Russian Emigre Literature – Nabokov and identity
A lesser known part of Russian history is the widespread emigration that happened during the Soviet Union. After the Communist revolution in 1917, a vast wave of 1-3 million Russian intellectuals, teachers and nobility were forced to flee the former Russian Empire. Among these emigrants were the famous literary figures Nabokov, Brodsky and Bunin, who all moved to the West but remained staunchly connected to their home culture and wrote many works in their native tongue. Here is short overview of Nabokov and how his dual-identity as an emigrant in America influenced his writing and forged a literary bridge between Russia and the USA.
Born and raised in St Petersburg, Nabokov was an emigrant of the 2nd Wave, meaning he was among the Russians that left Russia during the Civil War after the revolution. During this time, Nabokov’s family was forced to flee to Crimea after the October Revolution, and then, after the defeat of the White Army in Crimea, Nabokov’s family sought exile in Western Europe. After completing his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge University and spending some time in Germany, Nabokov eventually settled in America where he was to become a professor of literature at Cornell University. Nabokov originally started writing in Russian, but his fiction was banned in the Soviet Union. He also wrote in English to reach local American readers, his most most novel being Lolita which sent shockwaves through the literary community. He even translated some of his own work in English and visa-versa, so you can be sure that you are reading quality work either in translation or in the original language!
RUSSIAN, AMERICAN, OR CULTURAL CHAMELEON?
Nabokov has made a significant impact on Russian and English literature for some of the ideas he proposes as a result of his experience as an emigrant. Despite enjoying the intellectual freedom of America at the time, Nabokov always remained very close to the Russian literary tradition, including many references to the greats of Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy in his writing. In some cases, however, when Nabokov was translating his own work into English, his publisher forced him to delete some of the more obscure references that were inaccessible to an American audience. Nonetheless, Nabokov never let his cultural origins relinquish and instead demonstrated a strong preoccupation with the fate of Russian literature.
Moreover, as result of his dual-identity, Nabokov was always interested in cultural multiplicity and the problems of cross-cultural identity. It is noticeable, for example, in his essays and writings that Nabokov tried to defy stereotypes by creating culturally complex characters. Take Humbert Humbert in Lolita, for example, who lives in suburban America but is “vaguely European” and has expertise in French literature. Nabokov once responded to a question about his own national identity by saying: ‘I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England where I studied French literature, before spending fifteen years in Germany’. In many ways, Nabokov epitomises the globalised world of today, believing that culture and identity is not something that boxes us in, but something that we can carry with us in literature and writing. Nabokov’s identity was flexible and far-reaching.
SO WHY READ NABOKOV?
Nabokov is a unique writer in the canon of Russian and English literature because of the wealth of his experience and impressive education. He is a good writer to start with if you are interested in reading some literature more modern than the likes of Dostoevksy and Tolstoy in the Golden Age of literature. His works can be quite difficult to understand, but it is worth the challenges as both his prose is considered to be some of the most beautiful in both Russian and English.