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Vladimir Nabokov in Berlin


Born to an affluent family in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899, Vladimir Nabokov was destined, by history, to become peripatetic. After the Russian Revolution displaced his family several times, Vladimir studied at Cambridge; he went to Berlin in 1922.

The July/August issue of the British magazine Standpoint looks at Nabokov's years in Berlin, where he lived and wrote from 1922 to 1937, when he left because of Hitler's rising power. Leslie Chamberlain writes:

Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin's 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution. A city "swarming with ragamuffins" (Despair) and here and there "an urban vagabond with an early evening thirst" (The Fight, 1925). Here were thousands of lonely people haunted by poverty and nostalgia. Divorce or widowhood sealed their fate.

The way Chamberlain describes Nabokov's time in Berlin, it is a place where his characters, informed by old Russia, first begin to embrace "the bright lights and vulgarity of the big Western city."

And place was important to what Nabokov wrote. From his 1934 novel "Despair": "It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page...Something or other is going on around him."

This is interesting, as Nabokov's "Lolita" is often considered not just a great novel, but a great novel about America. Nabokov, who lived in the U.S. for just about two decades, in New York and Massachusetts and on summer road trips, hunting butterflies, captured this definite place indelibly.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Nabokov in an undated photo from the 1996 book "Vladimir Nabokov: A Pictorial Biography," compiled by Ellendea Proffer, by Ardis Publishers.

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This is the second time I've encountered discussion of Nabokov's time in Berlin recently: At a reception last week for the Wolff Prize, awarded annually to the year's best translation into English from German, the presenter talked about how the winning book, Michael Maar's Speak, Nabokov, gave a detailed picture of Nabokov's relatively little-known German years. (And the part of the book that translator Ross Benjamin read was really fascinating--it made me want to read the whole book.)

For me, the style of 'Lolita' was nauseatingly domineering.

"Born to an affluent family in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899, Vladimir Nabokov was destined, by history, to become peripatetic."

In a sentence of that length, did you really need five commas? You can easily do without the last two.


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