Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire, is often viewed as unconcerned with morality and sympathetic issues by disregarding tragic events in history. But on Thursday night at the Ripley Center, Andrea Pitzer, author of newly released The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, led the crowd to wonder: How could he not remember history?
During Thursday’s program, Nabokov’s Secrets, Pitzer delved into Nabokov’s past. Born in Russia to an affluent family, he had to flee his perfect childhood when his father brought him and his brother to the train station, made the sign of the cross over them, and said they may never see him alive again. Shortly after, his father was assassinated. He stayed in Berlin as a Russian communist when Hitler rose to power. He fled Nazi Germany for Belgium, London, and France. France then fell into war, so he relocated to the United States in 1940. There Nabokov wrote and gained recognition for his novels, taught at Cornell, and finally moved to Switzerland.
Pitzer joked that after Nabokov’s success with Lolita, he became “a celebrity—the Kim Kardashian of his time… sort of.” She referenced Nabokov and his family’s fantastical life of apocalypse fears, escapes to Casablanca, refugees disguised as spies, and life in Hollywood. But these amusing anecdotes served as a cover for the dark history hidden in Nabokov’s writing.
Pitzer recounted how Nabokov has “woven the past in his book in ways that have often been missed.” The audience warbled hmms and huhs as she integrated fascinating facts throughout the presentation, like how Nabokov never mentioned the word “Jew” or “Judaism” throughout Lolita, but he did write about a German girl refugee, 90% of whom at the time were Jewish.
In a 1962 interview, Nabokov said Pale Fire “is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find.” In a successful attempt to discover these “plums,” Pitzer traveled to Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, as well as visited archives and conducted interviews in several American cities to unearth Nabokov’s past, resulting in an engaging, well-paced glimpse into Nabokov’s life and writing.