In 1940, VN, Véra, and Dmitri, fled Paris for New York, narrowly escaping the invading Germans. In America, VN initially worked for the Museum of Natural History in New York, classifying butterflies. He published two papers, and was also paid by the Museum for his entomological drawings. During the summer of 1941, he taught creative writing at Stanford University, before securing an appointment as resident lecturer in comparative literature and instructor in Russian at Wellesley College. Later he would work at Harvard, first in an entomological capacity and later as visiting lecturer, and at Cornell, as professor of Russian and European literature, from 1948-1959.

VN and Vera at Wellesley, ca. 1944 During the 1940s, VN embarked upon a fruitful association with the New Yorker; in addition to his entomological work, he spent quite a bit of time preparing his lectures, and published a scholarly work on Gogol. It may be that his comparatively small output of fiction during this time was an adjustment to writing in English; VN would maintain that the Wellesley years were the happiest, and his scholarly pursuits were satisfying. In 1945, the Nabokov family became American citizens. He also compiled a memoir, published in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence (later revised and published as Speak, Memory.)

Cover of a paperback edition of Lolita VN continued to pursue butterflies during his summer vacations, often in the Rocky Mountains. It was during these trips in the early 1950s that he composed the novel that would engrave his name in the American popular culture - Lolita. Initially, even the American publishing houses that admitted Lolita's literary virtues were unwilling to discover the legal ramifications of publishing a novel about a man's affair with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. Lolita was first published in France by Olympia Press in 1955, and generated a storm of moral outrage, as well as staunch and significant support for its artistic merit. Eventually published in American in 1958 (and in England the following year,) the Sturm und Drang over Lolita contributed to a remarkable popular success; it spent six months as the number one bestseller in America (displaced by Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.)

Although he glibly suggested about his Lolita that "she is the famous one, not I," profits from the sale of the novel, combined with the sale of the movie rights and a screenplay deal, enabled VN to retire from Cornell in 1959 and devote himself to writing.

VN on his balcony in Montreux

In 1961, VN and Véra moved to Montreux, Switzerland, at least in part to be near Dmitri, who was studying for a career in opera in Milan. At first considered a temporary move, they settled in at the Montreux-Palace Hotel and remained for the duration of their lives. Living reclusively, VN continued to produce original novels, including the singular Pale Fire, and directed the translation of his earlier work from Russian into English.

Montreux, 1973 The publication of Glory in 1971 completed the process of translating his Russian novels into English. Often collaborating with his son Dmitri, VN occasionally (but not always) revised and augmented his earlier works during the translation process. VN's magisterial linguistic finesse had long enabled him to compose literature and scholarly translations in Russian, English, and French. George Steiner admiringly summarized VN's philology thus: ". . . whereas so many other language exiles clung desperately to the artifice of their native tongue or fell silent, Nabokov moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate."

Vladimir Nabokov died on July 2, 1977, in Montreux, of a mysterious lung ailment. His legacy of challenging yet playful fiction, dense with creative exuberance and innovative use of language, continues to reward and dazzle scholars and casual readers alike. "The true conflict is not between the characters in a novel, but between author and reader," he asserted. "In the long run, however, it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts."

-- John Hamilton

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The images on this page are from Vladimir Nabokov: A Pictorial Biography, compiled and edited by Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, c1991).

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