Vladimir Nabokov Centenary Exhibition

Nabokov Centenary Poster

June - September, 1998

This exhibition on the life and work of Vladimir Nabokov celebrates the confluence of three notable events. First, it commemorates the centenary of Nabokov's birth in 1899. It forms a part of the Cornell Nabokov Centenary Festival, a three-day celebration (September 10-12 1998) hosted by the Department of Russian Literature. Cornell's Nabokov Festival is the first of many such celebrations that will take place around the world over the coming year, as cultural institutions look to honor the achievement of one of this century's literary geniuses.

Second, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Nabokov's arrival in Ithaca, where he came to take up his post as Associate Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell on July 1, 1948. The more than ten years Nabokov spent in Ithaca saw his transformation from a respected but not widely-known émigré writer to one of the most successful authors of the twentieth century.

The books, manuscripts, and photographs in this exhibition chronicle Nabokov's achievements as a writer, scholar and teacher--from his boyhood in Russia, to his years in Berlin and Paris before his emigration to the United States in 1940, to his twenty years in America, and his eventual return to Europe.

Finally, the exhibition celebrates the Library's recent acquisition of several books that once were a part of the Nabokov family library--many of which contain Nabokov's own annotations, drawings, and emendations. These unique volumes, of incalculable value to present and future scholars, were purchased for the Cornell Library through the generosity and foresight of a dedicated group of Cornell alumni. Their joint commitment serves as a moving tribute to Nabokov's remarkable achievement as an artist, and to his indelible place on the Cornell campus.

The Library gratefully acknowledges the generosity of Jon A. Lindseth, '56, Charles W. Lake, Jr., '41, Gail '56 and Steve Rudin, Marylin Friedland, '65, L. William Kay, II, '51, and Stephen C. '83 and Karen L. Parker. Special thanks are extended to Professors James K. Liebherr and Gavriel Shapiro for their contributions to the preparation of this exhibition.

Vladimir Nabokov 1899 - 1977

In many ways Vladimir Nabokov's life was a process of re-invention. Born into the Russian intellectual aristocracy in 1899, Nabokov spent his childhood at the family's estate, Vyra, outside St. Petersburg. His mother fostered what he termed "a perfectly normal trilingual childhood"; his father, a renowned scholar and outspoken liberal, distinguished himself as a jurist. The family fled the Bolshevik revolution in 1919, and eventually joined the growing Russian émigré community in Berlin. The change was to effect Nabokov profoundly; as a young Russian poet, he now found himself dépaysé -- "uncountried" -- separated from the source of his language and his inspiration. Shortly before taking his degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, Nabokov made a visit to his family in Berlin only to confront the death of his father, who was killed while shielding a speaker from an assassin's bullet in 1922. In 1925 He married Véra Slonim, the daughter of a Jewish industrialist also in exile from St. Petersburg. By 1937, life became intolerable in pre-war Berlin, and the Nabokovs--Vladimir, Véra, and their son, Dmitri--fled once again, this time to Paris.

As war pressure mounted, it was clear that Nabokov could not remain in Europe. A refugee again, Nabokov set sail for the United States in 1940. "It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe" he would later comment, "and now I was faced with the task of inventing America." For the next twenty years, until his return to Europe in 1960, Nabokov--and his characters--would 'invent' America during his travels across the country, and at his home in Ithaca.

Nabokov was an Associate Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell from 1948 until 1959. This September, a commemorative plaque will be placed in front of the office he occupied at 278 Goldwin Smith Hall.