Vladimir Nabokov and the Jews

'Lolita' Author Was Outspoken Critic of Anti-Semitism

Defender of the Jewish People: Growing up in a privileged family, Vladimir Nabokov opposed anti-semitism on both moral and aesthetic grounds.
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Defender of the Jewish People: Growing up in a privileged family, Vladimir Nabokov opposed anti-semitism on both moral and aesthetic grounds.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published May 14, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Marrying Véra Slonim, from a St. Petersburg Jewish family, in 1925, only strengthened Nabokov’s convictions. In [“The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,” a well-researched, artful 2011 novel by Paul Russell about Nabokov’s brother, a fictional, but credible, letter from Nabokov’s mother is quoted, written shortly after his wedding: “Really, she’s a most extraordinary woman, this Véra Slonim. Very intelligent, very literate, but then the Jews have always been so, haven’t they? That’s why they’re so envied, which is the real reason they’re so despised.”

“The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov” details how Nabokov’s brother was arrested in wartime Austria in 1943 for daring to utter anti-Nazi statements; he was deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, where he died of dysentery and starvation. Following in the family tradition, in 1930s Berlin his brother Vladimir had, as Russell describes it, “made a point of entering each shop that had been marked with a yellow Star of David… he made himself visible, a Gentile publicly flaunting the boycott.”

Yet even after being forced to flee Europe on a ship chartered by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Nabokov did not over-idealize his adopted land. As related in Boyd’s biography, one professor at New York’s Columbia University complimented Nabokov’s elegant pronunciation of the Russian language, adding, “All one hears here are Yids.” In his travels across 1940s and ’50s America, Nabokov would argue energetically with restaurant or motel owners who catered to only “gentile clientele.”

Both “Pnin” and “The Gift,” an earlier novel, feature Russian gentile characters in love with Jewish women, echoing Nabokov’s own life story. Shrayer has aptly noted, “How strikingly and seamlessly biography dovetails with fiction when Nabokov thinks and writes about the Jews!”

“The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov” would be more striking and seamless had it avoided overwrought prose, as when Pitzer cites some words from an early Nabokov novel, adding: “Many writers, myself included, would weep with gratitude to have written those four sentences.” More troubling, Pitzer advances without convincing proof the “possibility that Nabokov intended Humbert Humbert [the pedophile protagonist of “Lolita”] to be Jewish.” In “Lolita,” when characters are intended to be Jewish they are clearly described as such, since part of Nabokov’s mastery was his control of description, identification and metaphor.


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