5 Fascinating Facts About Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You likely know Vladimir Nabokov as the author of such masterpieces as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin, but how well do you really know the author? Here are five things you might not have known about the man who once described himself as "an American author, born in Russia, educated in England, where I studied French texts."

1. Vladimir Nabokov was born into an aristocratic family.

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Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, was a liberal lawyer and politician and his mother, Yelena Ivanovna, was heiress to a gold mining fortune. As such, Nabokov's upbringing reflected the culture and wealth of his family. The future author was raised in a trilingual household where the family regularly conversed in Russian, English, and French.

In 1919, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the family had to flee the country. The Nabokovs first went to England, where the sale of his mother's pearls financed two whole years of Vladimir's study at the University of Cambridge. The family eventually settled in Berlin, though, where Nabokov's father remained active in the politics of the Russian exile community. This involvement eventually proved fatal for the elder Vladimir, as he died while trying to protect former Russian Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov from an assassination attempt in Berlin.

2. Vladimir Nabokov was a butterfly expert.

Even most casual Nabokov fans know that the writer had a butterfly-collecting hobby, but they might not know just how serious he was about his sideline as a lepidopterist. Nabokov was actually a world-renowned expert on butterflies, so much so that in the 1940s he became curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's butterfly collection.

Nabokov actually discovered and named several species and families of butterflies, and he also assembled a new taxonomy system that's still in use. What was his secret weapon in these studies? He investigated the butterflies' sculpturesque, or genitalia, under a microscope. His collection of dissected blue butterfly genitalia is still in Harvard's holdings.

Just how much of a stickler was Nabokov when it came to butterflies? When a publisher sent him a mockup of a cover for his collected poems, the author positively flipped out over the illustrations of butterflies and wrote back: "I like the two colored butterflies on the jacket, but they have the bodies of ants, and no stylization can excuse a simple mistake ... I would be the laughing stock of my entomological colleagues if they happened to see these impossible hybrids ... I want to be quite clear and frank: I have nothing against stylization but I do object to stylized ignorance."

3. Vladimir Nabokov inadvertently gave Luciano Pavarotti a popularity boost.

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Nabokov and his wife Vera only had one child—a son named Dmitri, who was born on May 10, 1934. Dmitri led quite a life in his own right, including stints as a mountaineer and race car driver. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, Dmitri turned down an offer to stay there and enter Harvard Law School so that he could instead launch a career as an opera singer. In 1961, Dmitri finally made it to the stage in a production of La Bohème in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Vladimir arranged for his son's performance to be recorded. While Dmitri was good as Colline, he couldn't hold a candle to the unknown tenor who was also making his operatic debut in the role of Rodolfo. That tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, quickly grew to worldwide fame. And thanks to the noted author of Lolita, the world still has documentation of the revered singer's very first performance.

4. Vladimir Nabokov had a way with insults.

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If Nabokov disliked someone or something, he didn't go out of his way to be diplomatic about it. Here are a few of his choicer barbs:

On Freud: "I think he's crude, I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me. I don't have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don't see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons."

On Doctor Zhivago: "A sorry thing, clumsy, melodramatic, with stock situations and trite characters.''

On adapting Lolita into a movie: "My supreme, and in fact only, interest in these motion picture contracts is money. I don't give a damn for what they call 'art.'"

To his would-be biographer, whose work he did not approve: "The style and tone of your work are beyond redemption, but if you wish to publish it at all you must accept all the deletions and corrections in the present list.''

5. Vladimir Nabokov's final work was published more than 30 years after his death—despite his final wishes.

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Nabokov dies on July 2, 1977, but that didn't mean the end of his writing career. In 2009, after years of consideration, Dmitri—who served as executor of his father's literary estate—decided to publish The Original of Laura, the novel Nabokov was frantically trying to finish at the time of his death.

Nabokov specifically requested that Dmitri destroy the novel's manuscript, which consists of 125 handwritten index cards—Nabokov always wrote on index cards—but his son just couldn't bring himself to torch the book. Instead, it spent three decades in a Swiss bank vault while Dmitri tried to decide what to do with it. He eventually became worried what would happen to the manuscript after his own death, so eventually decided to publish the work. On November 17, 2009, Knopf released The Original of Laura and gave readers one last (frehs) taste of Nabokov's inimitable genius.

Do you love reading? Are you eager to know incredibly interesting facts about novelists and their works? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!

This story has been updated for 2021.