Vladimir Nabokov Life and Times in Berlin
Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most distinguished writers of the twentieth century, best known for his psychological novel about the pedophile Humbert Humbert, Lolita. He was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1899 and died in 1977 in Switzerland.
He was born into an affluent family as the eldest of five children. He was raised trilingual – speaking Russian, English and French from the earliest age onwards. He mastered, to his father’s displeasure, writing and speaking in English before Russian. His family left Russia in 1919, living briefly in England where he studied at Trinity College, before departing and settling in Germany.
Nabokov lived in Berlin from 1922 – 1937. His father was assassinated in Berlin attempting to protect Pavel Milyukov in 1922. Soon afterward in 1923, he met his eventual wife at a charity ball, Vera. He had been previously engaged to another woman, but due to his insecure financial situation, her family had not allowed the marriage to occur.
In truth, it is written that Nabokov never took well to Berlin or his life in the Russian sector of the city, which at that time included Schoeneberg, Wilmersdorf and Charlottenburg. He wrote under the pseudo name V. Sirin and indeed, spoke little German at all. He lived in a total of ten different apartments. He worked as a language and tennis teacher in order to survive. Many of his novels are set in Berlin, despite his lack of passion for the city. In fact, Berlin appears in his works more than any other city in the world. He left Berlin due to his repulsion with the ever-more-powerful Nazi regime and the discomfort it caused for his wife, who was of Jewish heritage and lost her job because of it in 1936.
Nabokov, explaining his lack of German in an interview with the Bayerischer Rundfunk in 1971, said, “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 emigre circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books.” Likely his inability to speak German was an important aspect of his distaste for the city.
Nabokov met his mistress, Irina Guadinini, after leaving Berlin for France. He and his family, which now included wife Vera and song Dmitri, stayed in France until 1940, when they decided to emigrate to America. He then became a professor of comparative literature at Wellesley College, before going on to work at several other universities. He became a U.S. Citizen in 1945.
He spent the next twenty-one years writing and gaining every greater prestige and wealth in America. Lolita was as popular as it was controversial and was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1952. With Lolita‘s success Nabokov was able to retire from work and hastened to Switzerland with Vera, where he would eventually die in Montreux and have his ashes cremated.
To see Nabokov today in Berlin, the apartment in which he spent five years of his life is now Nestorstrasse 22 in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf . The building was destroyed by bombing during the war, but was rebuilt. It makes frequent appearances in his novel, The Gift.
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