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Vladimir who? If today the name Nabokov is almost household, often mentioned in the same breath as Joyce, Proust and Kafka, until the late 1950s—by which point its bearer, born in 1899, was himself in his late 50s—it was nothing of the sort. His early writings enjoyed a following among Russian émigrés, and his more recent ones had their admirers in the English-speaking world, but to the general public he was virtually unknown. Then, in 1958, came the U.S. publication of “Lolita,” which sold 100,000 copies in its first three weeks (it was the first book since “Gone With the Wind” to do so), went on to sell millions of copies world-wide, and put an enormous booster—a souped-up V-8 engine, as it were—under the reputation of its author, guaranteeing a large audience not only for his future books but for his previous ones. None of this is extraordinary in itself: Many writers have struggled for decades before hitting pay dirt and vaulting into the pantheon. But Nabokov’s trajectory was special. That a pampered, butterfly-mad child prodigy from one of czarist St. Petersburg’s richest families should win fame for his vast body of experimental, sometimes difficult work by means of a novel in the guise of the jailhouse confession of a Swiss-English pederast obsessed with a gum-chewing American 12-year-old . . . well, it could hardly have been foreseen.[   ]

Nabokov was nothing if not unique, but his uniqueness can be oppressive. Whatever he has in common with the great modernists, he also bears some resemblance to wildly mannered, orchidaceous writers like Ronald Firbank. Reading him, one finds oneself in the hands of a master yet also in those of a Dr. Moreau, grotesquely intent on bending all life to his whim. Even his most seductive novels, “Lolita” and the laid-back “Pnin,” are marred by this showiness and self-indulgence, not to mention his heckling of Freud and other bêtes noires. Catnip to some, his penchant for doppelgängers and elaborate patterns is tiresome to others. Thankfully, there’s also his irrepressible humor and inimitable phrasing. Not just in his fiction but in “Speak, Memory” (which goes light on his vices and heavy on his virtues), his works of cockeyed scholarship, his celebrated Cornell lectures, and his letters to Edmund Wilson (collected in the addictive “Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya”), Nabokov is often hilarious and consistently strikes sparks from words that no one else could or would. (At random, I think of Humbert’s characterization of the lusty Charlotte Haze, going for him in bed, as “fresh and strong as an octopus,” and of two boys with the hots for Lolita as “gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea.”) And the fact that his exuberant individuality defines itself against communism and Nazism—both experienced firsthand—lends it force and dignity. Few Americans have embodied intellectual freedom with half his brio.
Several years ago, the New York Times published an article under the headline “Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated.” It seems that lepidopterists had long dismissed his notion that the Polyommatus blues emigrated from Asia to the New World via the Bering Strait, but recent evidence has proved him correct. Hard not to think of the man himself, fluttering between countries and continents, defying all logic and convention, settling nowhere, native only to the paradisal Kingdom of Zembla between his ears.

Mr. Downing is the author of “Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross.”



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