Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian novelist best known for Lolita, published in English in 1955, also made considerable contributions as an expert chess strategist and lepidopterist, studying moths and butterflies. His finest novels include Pale Fire (1962) and Speak, Memory (1951), an autobiographical account of being raised in nobility in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Russia and later, as part of a community of Russian emigres in Cambridge, Berlin, and Paris.
Raised in Russian nobility, Nabokov’s father was assassinated by mistake in 1922 trying to shield the real target, Pavel Milyukov from his assassin, the monarchist Piotr Shabelsky-Bork, who would later become second-in-command of the Russian Emigre group. Nabokov’s family fled to New York in 1940 in the face of crushing anti-semitism in Europe and the onslaught of German troops. Not all of his family survived; Nabokov’s brother, Sergei, died in a concentration camp in 1945.
Nabokov was an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, before joining Wellesley College as the chair of the Comparative Literature Department in 1941. He founded their Russian Department, completed a US lecture tour, then returned to Wellesley and became a naturalized US citizen in 1945. He taught at Cornell University from 1948 to 1959; one of his students was Thomas Pynchon. During his regular summer butterfly catching trips to the western U.S., he completed Lolita in Ashland, Oregon in 1953.
After the great financial success of Lolita, Nabokov moved to Montreaux, Switzerland, where he dedicated himself exclusively to writing for the remainder of his life.