Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Nabokov, Vladimir

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(1899-1977) Russian-born writer, translator and entomologist who lived most of his life in exile: before WWII in Europe; in the USA for many years from 1940; and from 1959 in Switzerland. From circa 1940 he wrote almost exclusively in English; in his later years, he spent much energy translating or supervising the translation into English of his earlier Russian works, and these versions, almost invariably revised, constitute the definitive texts. From the beginning of his career, VN imperiously created fictional worlds whose Realities were contingent upon play, upon linguistic artifice, upon the reader's success in decoding messages from the interior of the text; indeed, it has been suggested that much of VN's work from Pnin (1957) and "The Vane Sisters" (1959) to Transparent Things (1972) incorporates encrypted attempts at communication from dead characters, buried in the text, to the "live" world outside.

After some juvenile poetry, VN began publishing novels (all his Russian-language work is as by V Sirin) with Mashen'ka (1926 Germany; trans Michael Glenny and VN as Mary 1970 US), 30 years before coming to world-wide fame with the release of Lolita (1955 France); an early, long-lost version of this novel was released much later as The Enchanter (1987 US). Though all his work can be seen as articulated through the rhetorics of the Fantastic, little of it can be understood unequivocally as either sf or fantasy. There are automata in Korol', Dama, Valet (1928 Germany; trans Dmitri Nabokov and VN as King, Queen, Knave 1968 US). Zashchita Luzhina (1930 Germany; trans Michael Scammell and VN as The Defense 1964 US) is not fantasy, but the hallucinated intensity of its Chess-master protagonist's projection of a chess defense into the world masterfully elides delusion and reality. Soglyadatay (1930 France; trans Dmitri Nabokov and VN as The Eye 1965 US) is a Posthumous Fantasy in a sense much more explicit than that in which all his late novels (see above) may be readable as exhalations from the dead; and Priglashenie na kasn' (1938 France; trans Dmitri Nabokov and VN as Invitation to a Beheading 1959 US), a political Fable, conveys its protagonist into a posthumous world.

Izobretenie Val'sa (1938 France; rev text trans Dmitri Nabokov as The Waltz Invention 1966 US) is an sf play; and some of the pre-WWII plays assembled in The Man from the USSR and Other Plays (coll trans Dmitri Nabokov 1984 US) are fantastical. Bend Sinister (1947) is a dystopia; and Pale Fire (1962 US) might be called an antifantasy, because the tale's extraordinary tragic intensity derives precisely from its denial of the solaces of an imposed Story, its refusal to countenance a Ruritanian reading of events. Yet it reads as a fantasy of Perception, the perception toyed with being that of the reader, to whom the truth of events is only slowly revealed. Collections containing tales of fantasy interest include: Nabokov's Dozen (coll 1958); Nabokov's Quartet (coll 1966 US), which includes "Poseshchenie muzeya" (1939; trans as "The Visit to the Museum" 1963) and "The Vane Sisters"; Nabokov's Congeries (coll 1968 US), which includes "Lance" (1952); Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (coll trans Dmitri Nabokov and VN 1976 US); Details of a Sunset and Other Stories (coll 1976 US). This work is assembled as The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (coll 1996 US).

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969 US) is set in a world called Anti-Terra – possibly the linguistic creation of the novel's protagonist, who passionately reveals and obscures with his "Twin"; although VN consistently scorned all forms of psychology, there is some sense that Anti-Terra, in its wish-fulfilling liberality and lubricity, is a kind of Shadow of the mundane world (>>> Jungian Psychology). Look at the Harlequins! (1974 US), though not technically a fantasy, renders the life of its autobiographical protagonist as a Commedia dell'Arte parade. In the end, there are indeed Godgames in VN novels: each novel is itself the game in question. [JC]

Vladimir Nabokov


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.