Robert Roper on Language, ‘Lolita,’ and Vladimir Nabokov in America

Nabokov in America - Robert Roper

Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed and controversial Lolita is a complicated product -- a distinctly American novel by a Russian emigre, a picturesque travel story starring an adventurous pedophile, a beautiful novel with uncomfortable undertones.

In Nabokov in America, author Robert Roper tells the backstory of what is still regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, taking the story of the then-obscure academic from his butterfly hunts across the American west to the initial rejection of Lolita by every American publisher, and eventually to literary stardom. Signature caught up with him to talk about the books -- his and Nabokov’s.

Signature: I hear "Nabokov" pronounced every which way. Would he have pronounced it NAB-uh-kov or na-BOW-kov?

Robert Roper: Na-BOW-kov. It’s a Russian name. His family was Russian nobility. They had been involved with the czarist government for many years. By the time he was born in 1899, they were immensely wealthy.

SIG: He wrote several books in Russian before he came to the United States, right?

RR: Right, he had a whole career writing in Russian.

SIG: Did he speak English growing up, or did he learn it later in life?

RR: His parents were very Russian but also admired England and the United States, so his parents taught themselves English. His mother and father wanted him to be exposed to English, so they hired an English-speaking governess. From the age of three or four, he was hearing bedtime stories in English.

SIG: Do you see anything particular about the way he writes in English -- anything distant or unique or new that he brought as someone who spoke Russian as his first language?

RR: Scholars have written a lot about that. It’s hard to give you a simple answer because he was an immensely gifted writer. When he was working on his English in the 1940s, he studied up on how people spoke. When he wrote Lolita, he would go on busses and make notes about the slang that kids would speak. He knew all about popular culture and could mimic how people spoke. The dialogue and the descriptions in the book are terrifically American.

SIG: So he was almost a better journalist of the language by not being American.

RR: That’s right. And he was willing to do the very hard work of stopping a career in midstream in Russian and getting up to speak in a new language. With the peculiarities in his writing, it’s hard to say if it was because he was a Russian speaker or because he was a literary genius. There are traces of his Russian-ness, but it’s very hard to separate out.

SIG: Did he translate or rewrite any of his Russian novels into English?

RR: He did. Most of them were translated by other people, but he rewrote and translated some books into English. His main translator was his son Dmitri, who had a terrific command of Russian and English, and also Italian and French.

SIG: Nabokov fled Europe to the United States in the 1940s...

RR: His family left Russia during the revolution, went to England, and then wound up in Berlin, which is where a lot of the Russians who escaped the revolution went. They were in Berlin for fifteen years. Nabokov married and lived hand to mouth as many young writers do, and he developed an audience among Russian exiles. He married and lived in Berlin until the Nazis came to power, and then they moved to France in 1937. Pretty soon, the writing was on the wall there too.

He was invited to teach summer school in far-away Palo Alto, California. I’m not sure if he had ever even heard of Stanford before he got a letter inviting him. That gave him a legal basis to get the proper visas to come to America, but they couldn’t get the money together. A Jewish refugee organization in New York called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society heard that Nabokov was desperately trying to get out of France, and they sent Nabokov most of the money he needed and got him and his wife and little boy on the last ship out of France before the war started.

SIG: Was Lolita the first book he wrote in English?

RR: No, when he was in France, he wanted to appeal to an English-speaking audience and wrote The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which shows a lot of traces of someone before his full command of English. Once he got to the United States, he wrote a biography of the great Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, and then he wrote a novel called Bend Sinister in 1946 that wasn’t very successful. He was also writing articles for magazines like The New Yorker, so he wrote quite a bit in English before he wrote Lolita, which was his first successful novel in English.

SIG: A lot of Lolita was about his travels in the western United States. Was that adventure-seeking on his part, or was he traveling for a particular reason?

RR: Writers are often working for many purposes at once and may not even be aware of it. Nabokov and his wife and little boy went out west summer after summer because he was hunting butterflies. He was unusual compared to other European intellectuals who escaped the Nazis and came to America. Most of them stayed around New York and spoke German or Russian with their fellow emigres and never really encountered America. Nabokov was hungry to learn. He wrote many times in his letters about the simple kindness that he was met with in little towns in Utah or Wyoming.

SIG: And it's on this trip that he starts writing the book?

RR: Nabokov would get somewhere like a little town in Colorado. He would drive down some country road, park, and write for a couple of hours. He never learned to drive, so his wife would leave him somewhere and come back in a few hours. He did a lot of the note-taking and writing for Lolita while he was traveling.

SIG: Was Nabokov a figure of some eminence before Lolita, or did that come later?

RR: He had a remarkable reputation in Europe among Russian speakers, but it was a limited audience. When he arrived in America, he was pretty much an unknown writer. Over the first ten years in America -- roughly 1940 to 1950 -- he became friends with the literary journalist Edmund Wilson, and Wilson opened the door to The New Yorker for him. Nabokov published stories and poems in The New Yorker, but that was still a limited audience. It was when Lolita hit that the whole world knew about him. When the book was finally published in America in 1958, it sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first two weeks. It was the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell at that level.

SIG: And the book took a while to find a U.S. publisher...

RR: He sent the book to all the best publishers, and a lot of them read the book in manuscript and said, "Wow, this is great, but we’ll never publish it because we’d all go to prison." Somebody suggested a publisher in France called the Olympia Press, and that’s who first published this great American novel. That was in 1955.

SIG: I'm not sure if there's a polite way to ask, but did Nabokov have a thing for young girls?

RR: The simple answer is "no." I found no evidence that he ever interfered with a little girl, or was too friendly with one, or a next-door lady complaining. Nothing like that. As far as I could tell, he had a normal, happy marriage. He adored his wife, and she adored him. At that time, you could write about children and not be considered exploitative. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which came out while Nabokov was working on Lolita, is a great example of that. There’s an uncomfortable relationship between Holden Caulfield and his sister. He’s always in her bedroom and sitting on the bed with her.

SIG: How well do you think Lolita holds up?

RR: It holds up like gangbusters. Some of my students are fascinated by it and some are horrified by it, but the descriptions of midcentury America -- the music, the look of the country, the uneasiness -- is dead on.