The Russian writer chased butterflies, and fame, in America.
When Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) arrived in New York in 1940, fleeing war-torn Europe, he was a struggling writer who hoped to make a living from college teaching. Two decades later, after the American publication of Lolita in 1958, he returned to Europe a literary star. In this fresh and engaging biography, biographer, novelist, and critic Roper (Writing and Film/Johns Hopkins Univ.; Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, 2008, etc.) traces the trajectory of his career, friendships, and family life, as well as his indefatigable passion for butterflies. Drawing judiciously on Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991) and Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov (1999), as well as the writer’s correspondence, Roper illuminates such works as Pnin, Speak, Memory, and Pale Fire. Foremost among Nabokov’s new American friends was eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson, a trusted reader, who was instrumental in forging publishing connections. Although the friendship eventually ended in bitterness, Roper sees the two men as kindred spirits: “literary out to their fingertips, contentious know-it-alls; sons of upper-class families, their fathers distinguished jurists involved in politics; lovers of Proust, Joyce, Pushkin.” Because of Wilson’s stewardship, Nabokov found that “cultured, powerful people were magically available to him.” Fame, though, did not come quickly. Moving from one teaching job to another—Stanford, Wellesley, Harvard, Cornell—gave Nabokov, Vera, and their son ample opportunity to mount butterfly-hunting expeditions that resulted in a huge collection, which Nabokov donated to the American Museum of National History. Roper traces those journeys, illustrating the book with his own photographs of motor courts where the family stopped and various landscapes that they explored during their 200,000 miles of travels.
Although Roper could well have shortened his excerpts from Nabokov’s works and letters, they support his assessment of the writer as “an extremely talented fellow” but not, in every piece of writing, a genius.