Vladimir Nabokov, born in 1899 to a wealthy St Petersburg family, was the author of the classic novel Lolita (1955). His artistic contribution was grounded firmly in his educated roots and experiences as a three-time refugee.
The first major displacement occurred during the Russian Revolution - the Nabokovs were wealthy and involved in liberal rebellion, making them a prime target. They crowded into a Greek cargo ship to make their escape, landing in Athens on Nabokov’s 20th birthday. After graduating Cambridge, he moved out of England to Berlin, where he would meet his wife, Vera Slonim. Berlin had a large Russian refugee community, but the couple remained officially stateless, with useless Nansen passports. The authorities seemed to view the foreigners among them, he noted, “with the preposterous disapproval with which certain religious groups regard a child born out of wedlock.”
This “preposterous disapproval” would quickly devolve into racial discrimination in 1930s Germany, prompting their second major displacement. Vera, being Jewish, lost her job, and the man who murdered Nabokov’s father was named to Hitler’s Department of Émigré Affairs. Nabokov secured a work visa for Paris and the family moved in 1937. But Paris, if less fascist, was just as insecure, and when an American refugee organization promised Nabokov a lecture series, the couple left again, sailing on May 19, 1940 to America. Less than a month after their departure, the Germans marched on Paris.
The Nabokovs’ found their footing in America - Nabokov taught at Cornell from 1948 to 1959, and it was then that he wrote his masterpiece, Lolita. Its success gave them enough money to move to Montreux, Switzerland, in 1961, and he died of a lung condition in 1977 - his legacy asone of the greatest authors of the 20th century firmly solidified.
“I propelled myself out of Russia so vigorously, with such indignant force, that I have been rolling
on and on ever since.”
- Vladimir Nabokov
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Daniella is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.