Lolita‘s huge success and popularity caused some of Nabokov’s older works to be more thoroughly scrutinized. A lot of them were originally written in Russian and had to be translated into English. These works were critically acclaimed by critics as more and more people began to realize that Nabokov’s genius extended beyond Lolita.
Lolita was not his longest, most ambitious, most experimental, or most inarguably brilliant book. A lot of Nabokovian literature reached stylistic and structural heights that few books have surpassed since then.
His worlds are very original, free, tightly patterned, and deeply layered. A lot of his works defied a set interpretation and remain so open-ended that the hunt for meaning, the chase for his purpose became as much important as the meaning itself.
Published in 1955, Lolita is about a middle-aged man’s pedophilic obsession with a 12-year-old girl.
Competent and beautifully constructed rhetoric is used to present prolonged sexual abuse on a minor as a legitimate love story in the mold of the greatest romantic novels of the ages.
Fooled by the central character’s charm, early, unnuanced reviews of the novel dismissed it as pornography. But Lolita’s depth and brilliance would eventually win over and secure Lolita’s reputation as one of the greatest books ever written.
Lolita has been listed on Time’s list of the 100 best novels, Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, among others.
2. Pale Fire
Dubbed the “greatest novel of the century” by Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s award-winning biographer, Pale Fire is noted for its unusual, complicated but perfectly executed hypertextual style. The book features a long poem by a campus poet as well as a commentary by his egoistic neighbor.
Told in typically gorgeous language, a flurry of possibilities, questions and motivations lurk behind what appears to be a simple poem and annotation. Pale Fire promises a joyful and rewarding ride.
Set in the fictional Earth-clone, Antithera, Ada is the reminiscent story of a 90 year-olds incestuous relationship with his sister over time. Like Lolita, the novel adopts a provocative theme to explore deeper concepts about the passage of time and other themes.
David Potter describes the novel as “an unstable blending of contradictions, jarring fantastical elements, and hallucinated temporalities.” Ada‘s controversial theme of incest has attracted divisive review critics who have proved unable or unwilling to disentangle Nabokov the author from his characters. Ada offers a moving critique on abuse of privilege, intelligence, wealth, class, confidence, and energy, among other themes.
Pnin is Nabokov’s first success in the United States. The story, closely mirroring Nabokov’s own life, follows the adventures of the Russian-born eponymous character, Pnin, at the fictional Waindell college.
Anecdotal accounts from his former students at Wellesly where Nabokov taught have linked some of Pnin’s comedic idiosyncrasies to Nabokov’s real-life mannerisms. A number of characters also bear resemblance to characters in the academic world Nabokov interacted with during his stints in the U.S.
Pnin represents not just a funny, near-biographical take on that flamboyant Russian literary and academic heavyweight, but also a heartwarming story that according to Boyd examines among other themes “humor, sympathy, dislocation and human displacement”.
5. Speak Memory
Speak, Memory (1951) is a finely written autobiographical memoir of Vladimir Nabokov’s life. It covers his life from the early years in his parent’s Russian home in1903 until his emigration to America in 1940.
For a writer often described as one of the greatest prose writers of all time, Speak, Memory has been lauded as Nabokov’s finest prose. Nabokov tells the story of his life in precise detail and is able to evoke great feelings with his narration. The book still manages to, in typical Nabokov fashion, interweave subtly concealed themes. The book was listed among the 100 best non-fiction books of all time by Time Magazine and has maintained very high critical acclaim since its publication.