Vladimir Nabokov

Language learner

By marta_arnal_gas, 15 January, 2022

Hello, I was wondering whether anyone could help me in finding bibliography or anything related to Nabokov as a language learner. I am specially interested in his learning of German and to what extend he knew Spanish.


Alain Champlain

2 years 1 month ago

From the 1971 Kurt Hoffman interview (number 19) in Strong Opinions, under the Berlin heading:

"When I moved there from England in 1921, I had only a smattering of German picked up in Berlin during an earlier stay in the winter of 1910 when by brother and I went there with a Russian tutor to have our teeth fixed by an American dentist. In the course of my Cambridge University years I kept my Russian alive by reading Russian literature, my main subject, and by composing an appalling quantity of poems in Russian. Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed émigré circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the routine necessities of shopping: Ich möchte etwas Schinken. I now regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a cultural point of view. The little I ever did in that respect was to translate in my youth the Heine songs for a Russian contralto—who, incidentally, wanted the musically significant vowels to coincide in fullness of sound, and therefore I turned Ich grolle nicht into Net, zloby net, instead of the unsingable old version Ya ne serzhus’. Later I read Goethe and Kafka en regard as I also did Homer and Horace. And of course since my early boyhood I have been tackling a multitude of German butterfly books with the aid of a dictionary.”

There are a few other tidbits in SO, and Speak Memory, easy enough to search keywords if you get digital versions. Might be worth poking your head into Lectures on Literature's Kafka section? Can't remember if the Nabokov's Butterflies has any other quotes related to his German butterfly books, but probably. And Boyd's European chapters. Maybe even Eugene Onegin. Good places to start.

As for Spanish, a few of the above suggestions apply, plus: I haven't read VN's book on Don Quixote yet, but maybe worth checking out...

Also watch the Apostrophes interview, if you have any French or can find an appropriate subtitle language: I think about 8 minutes in there's some relevant info, based on a quick scan. 

Hope that's helpful, not sure if you already had these bases covered. Maybe someone else can get more specific.


Thank you for all the references. I have watched the Apostrophes interview. I understand French, but the references to French are easier for me to find than the ones to German and Spanish or other languages. You have been really helpful, thank you.