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Top 10 Novels of Vladimir Nabokov

Updated on July 17, 2019
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Prachi is a voracious reader and a bibliophile. She has her own library with a collection of more than thousands of books of different genre

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, better known by his pen name Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-born American modern novelist and poet. He started writing novels in Russian, and later switched to English prose, which helped him gain international recognition. He is still known as the best prose stylist of the 20th century.

Amazing Facts about Vladimir Nabokov

  • He was born in a wealthy family of the Russian nobility.
  • He was a trilingual from an early age, he could fluently speak Russian, French, and English.
  • He was told by his teacher’s cousin named Zinaida Gippius, who himself was a renowned poet, that he could never be a good writer.
  • He completed his studies in zoology and Slavic and Romance languages at Trinity College of the University of Cambridge.
  • He, with his family, went to Berlin, where he gained recognition as a writer and poet.
  • After his father died, he fled to the United States in the search of a job and started working as a lecturer at Wellesley College.
  • He also founded the Russian department at the same college.
  • The US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg said he was very influential in her development as a successful writer. Nabokov taught her Russian and European literature at Cornell University.
  • In his journey from Europe to the United States and back to Europe, he wrote his first novel Lolita and many more were half-written.

Vladimir Nabokov with his butterflies' drawings
Vladimir Nabokov with his butterflies' drawings
  • He was also quite good in studying butterflies and moths and thus, often called an expert lepidopterist.
  • He died on July 2, 1977, due to bronchial congestion.

Vladimir Nabokov had a prejudice against women writers

  • Though his wife, Vera was the biggest supporter of his writing and always assisted him with each of his work, he did had a prejudice against women writers.
  • He once said to Edmund Wilson that he disliked Jane Austen, but changed his mind after reading her Mansfield Park.
  • He also liked Mary McCarthy’s work.
  • He considered women writers belonged to some different class.
  • Even it is clearly predictable from his writings.
  • Also, his work was always edited and translated by his wife, but he never admitted it publicly.

Famous writers like Salman Rushdie, John Banville, Edmund White, and Don DeLillo were greatly influenced by his work.

Famous Novels

1. Lolita

We loved each other prematurely, marked by a fierceness that so often results in the destruction of adult lives.

— Lolita
  • Lolita is termed as the finest work of the 20th century and has been listed several times in top 100 lists of Time, Le Monde and Modern Library.
  • The novel is based on a controversial topic and yet manages to top the chart.
  • There's a middle-aged professor who considers young girls aged 9 to 14 as nymphets and gets extensively obsessed with a 12-year-old.
  • Lolita is a private nickname given by the professor to the girl.
  • The story revolves around the sexual experiences of these two characters and how he ultimately falls in love with her but things don’t go as planned and something awkward and sad happens at the end.
  • It was considered as a “tongue-in-cheek erotic novel” by critics but written in a well-instructed manner.

Pale Fire
Pale Fire

2. Pale Fire

All colors make me happy, even gray. My eyes were such that they, literally, took photographs.

— Pale Fire
  • Pale Fire is a poem written in the form of a novel.
  • The main character of the novel is a fictional poet named John Shade.
  • It was ranked number one by Larry McCaffery, an American literary critic.
  • It is an excellent example of metafiction and has been called a poioumenon. A poioumenon is a particular type of metafiction, in which the story revolves around the creation of something specific, sometimes the story itself.
  • The poem in the novel discusses various aspects of Shade’s life that include encounters with death, family, suicide, search for knowledge and details of daily life.
  • The novel received mixed reviews, some called it a total wreck, while others applauded its satire and comedy.

Laughter in the Dark's Film adaptation
Laughter in the Dark's Film adaptation

3. Laughter in the Dark

Death often is the point of life's joke.

— Laughter in the Dark
  • Laughter in the Dark is about the personal breakthroughs of Nabokov’s life.
  • The story is about a middle-aged man falling in love with a young woman leading to a mutually parasitic relationship.
  • The theme resembles his early novel Lolita but developed in a much different way.
  • The main character Albinus is extremely obsessed with 17-year-old aspiring actress Margot. On the other hand, Margot decides to get Albinus divorced from his wife and marry him to take advantage of his substantial wealth.
  • She has plans to use his wealth to become a rich film star and achieve overnight success.
  • She, along with her boyfriend, uses Albinus for their own advantage, also Albinus gets blinded in the course, giving them a chance to take control over him and his immense wealth.

4. The Gift

… but there are sorrows that death does not cure because they are much easier to heal with time and its changing dream, the real bullet does not take them …

— The Gift
  • The Gift is Nobokov’s final Russian novel and unlike his other novels, it has a fair ending for the main character.
  • The protagonist, Fyodor Cherdyntsev, is invited by his friend over a party to celebrate the press attention he received for his work.
  • On arriving, he realizes that it’s an April fool’s joke and his work never received any attention.
  • His friend wants him(Fyodor) to write about his dead son in his books, but he refuses.
  • He returns back to his home and his journey of becoming a great writer becomes along with some family trauma and much more.
  • The gift is considered to be a difficult yet interesting piece of prose writing.

Pnin
Pnin

5. Pnin

There’s an American saying, “He, who lives in a glass home should not think of killing two birds with a stone.”

— Pnin
  • Pnin is the reason for Nabokov’s American success and his introduction to literary prominence.
  • The novel is hugely inspired by Nabokov’s real life in America to becoming a professor at Wellesley College and Cornell University.
  • The protagonist, Timofey Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States and is exiled by the Russian Revolution.
  • He is on a train to Cremona for a guest lecture, but on the way, he loses his luggage and realizes he’s in the wrong train.
  • He, later, arrives Cremona by truck and has successfully recovered his papers.
  • He finds companionship at Clements’ home, who gives him a room on rent. He lives there all alone and his wife frequently visits him just for the sake of money.
  • It is said that Nabokov wrote this novel after reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

6. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

When you lose your memory, you lose your immortality.

— Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
  • Being an expert lepidopterist, the title of the novel is derived from Nabokov’s love for butterflies. He named it after his favorite butterfly and assigned colors to each letter i.e. A for yellow and D for black.
  • He saw a reflection of his yellow-black-yellow butterfly in the title “Ada”.
  • The story is about a lifelong love affair between Van and Ada, which started when he was 14 and she was 12, unaware of the fact they are brother and sister.
  • Later in the story, Van becomes a world-renowned psychologist and Ada receives a marriage offer from a wealthy Russian.
  • Alfred Appel, a notable scholar, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the novel is a necessary book and a great work of art.

Vladimir Nabokov with his wife, Vera
Vladimir Nabokov with his wife, Vera

7. Speak, Memory

A person thinking of becoming a successful poet must have the capability to think several things at a time.

— Speak, Memory
  • This is Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir that includes short stories. It is dedicated to his wife and also covers his journey from Russia to America in the year 1940.
  • The book received immediate response and was termed as a masterpiece by the literary experts.
  • It was also listed in 100 ALL-TIME non-fiction books, in the year 2011.
  • Some authors called it a discovery of one’s inner and outer self, written in a funny and wise manner.

8. Invitation to a Beheading

Measure me while I am alive - after then it’ll be too late.

— Invitation to a Beheading
  • The novel starts in prison and talks about the life of a prisoner named Cincinnatus C.
  • He is said to possess a certain strangeness as he’s unable to blend in with the rest of the world. And people are uncomfortable with his presence.
  • He is sentenced to death for “Gnostical turpitude”.
  • The story discusses the twenty days he’s left with, before his execution.
  • Invitation to a Beheading is considered the most successful work of emigre literature.

The Defense's Film adaptation named The Luzhin Defense
The Defense's Film adaptation named The Luzhin Defense

9. The Defense

What is written with difficulty is read with ease

— The Defense
  • The story revolves around the protagonist by the name Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, who is considered to be unattractive.
  • He is often ridiculed by his classmates.
  • He decides to pick chess as motivation with the help of his father’s friend.
  • He becomes a great player and attains the vale of the Grandmaster within ten years.
  • Things take a turn when he faces mental breakdown during the most important competition of his life.
  • Nabokov took the inspiration for this novel from his late friend Curt von Bardeleben who ended his life by jumping out of the window.

Despair's Film adaptation
Despair's Film adaptation

10. Despair

Theft is the best compliment you can say about the thing.

— Despair
  • The protagonist, Hermann Karlovich, is a chocolate factory owner who meets a homeless man in Prague and considers him to be his doppelgänger.
  • His wife is likely having an affair with someone, but he turns out to be completely ignorant of the situation even when he finds them naked together.
  • Later Hermann asks his so-called doppelgänger to interchange lives, but things turn seriously bad for each of them as they rarely resemble each other.
  • Nabokov’s novel received mixed literary criticism. Many writers complained of the lack of structure while others applauded his sheer intelligence in each line of the story.

Nabokov’s writing interest changed as he progressed writing more and more novels. (Having a criticism is fairly common, even if a writer has a Godly style.) I recommend reading all his novels, not multiple times, but at least once.

© 2019 Prachi Sharma

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