What Nabokov read is often obvious but sometimes not. Even for the obvious authors or categories it might be worth listing material that indicates where discussions of what he read and when can be found, and Nabokov's evaluations, analyses or uses of that reading can be explained.
The material here is mostly by author but some of the reading would best be covered in topics like biography, childhood reading, classical literature, comics, eighteenth-century literature, English literature, French literature, German literature, Italian literature, Japanese literature, medieval reading, non-Western literature, philosophy, pornography, psychology, Russian literature, etc.
Please contribute! You do not have to write the last word on a subject to get it started.
Baring-Gould, the Rev. Sabine, (1834-1924), Anglican priest, antiquarian, and a prolific author. His Family Names and their story seems a clear source for names in Pale Fire, as suggested in this article by Matthew Roth. In Pale Fire, John Shade introduces Kinbote as "Professor K. is the author of a remarkable book on surnames."
Bates, Henry Walter (1825-1892), English naturalist and the author of the classic The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1863, Cambridge Library Collection) which Nabokov knew all too well. Thomas Barbour, an American zoologist who had offered Nabokov the possibility to do research at Harvard MCZ mentions this incident: "When I was discussing these beauties [Cuban Urania moths] with my colleague (VN) in charge of the collection of Lepidoptera in the Museum of Comparative Zoology the other day, he at once recalled to my mind that lovely passage in Bates' classic The Naturalist on the Amazonas [on the appearance of Urania leilus at dawn, Chap V]. Let me say first that Vladimir Nabokov has an ear more sensitively attuned to the finest nuances of English prose, both in regard to use as in appreciation thereof, than any foreign-born person I have ever known.” (from Dieter E. Zimmer's e-version of Butterflies and Moths in Nabokov; here).
Bennett, Arnold (1867-1931), English novelist. Staying in London in April 1939, Nabokov reported to his wife that in the home of his hosts he was reading "the very amusing 'Diary' of Arn. Bennett" (Letters to Véra, ed. and trans. Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, New York: Vintage, 2017, 422).
Brooke, Rupert (1887-1915), English poet. Nabokov was first introduced to the poetry of Brooke while at Cambridge. He translated approximately twenty of his poems into Russian while publishing his first extant piece of literary criticism, an essay called “Rupert Bruk.” Most memorably Nabokov writes: “Not a single poet has looked into the twilight of the hereafter [‘potustoronnost’] with such tormented and creative penetration.” Later, in a letter (dated August 1942) to Edmund Wilson, Nabokov wrote that his early collection of poems, entitled Gorny put’ (The Empyrean Path), “were written while I was still in my teens and are strongly influenced by the Georgian poets, Rupert Brooke, De la Mare, etc., by whom I was much fascinated at the time” (NWL 87). He would disavow this more strongly in a Playboy interview (from 1964) saying: “At a later period, in Western Europe, between the ages of 20 and 40, my favorites were Housman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favorites, several—Poe, Jules Verne, Emmuska Orczy, Conan Doyle, and Rupert Brooke—have lost the glamour and thrill they held for me.” For a fuller discussion, see Don Barton Johnson’s essay “Vladimir Nabokov and Rupert Brooke” from Nabokov and his Fiction: New Perspectives (ed. Julian Connolly, CUP 2009).
detective fiction: Nabokov was thoroughly familiar with this genre. His interviews and letters and Forewords reveal a dislike for them in toto. In the Foreword to The Eye, he writes: “the author disclaims all intention to trick, puzzle, fool, or otherwise deceive the reader”. Or, from the Playboy interview in 1964 “there are some varieties of fiction that I never touch - mystery stories.” When specifically asked about being a Sherlock Holmes buff (TIME interview, 1969) he answers: “With a very few exceptions, mystery fiction is a kind of collage combining more or less original riddles with conventional and mediocre artwork.” However, things are not quite as simple as the above disclaimers. In his Wilson letters, Nabokov would often recommend two or three “well-written detective novels” like Dorothy Sayers’ Murder must advertise (NWL, Letter No. 110, 1944), Heard’s A Taste for Honey (see below), even a section from Jonathan Latimer (NWL, Letter No. 140, 1946); see also Nicholas Freeling below. At one point Nabokov remarks to Wilson (after sending several samples and reading Wilson’s scathing review of Agatha Christie): “Your attitude towards detective writing is curiously like my attitude towards Soviet Literature, so you are on the whole absolutely right.” In his novels and stories, the allusions to Sherlock Holmes are numerous, enough to form a luminous literary backdrop. When pressed by Alfred Appel (1970) on whether “he transmuted the [detective] genre tropes in his fiction by repeatedly returning to them” he replied “My boyhood passion for the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories may yield some twisted clue.” Nabokov has also responded to Edgar Allan Poe in his fiction (especially Lolita, Pale Fire) and mentioned being a fan of Poe in his youth (Playboy, 1964). As a whole, he must have valued at least some of its methods as essential to Literature, as he revealingly remarks in a lecture on Dickens: “If you have completely understood what I have been driving at, then we have made a very definite step towards understanding the mystery of literary art, for it should be clear that my course, among other things, is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.”
Dunne, John William (1875-1949), aeronautical engineer and author. His 1927 book, An Experiment with Time generated considerable discussion on its publication, with various literary figures like Priestley, Wells, Yeats, Borges responding to it at one time or the other. Nabokov had read and sought to verify its results, inconclusively however. (VNAY 487-88) For a complete discussion of this topic, see Gennady Barabtarlo’s work, Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time (Princeton, 2018).
Ellis, Havelock Henry (1859-1939), English writer and social reformer. His Confession sexuelle d’un Russe du Sud was included as an appendix to the sixth volume of the French edition of his collected writings. As Simon Karlinsky writes, “this 106-page confession, written around in 1912 by an anonymous Ukrainian in French has its solid command of the Russian social and cultural realities of the time, which makes it an authentic and interesting document.” It was recommended by Wilson in 1948 to which Nabokov had an enthusiastic response. He says “I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.” Nabokov alludes to it in Speak, Memory and more fully in Drugie berega where he mentions: "Our innocence seems to me now almost monstrous, in the light of various confessions dating from the same years and cited by Havelock Ellis, which speak of tiny tots of every imaginable sex, who practice every Graeco-Roman sin, constantly and everywhere. . ." (DB, Chapter 10; SM)
Ford, Edsel (1928-1970), American poet. That Nabokov was familiar with some of Ford’s folksy lyrics was astutely pointed out by Matthew Roth (this article). The primary reference comes from Kinbote’s commentary (to ll. 603) where he directs the reader to the startling image of "And often when the cock crew, shaking fire/ Out of the morning and the misty mow" which is from Ford’s volume of poems, A Thicket of Sky. The lines quoted by Kinbote come from his sonnet, “The Image of Desire,” and Roth provides further evidence that Nabokov must have been familiar with some of his other poems, like “Whatever Voice” from its publication in the New York Herald Tribune.
Freeling, Nicolas (1927-2003), English crime novelist. Nabokov clearly had his attention drawn to Freeling's playing with Humbert Humbert in his novel Double-Barrel (1964), and incorporated many of its "veeny" Dutch elements deep into the texture of Ada, as first noted by Paul H. Fry in 1985, and commented on by Wilma Saccama and Jack van der Weide in 1995 and discussed at most length by Brian Boyd in "Ada, The Bog and the Garden," in Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 361-66.
Genet, Jean (1910-1986), French novelist, poet. Nabokov read his Notre-Dame des Fleurs and Journal du Voleur on the recommendation of Edmund Wilson. His reaction was mixed: praising some of them while criticizing others. To quote VN: “It is awfully good in parts. I have the impression that it was written by a litterateur in the quiet of his study.” (NWL, Letter No. 207, 1950)
Heard, Henry FitzGerald (1889-1971), English lecturer and prolific author. He was the BBC's first science commentator and author of some "popular" philosophy pieces. Nabokov had read and enjoyed his detective novel, starring Sherlock Holmes' elder brother Mycroft Holmes, A Taste for Honey in 1943. Nabokov mentions, "The entomological part is of course all wrong (he confuses the Purple emperor, a butterfly, with Emperor moth), but it is very nicely written. Did Mary [Mary McCarthy] see the point of the detective's name in the end?" (The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, ed. Simon Karlinsky, University of California Press, 2001). A Taste for Honey was generally acclaimed by contemporary mystery fiction writers as a worthy "Holmes" mystery.
Hearn, Lafcadio (1852-1904), Anglo-American-Japanese writer, the most important conduit to Japanese culture for Anglophone readers in the late 19C and early 20C. See Shun'ichiro Akikusa, "Nabokov and Hearn: Where the Transatlantic Imagination Meets the Transpacific Imagination," in Brian Boyd and Marijeta Bozovic, eds., Nabokov Upside Down (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 2017), 158-68. Akikusa discusses the appeal of Hearn's symbolist and otherworldly imagination to Nabokov.
Herzen, Alexander (1812-1870), Russian writer and political thinker. As noted by Brian Boyd, the Russian version of Speak, Memory, entitled Drugie berega, echoes both the title of Herzen’s S drugogo berega (From the Other Shore, 1848-50) and Pushkin’s famous lyric of remembrance, “vospominaya s grust’yu/ inye berega, inye volny.” Nabokov had captioned their St. Petersburg address (which had been renamed by the Soviets as “Herzen Street”) from Speak, Memory as: “Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812–1870) was a famous liberal (whom this commemoration by a police state would hardly have gratified) as well as the talented author of Bïloe i Dumï (translatable as “Bygones and Meditations”), one of my father’s favorite books.” Herzen was not only a political emigrant but also a partisan of liberal values, always standing up to the state’s irresponsible violence, and this aspect of his thought must have definitely appealed to an “old-school” liberal like Nabokov. For more discussion, see Sergey Karpukhin’s article “Nabokov and Herzen” (Nabokovian 53, Fall 2004).
Irving, Washington (1783-1859), American writer best known for his short stories. For his 1941 Stanford creative writing class Nabokov analyzed one of his stories, "The Stout Gentleman" (a chapter in the 1822 volume of sketches, Bracebridge Hall), which had just been published in a stand-alone edition in California (April 1941, by the Greenwood Press, San Mateo, CA) that Nabokov presumably stumbled on by chance. In the enthusiasm of his discovery he called it "one of the best short stories in any language." (BB: from material not yet published or catalogued)
Nicolson, Harold (1886-1892), a famous British diplomat and author. His Some People is well known to Nabokov. Edmund Wilson mentions Nicolson's review of Conclusive Evidence. Nabokov was annoyed by a comment in his Diaries and Letters, and had this to say: "VN says... that all his life he had been fighting against the influence of Some People is terribly exaggerated. I did say to Nigel Nicolson (in 1959 in London) that I greatly admired Some People and I may have added that in my thirties (when writing Sebastian Knight) I was careful to steer clear of its hypnotic style. But the idea of "fighting all my life" against its influence on me is, of course, nonsense." (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977)
Oakes, Philip (1928-2005), British journalist, poet and novelist. His novel, The God-Botherers was mentioned among the best that Nabokov had read in the year 1969, ahead of Beckett's Molloy and below Tabuchi's The Alpine Butterflies of Japan. (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977)
pornography: Nabokov had read some but hated it. In an interview with Neil Hickey in 1959, in the Washington Post, he said: "My definition of pornography is 'a copulation of clichés' in which an author puts the reader on familiar ground and then makes a direct attempt at provoking the most basic response. This is not the case with Lolita." In an interview with Anne Guérin in 1961 for L'Express he asked: "Have you read the Marquis de Sade? The orgies? Things start with one person, then five, then fifty, then they invite the gardener! (Enormous laugh.) There’s your pornography: quantity without quality. It’s banal, it’s not literature. The intention of art is always pure, always moral. . . . I hate the Marquis de Sade." Both forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019.
Pratt, Antwerp Edgar (1852-1924), Victorian naturalist, explorer, author. Nabokov had surely read his To the Snows of Tibet through China before the summer of 1930, as suggested by Dieter E. Zimmer's remarkable discovery (here). Father Dejean, Tatsienlu, "the rocks and the rhododendrons" in both The Aurelian and The Gift (as well as the T. bieti motif) has its convoluted origin from Pratt's book.
Queneau, Raymond (1903-1976), famous French author, poet, critic. Nabokov was at least familiar with three of his works, namely Pierrot mon ami, Zazie dans le métro and Exercices de style. Zazie in the Metro, was a major success and was immediately adapted to screen by Louis Malle. In an interview with Appel, Nabokov mentions his fondness for Zazie and the quintessential thriller, Exercises. Nabokov's love for French literature had its roots in childhood, and he did his best to highlight other authors like Robbe-Grillet, Hellens than those in vogue a la Sartre, Camus, Malraux.
Reid, Thomas Mayne (1818-1883), Anglo-Irish novelist. His literary output largely comprises of adventure novels, achieving great popularity at the time. Nabokov attempted to translate Reid's Headless Horseman into French alexandrines at the age of ten. The most memorable evocation of The Headless Horseman comes in Chapter 10 of Speak, Memory where Nabokov and his friend, Yuri reenact their favourite scenes. There is a faint allusion to the aforesaid title in Ada as well as minor point in Glory. See Don John's article Nabokov and Captain Mayne Reid for a fuller discussion (here).
Robbe-Grillet, Alain (1922-2008), French novelist, film director. One of Nabokov’s favorite contemporary novelists. Brian Boyd reports in his VNAY (Pg. 464) that in the March of 1962, "VN saw one of the very few movies he sought out in the nearly twenty years of his final European period: the classic L'Annee derniere a Marienbad (dir. by Alain Resnais, based on Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay), a film that delighted him not so much by its labyrinthine compulsiveness as by its originality and its romanticism". VN repeatedly praised Robbe-Grillet in his interviews, had a high regard for his fiction, novels such as Le Voyeur, Jalouise, Dans le labyrinthe (Letter to Morris Bishop from December, 1959, Selected Letters). His enthusiasm for Robbe-Grillet is somewhat puzzling to most readers (see Alter’s essay, “Autobiography as Alchemy in Pale Fire”) maybe it had to do with Robbe-Grillet’s finely-wrought imagery in his fiction. Vladimir and Vera had met Robbe-Grillet and his wife in Paris in 1959, an incident he describes in an interview with Alfred Appel (1970 Interview, see also his letter to Wilson, NWL, Letter No.311, dated 1960).
Rochefort, Christiane (1918-1998), French feminist novelist, best known in Nabokov's lifetime for her Le Repos du guerrier (1958). Nabokov reported in a 1965 interview in Journal de Genève with Guy de Belleval that "recently I read with sheer pleasure Warrior’s Rest (Le repos du guerrier) by Christiane Rochefort" (forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019).
Salinger, Jerome David (1919-2010), American author, most famous for The Catcher in the Rye. Nabokov held Salinger in high regard, specifically his collection Nine Stories, which comprised his New Yorker contributions. In his 1972 essay, Inspiration, Nabokov chose “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” for special praise, writing: “This is a great story, too famous and fragile to be measured here by a casual conchometrist.”
Senancour, Étienne Pivert de (1770-1846), French writer best known for his novel Obermann (1804). In a 1964 interview with "M.V." in Journal de Montreux, Nabokov said that among his favorite writers was "Senancour, an author too little known who wrote, around 1830, in the Journal of his life, splendid descriptions of the Alps" (forthcoming in Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy, eds., Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Interviews, Essays and Reviews, Penguin 2019). VN approvingly quotes from Senoncour's Obermann several times in his Eugene Onegin commentary (Vol 2: 154, 180-1, 321, 422; Vol 3: 34, 71, 237; EO, Bollingen 1964).
Svyatopolk-Mirsky, Dmitri Petrovich (1890-1939), Russian writer best remembered for his History of Russian Literature (1926) which Nabokov liked. In a letter dated from 1949 Nabokov writes, “In fact, I consider it to be by far the best history of Russian literature in any language including Russian. Unfortunately I must deprive myself of the pleasure of writing a blurb for it, since the poor fellow is now in Russia and compliments from such an anti-Soviet writer as I am known to be might cause him considerable unpleasantness.” (Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977). His whole “life” including his return to Russia seems like something out of a Nabokov novel. Edmund Wilson seems to had been stimulated to learn Russian by Mirsky’s book on Pushkin, and had sought him out in Russia shortly before his arrest (Wilson wrote a famous article about this meeting called “Comrade Prince”), considered his The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (1935) “an able and intelligent book,” which, even if “ill-inspired,” contained “very good things”.
Tertz, Abram (1925-1997), Russian author and political prisoner. Nabokov read Tertz’s (pseudonym of Andrei Sinyavsky) “On Socialist Realism” in 1961. The book attacked the system of “Socrealism” as formulated by Maxim Gorky, the deluge of books (classified as Soviet Literature) published under its spell and their obvious inadequacy to meet the complex reality of the world. Because of the subject matter it was anonymously published abroad in 1959, in the Paris monthly, Espirit in a French translation. Nabokov remarked that although Tertz’s case was stated with intelligence and brilliancy, it was what he had been saying to his students for twenty years. (see Boyd, VNAY 423 and also Nabokov's own essay, "Russian Writers, Censors and Readers")
Thurber, James Grover (1894-1961), American cartoonist, humorist and author. Nabokov thought of him as a "creative artist in his own right" and admired his famous short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Letter to K. White, 1946, Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977). In his essay, On Inspiration Nabokov approvingly cities Thurber as, "Art does not rush to the barricades". His drawings like the justly celebrated collection The Seal in the Bedroom must have appealed to Nabokov who was an avid cartoon buff.
Upton, Florence Kate (1873-1922), scenarist-illustrator, portraitist. Creator of the remarkably artistic Golliwog series of books which was highly popular. Florence provided the illustrations and the scenarios while her mother, Bertha Upton wrote the verses. Nabokov, of course owned a Golliwog doll, as described in Speak, Memory. Also a source of inspiration for the Debussy's suite, Children's Corner with its buoyant final movement, entitled "Golliwogg's Cakewalk". The memory of Upton's illustrations served Nabokov well upto his seventies, supplying the final image in the novel, Transparent Things. Don B. Johnson's article Nabokov's Golliwogs (here) provides a sustained comparison.
Waterhouse, Keith (1929-2009), British novelist, journalist, and TV scenarist. Nabokov read and enjoyed his novel Jubb (1963). Peter Lubin reported that when he met Nabokov in 1964 and asked what he was currently reading, Nabokov replied he was reading Jubb and liking it: see Brian Boyd, VNAY 483.
Wilbur, Richard Purby (1921-2017), American poet. He was among Nabokov’s favourite contemporary writers. Nabokov had first met Wilbur at Harvard in 1952 and later at Cornell during a course of poetry reading (VNAY 215). Later, from an interview with The New York Times (1969), VN singled out Wilbur’s Complaint as an example of a recent poem that had given him “a spinal twinge which is the only valid reaction to a new piece of great poetry.” Wilbur’s precise imagery and his careful practice of rhyming and stanzaic patterns must have appealed to Nabokov at a time when interest in formal verse patterns was weakening. See Wilbur’s essays, such as “Poetry’s Debt to Poetry,” “The Bottles Become New, too” from his book, Responses: Prose Pieces and The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces.
Wilson, Edmund (1895-1972), American Scholar and author of several books. At a certain point of time, he held a commanding intellectual presence in the American literary scene and was Nabokov’s onetime friend and advisor. As Robert Alter writes: “when Nabokov came to this country in 1940, Wilson could generously take him up as a protégé and a friend, seeing in him a talented new English writer with an exotic cultural and linguistic background.” Nabokov read several of his books in course of their productive and steady friendship (1940s was a luminous decade of their camaraderie) and wrote nice things about them privately. Even while criticizing some parts, Nabokov would always focus on the positives unless of course, they interfered with his fundamental beliefs. Their “natural intercourse”, affinities and disagreements are always entertaining, their correspondence roughly resemble and have the same function (as a break from meticulous fiction writing) as Flaubert’s resplendent letters to Louise Colet or to George Sand. Their public disagreement over the Pushkin translation in retrospect seems somewhat inevitable, given their wildly divergent mindsets, and Wilson’s general undervaluing of Nabokov’s literary gifts. However, it is especially sad to see Wilson misreading Nabokov’s well-meant intentions from the very last letter of 1971: “A few days ago I had the occasion to reread the whole batch of our correspondence. It was such a pleasure to feel again the warmth of your many kindness, the various thrills of our friendship, that constant excitement of art and intellectual discovery.” To which Wilson sarcastically retorts to another friend: “Nabokov has suddenly written me a letter telling me that he values my friendship and that all has been forgiven. He has been told that I have been ill, and it always makes him cheerful to think that his friends are in bad shape.” This led to an ultimate split, culminating in Wilson's Upstate, which lasted till Wilson’s death. For specific remarks by Nabokov on Wilson's works, see The Nabokov-Wilson Letters in particular and unless mentioned otherwise: To the Finland Station, a classic study concerning the origins of Marxism (Letter 6, 1940); The Boys in the Back Room, essay collection (Letter 21, 1941); The Wound and the Bow from Nabokov’s lecture on Bleak House (also Letter No.164 from 1947); Poems from Note-Books of Night (Letter 57, 1942); on the Novel I thought of Daisy (Letter 106, 1944); Europe without Baedeker, travelogue and essays (Letter 127, 1945 and Letter 171, 1948); the Novel Memoirs of Hecate County (Letter 140, 1946); The Triple Thinkers, essay collection (Letter 190, 1949); The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle, essay collection (Letter 251, 1952); A Piece of Mind: Reflections at Sixty, essay collection (Letter 283, 1956); The American Earthquake, essay collection (Letter 301, 1958). For further discussion, refer to Simon Karlinsky’s Introduction to The Nabokov-Wilson Letters.
Whitrow, Gerald James (1912-2000), British science historian and author. Whitrow’s one-time definitive book, The Natural Philosophy of Time was recommended to Nabokov by Jane Howard (Life magazine, 1964). This book would provide the background for the "history of ideas about Time" in Part IV of Ada (VNAY 487). See also Stephen Jay Parker’s article “Library” in The Garland Companion to Nabokov (Taylor & Francis, 1995).