at least longing at first sight. Not surprisingly, life-of-the-party Isabel is the center of attention at the hotel, especially for all the young men who are cutting the slopes with their skis by day and cutting the rug on the dancefloor by night. Isabel flirts with Kern, but she flirts with everyone. At first, hoped-for encounters at the hotel with Isabel give some meaning to Kern’s existence, but her obvious indifference to him propels his melancholy to an even darker place, and Kern plans to kill himself, going so far as writing goodbye letters to friends.
The climax of the story translated as “Sounds” bears a striking resemblance to the later “Spring in Fialta,” except that it’s the female character (known only as “you”), who is more enamored of the first-person narrator than he is of her. They have been having an affair while her husband has been away due to his military service. When she finds that her husband is returning home unexpectedly, she confesses, “I cannot live without you. That’s exactly what I’ll tell him. He’ll give me a divorce right away. And then, say in the fall, we could [marry].” But the narrator is not interested in marriage and responds only with silence: “What could I say to you? Could I invoke freedom, captivity, say I did not love you enough? No, that was all wrong.” The young woman is as devastated by her lover’s indifference as Victor is of Nina’s on the street in Fialta.
The short story “Natasha,” written around 1924 but unpublished during Nabokov’s lifetime, pivots on the familiar infatuated-man motif and shares several details with the author’s debut novel, Mashen’ka (Mary), which he must have been thinking about during the same period as the short novel’s manuscript was written from September to November 1925. “Natasha” is set in an apartment building in Berlin where several Russian émigrés live, including the sickly Khrenov and his young, beautiful, and devoted daughter Natasha. Poor Natasha, burdened with caring for her father, catches the eye of their across-the-hall neighbor Baron Wolfe. On the story’s first page, Wolfe and Natasha pass each other on the stairway as she is hurrying to retrieve a prescription for her father. Nabokov writes: “Leaning over the banister, Wolfe glanced back at her. For an instant he caught sight from overhead of the sleek, girlish part in her hair.” Wolfe befriends Khrenov in spite of the repulsion of his condition—“Khrenov offered [Wolfe] his yellow, sickly hand . . .”—and has hopes of extricating Natasha from her miserable and impoverished condition. Interestingly, “Natasha” transforms into a kind of ghost story, something not in keeping with Nabokov’s typical style. Perhaps Nabokov didn’t pursue the publication of “Natasha” because it was out of keeping with his developing aesthetic, or maybe because he became more focused on completing his first novel, which clearly grew out of the same sort of creative material as the short story.
Mashen’ka, translated as Mary, was Nabokov’s first novel, but it was nearly the last of his Russian novels to be translated and published while he was alive, 1970 (he died in 1977). In the introduction he wrote for Mary, Nabokov talks about the “impressive span of forty-five years” between its writing and its translation into English. In collaborating on the project with Michael Glenny, Nabokov was surprised at how autobiographical it was, especially regarding the main character’s nostalgic recollections of Russia. Like “Natasha,” it is set in a Berlin apartment building, among a Russian émigré community. Ganin, the main character, is perpetually annoyed by his neighbor Alfyorov, particularly Alfyorov’s incessant reminders that his wife will be joining him, after four years of separation, in a matter of days. She was forced to remain in Russia while her husband sought work in Berlin. Alfyorov imposes his hospitality on Ganin, practically dragging him into his room. He wants to talk about the arrival of his wife (“I really don’t know how I’ll survive till Saturday,” says Alfyorov), and he shows Ganin her photograph. Ganin is stunned. It is a picture of Mary, his first love when they were teenagers in Russia, a girl whom he still loves, always regretful that he had foolishly allowed their relationship to fizzle. From that point, the novel becomes a series of vignettes (flashbacks of Ganin and Mary’s meeting and the rise and fall of their relationship), interspersed with Ganin’s plotting to steal Mary back when she arrives to rejoin her husband.
The plot of Mashen’ka is a twist on the familiar dynamic. Ganin becomes obsessed with Mary, but the Mary as she was as a teenager, even while recognizing that the years between must have changed her, as they have him. Nabokov said that he was so pleased upon re-engaging the Russian text that there were very few changes he wanted to make as it was translated into English. He writes, “I feel no embarrassment in confessing to the sentimental stab of my attachment to my first book. Its flaws, the artifacts of innocence and inexperience, which any criticule could tabulate with jocose ease, are compensated for me (the sole judge in this case and court) by the presence of several scenes [based upon his younger self’s recollections of Russia].” Nabokov says that he felt an allegiance to the young writer that was himself as if he were someone else altogether, and as such he was obliged to render as faithful of a translation as possible.
This article began with humble aspirations, but for a while it has been yearning to be something more. I feel I must anesthetize it before it carries me off someplace where it could take months or even years to write it. However, there are two other works in Russian by Nabokov I must at least comment on briefly, given my focus of work that was a prelude to Lolita. I will discuss the novels in reverse chronological order: 1933’s Kamera Obskura and 1928’s Korol’, dama, valet.
Laughter in the Dark (Kamera Obskura) has the distinction of being most similar to Lolita in terms of the age difference between the protagonist, Albert Albinus, a middle-aged art critic, and Margot Peters, a seventeen-year-old aspiring actress who has caught his eye. Albinus is married and has a daughter, but once he meets Margot, who is working as an usher in a movie theater, Albinus is ready to risk everything for the alluring teenager. He is hopelessly enchanted by her “very slight figure” and “beautiful face” upon their first chance meeting. Albinus tries to stop thinking about the girl, but “[a]fter three days he could ignore the memory of her no longer” and returns to the theater. He tries to reason with his reckless libido: “Damn it all, I’m happy, what more do I need? That creature gliding about in the dark…Like to crush her beautiful throat. Well, she is dead anyway, since I shan’t go there anymore.” But just like Humbert cannot contain his desire for Dolores Haze, Albinus must pursue Margot Peters, who has her own ambitions, and she instantly recognizes in the lust-drunk and well-to-do Albinus a vehicle for achieving them.
Besides the age difference between Albinus and Margot, there are other (probably more important) parallels between Laughter in the Dark and Lolita, including their structural reliance on the medium of film. Dabney Stuart, poet and professor of English, writes, “[T]he most frequent mode of artistic perception Nabokov employs by means of which to structure his ‘novels’ is the motion picture; it shows up in King, Queen, Knave and Lolita particularly…The novel whose structure, and meaning, depends most pervasively on the motion picture as a form through which the experience of the book is to be perceived and evaluated is Laughter in the Dark…” One of Nabokov’s primary uses of the motion-picture conceit, says Stuart, is to demonstrate how people can be captured by the drama they have created for themselves, perhaps inadvertently: “[I]t has to do with madness and the way in which an irresponsible desire can turn on the person who entertains it, finally controlling him as though he were indeed no more than an actor in a film whose role, as it were, plays him.”
King, Queen, Knave was Nabokov’s second novel, and it, too, focuses on sexual obsession, but with a twist compared to the author’s other stories and novels of a similar ilk. The novel begins with a young man, Franz, traveling by train to Berlin, where he will take a job in his wealthy uncle’s department store. The trip is barely underway when Franz becomes fascinated by a married woman, Martha, who is with her much-older husband, Dreyer. To pass the time, Franz fantasizes about the woman: “He knit his brows under her radiant and indifferent gaze and, when she turned away, mentally calculated, as though his fingers had rattled across the counters of a secret abacus, how many days of his life he would give to possess this woman.” They reach Berlin, Franz disembarks, finds a cheap apartment, and the next day he calls upon his uncle and aunt, whom he has never met in person—or so he thinks. It turns out the older man on the train, Dreyer, is his uncle, which of course means Franz had been fantasizing about his aunt Martha.
Franz is sated with lust for “the girls, the girls” of the big city, ogling them on the street in a very Humbertian way: “He walked slowly shaking his head, clucking his tongue, looking around every moment. The kissable cuties, he thought almost aloud, and inhaled with a hiss through clenched teeth. What calves! What bottoms! Enough to drive one crazy!” Franz believes that the city girls are “accessible” and “welcome” the “avid glances” of men. Here, he thinks, he will overcome his natural shyness and engage them in “brilliant and brutal conversation…but first he had to find a room in which to rip off her dress and possess her.” One Berlin girl whom he sees in a doorway is especially “enchanting” (we recall the translated title of Volshebnik, The Enchanter): “A bob-haired, bare-shouldered young girl in a black slip, clutching a white kitten to her breast.” Fortunately for Franz—or unfortunately, as the novel unfolds—Aunt Martha has been thinking that it’s time for her to take a lover when he introduces himself into her and Dreyer’s household. Martha, who is slightly older than her nephew-by-marriage but much more experienced sexually, easily seduces Franz and enlists him in a plot against her husband. Martha, who is compared to Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary by the novel’s narrator, manipulates both her lover and her husband—the former by drowning him in increasingly adventurous sex, and the latter by withholding sex from him until he does precisely what she demands, and then only on the rarest of occasions.
Nabokov describes the sexual thoughts and actions of his characters quite explicitly for 1928 (recall that Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in the U.S. until 1934). That, along with its plot based on a woman’s torrid affair with her nephew and murderous thoughts about her husband, made it an object of ridicule for many—a fact that Nabokov points out in the introduction he wrote for the novel’s English-language translation (1968). He assures his new audience, “The ‘coarseness’ and ‘lewdness’ of the book that alarmed my kindest critics in émigré periodicals have of course been preserved.” Beyond those passages, however, Nabokov revised King, Queen, Knave much more freely than any other of his Russian-language material. So much so that Carl R. Proffer, professor of Slavic languages and literatures, declares that the “English King, Queen, Knave is in effect a new novel.”
With the #MeToo movement, Lolita has come under fresh scrutiny, and its reexamination is certainly warranted. However, I think that if Nabokov the artist is going to be reassessed in this century, we should do more than read his most notorious book. My own coverage of his pre-English work is still far from complete, but to this point I agree with Stuart Dabney’s observation: “Nabokov’s novels and stories are by no means moralizing—far from it, and that is part of one’s delight in reading them—but they are involved with moral predicaments on which their very structure comments.” My hope is that this article will prompt at least a few readers to go back in time beyond Lolita and see what Nabokov was up to in the first decades of his writing career. I chose to concentrate on those novels and stories that seem to be direct ancestors of Lolita, but V. Sirin “condemn[ed] his people to the solitary confinement of their souls” via a variety of plot scenarios and artistic means. What they all have in common is the voluptuous beauty of Nabokov’s prose and his zeal for experimentation.
I decided against cluttering this article with academic documentation, but sources deserve their due. For the backstory of how Lolita came to be published by Putnam’s, I relied on Jenny Minton Quigley’s introduction to Lolita in the Afterlife (Vintage, 2021), a collection of articles (edited by Quigley) that is worthy of any reader’s attention. The quoted analyses of Nabokov’s Russian-language work can be found in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes (Northwestern UP, 1970) edited by Alfred Appel, Jr., and Charles Newman. Also useful was the chronology accompanying the Library of America editions of Nabokov’s books. Otherwise, as noted, I drew from the various introductions and notes written by Nabokov and his son, Dmitri.
Ted Morrissey is the author of The Artist Spoke (winner of the Maincrest Media Award in Literary Fiction), Mrs Saville, and Crowsong for the Stricken, First Kings and Other Stories (finalist for the American Fiction Award), and other books. In 2020, he launched The Tunnel at 25, an online symposium dedicated to William H. Gass’s masterpiece. Among other projects is a new novel, Beneath a Winter Noon, which can be read serially, with commentary, via Kindle Vella.