Vladimir Nabokov's Passionate Reading of 'An Evening of Russian Poetry,' 1958

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The Russian Writer Vladimir Nabokov In Paris In 1959.

Before the controversy of the American publication of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov cuts a different figure at this 1958 Books and Authors Luncheon.

Introduced here as "a distinguished teacher and writer," Nabokov warns his audience that "this is going to be an impersonation, in iambic pentameter, with fancy rhymes" of a talk his character Professor Pnin would have given to an audience at Waindell College, an all-girls school.

He proceeds to recite his poem "An Evening of Russian Poetry," written in 1945 and first published in The New Yorker.  For those only familiar with Nabokov's cool, masterfully written prose, with its implied voice of a super-civilized international man of letters, the passion with which he reads, as well as his highly Anglicized pronunciation, will be a revelation. In contrast to the plainspeaking tone most poets adopt, this "lecture" is practically declaimed, making the anguish of its author's double exile (first from Russia, then Europe) all too clear, as in the lines: "Like a small caterpillar on its thread/my heart keeps dangling from a leaf long dead." Nabokov famously stated, "I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child." This recording gives lie to the last part of that claim. 

Nabokov was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The son of a high-ranking civil servant, he and his family were forced to flee their homeland during the Bolshevik revolution. After completing his education at Cambridge, Nabokov lived in Berlin and then France, writing novels for the large Russian expatriate community in Europe, also gaining a reputation as a lepidopterist, while giving tennis lessons as well. Notable among the works of this period are Invitation to a Beheading (1936) and The Gift (1938).

With Hitler's rise to power, Nabokov (whose wife was Jewish) accepted an invitation to emigrate to America. For a writer who had already lost one homeland, this could easily have resulted in a nostalgic retreat. As Nabokov recalled, "It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russian and Western Europe, and now I was faced with the task of inventing America."

In America, he classified and studied butterflies at various museums while teaching Russian language and Russian literature, first at Wellesley College, then Cornell University. His novels written in English gained a slow but steady appreciation. But the reception of such works as Bend Sinister (1947) and Pnin (1957) could not have prepared him for the success of Lolita (published abroad in 1955 but not in America until 1958), a story told by a middle-aged professor who conceives an all-consuming passion for a 12-year-old girl. Critics debated whether the novel was pornography or brilliant literature or both. Charles J. Rolo, writing in The Atlantic, opined:

…above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.

This debate still rages, with some denouncing the book as a glorification of pedophilia and rape and others rejecting that interpretation as puritanical, arguing that the book is a metaphor for the author's encounter with and eventual love for a juvenile culture and its, in Nabokov's words, "second-rate brand of English." 

Nabokov's style, with its wordplay and love of theatrical effects, was a freeing influence on the generation of writers who followed him. His refusal to countenance the prevailing political correctness of the time, when it came to authorial attitude or subject matter, was also influential. In a 1968 self-interview, he admitted:

I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket. I despite the corny philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words. I also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it is by a brave black in Africa or a brave white in Russia -- or by any representative of any single group in America. Frankly, a national folklore, class, Masonic, religious, or any other communal aura involuntarily prejudices me against a novel, making it harder for me to peel the offered fruit so as to get at the nectar of possible talent.

With the money Nabokov received from Lolita, he was able to retire from teaching and spend the rest of his days at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland. There, he continued to produce novels in English, as well as supervise the translation of his earlier Russian works. But despite his "repatriation," he insisted he remained an American writer. As he told Alden Whitman, in an interview for his eventual 1977 obituary:

An American writer means, in the present case, a writer who has been an American citizen for a quarter of a century. It means, moreover, that all my works first appear in America. It also means that America is the only country where I feel mentally and emotionally at home.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition original recording.