Vladimir Nabokov's Life and Work Unveiled in Centennial Exhibition at The New York Public Library

Nabokov Under Glass exhibition announcementMeticulously drafted butterfly drawings, along with equally precise diaries, notes, and manuscripts are among the materials that help form a portrait of the brilliant yet elusive novelist Vladimir Nabokov in an exhibition opening at The New York Public Library on the 100th Anniversary of the writer's birth. Nabokov Under Glass: A Centennial Exhibition provides a chronological look at Nabokov's life and literary output, starting with poems of his teenage years, through his latest novels and memoirs. The exhibit is on view from April 23 through August 21, 1999 in the Library's Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Admission is free. Portions of the exhibit are available on-line.

Nabokov's writing is rich and vivid but can also be perplexing. "I have been floundering in the mind of that American genius Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov," wrote critic Alfred Kazin in regard to the writer's 1969 novel Ada. His works deal with serious subjects and situations, but rely on a brilliant humor laced through his prose. "While I keep everything on the brink of parody," he was once quoted as saying, "there must be on the other hand an abyss of seriousness, and I must make my way along this narrow ridge between my own truth and the caricature of it."

Nabokov in a rowboat at Cambridge, Spring, 1920
Snapshot of Nabokov in a rowboat at Cambridge, Spring, 1920. Photographer unknown. The Nabokov Archive, Berg Collection, The New York Public Library.

With materials drawn primarily from the Nabokov Archive in the Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the exhibition provides a rare level of insight into Nabokov's powers of creation and his development as a writer. Among the items to be shown, nearly all of which are on view for the first time, is the manuscript to "Music," a poem Nabokov wrote in 1914 as a teenager and is considered the earliest document in the writer's hand. Among other early items included is a 1917 notebook with colorful metrical diagrams of Russian poetry. The exhibition also includes examples of correspondence between Nabokov and his various editors, including Allen Tate at Henry Holt, James Laughlin at New Directions, and Katherine White and William Maxwell at The New Yorker.

The first six cards of the holograph manuscript of Look at the Harlequins!
The first six cards of the holograph manuscript of Look at the Harlequins!. April 1974, Montreux, Switzerland. The Nabokov Archive, Berg Collection, The New York Public Library.

The index cards and typescripts for his novels Ada or Ardor, Transparent Things, and Look at the Harlequins! are included, as are index cards and notes for his majestic memoir Speak, Memory and notes and typescripts for the English translations of many of his earlier Russian novels. The manuscripts for his own translation of Lolita into Russian and his version of the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation of the novel are also on view.

In addition to his writing career, Nabokov also intently pursued his lifelong interest in butterflies, becoming an accomplished lepidopterist. The exhibition features many of his butterfly drawings, as well as a special pass the author was granted to study at the American Museum of Natural History.

"There seem to be at least as many Nabokovs as there are readers of his work," said Rodney Phillips, Curator of the Berg Collection and Curator of Nabokov Under Glass. "Yet behind all the masks, there is still only one man, whom the writer once called the 'anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.' This exhibition unveils that impersonation by focusing on the artifacts of Nabokov's artifices."

The Library's Nabokov Archive was acquired for the Berg Collection in 1991 from Nabokov's son, Dmitri. It is a massive and important collection of materials documenting the creative output of a literary genius. Among the materials it comprises are 31 diaries, numerous scrapbooks kept by Nabokov's mother and wife, large amounts of correspondence, heavily annotated literary works from which the author taught, drawings of butterflies he created throughout his life, manuscripts of chess problems that Nabokov devised as a pastime, and rare clippings of his early publications in scarce émigré publications.

The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature is one of America's important collections of literary first editions, rare books, autograph letters, and manuscripts. It was presented to the Library in 1940 by Dr. Albert A. Berg, a famous New York surgeon and trustee of the Library, in memory of his brother and fellow collector, Dr. Henry W. Berg.

Nabokov Under Glass: A Centennial Exhibition is on view from April 23 through August 21, 1999 in the Library's Edna Barnes Salomon Room (room 316) on the third floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Exhibition hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Closed Sunday). Admission is free. Additional information about library exhibitions is available at 212-869-8089.

More information about The New York Public Library is available at the Library's Web site, www.nypl.org. More information on the Nabokov Archive is available in the Zemblarchive.


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