The Ambassadors For Sale
The Ambassadors
James, Henry
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Vladimir Nabokov

The name of Vladimir Nabokov will always be associated with that of "Lolita", his most famous fictional character. Before the publication of "Lolita", he was not a widely known author, but he shot to fame in the 1950s, following the publication of this story of the obsessive love of a middle-aged man for a young girl. However, the enigmatic "Pale Fire" which followed "Lolita" in this country soon lost the interest of his temporarily wider readership.

Nowadays it is for "Lolita" that Nabokov is chiefly remembered. In a sense this is a pity, as there are many other of Nabokov's novels that are as accessible as "Lolita", and most are permeated with his bizarre sense of humour. However, despite the fact that Nabokov does not have a wide audience, those who are interested in collecting his work are prepared to pay high prices for his early editions. For example, the first edition of his first book to be published in England, "Camera Obscura", is valued at around 500 without a dust-wrapper.

From the collector's point of view, there are problems with Nabokov's first editions. The true firsts of his books have been in Germany, France and America with the UK first editions following, in some cases, decades later. This article is concerned chiefly with the US and UK first editions.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in Saint Petersburg on April 2nd 1899, into an aristocratic Russian family. His father was a politician, and a member of the Russian parliament dissolved by the Tsar in 1906. Nabokov spent a happy childhood in Russia, and in 1916 inherited a small fortune and a large country estate when an uncle died. In this year he also had his first book of poems published privately.

His birthright was lost in the Russian revolution. In many of his novels, like "Ada", there are passages which are drawn from Nabokov's childhood, and there is an impression of nostalgia for something lost forever. In his autobiography, Nabokov is at pains to point out that his sorrow is not for loss of his estate and fortune, but for the loss of his childhood. His family fled to escape the revolution, and then fled Russia in 1919 to Greece. From there he proceeded to Europe, and eventually to England where Nabokov entered Cambridge University.

In 1921 his father was assassinated at a political meeting in Berlin. His murderers were two Russian right-wing extremists who mistook him for another man. Years later Nabokov's brother also suffered at the hands of right-wingers. He died in a German concentration camp in the Second World War.

It is surprising, perhaps, that despite this in many ways tragic personal background, most of Nabokov's novels are laced with a sense of humour which surfaces in the most unlikely situations. This humour is sometimes very black (as in the murderous chase through a house in "Lolita"), but always lively and entertaining.

Nabokov graduated from Cambridge in 1922, and in 1923 the family moved to Berlin. In 1925, he married Vera Evseevna Slonim. In 1934 their only child, Dmitri, was born. He collaborated with his father on translation into English of Nabokov's work many years later.

1926 saw the publication in Berlin of his novel "Mashenka". This book, like most of his Russian work, was published under his pseudonym of Vladimir Sirin. It was initially published in Russian, and the English translation by Michael Gleeny in collaboration with Nabokov, did not appear until 1970 (New York). The first English translation of "Mary" is quite easy to find. It is a significant book to have in a collection as it is Nabokov's first novel. It is a short book, not of great literary significance, but it does contain many elements that appear in later novels.

Nabokov admits in his autobiography, "Memory" that the girl Mary is based on Tamara, a pseudonym for the girl with whom he had his first love affair. He talks about her at length in "Speak Memory", and remembers with affection days spent with her on his estate in Russia.

ln 1928, his second novel "King, Queen, Knave" was published. As the title suggests, this book explores a traditional triangle of emotions when a young man falls in love with an older married woman. Elements of the book are farcical, with the lovers nearly being discovered a number of times by the unsuspecting husband. The story takes a more sinister turn when his wife plots his murder, but the attempts of the would-be assassins appear doomed to failure and seem more comic than macabre. This is less complex than many of Nabokov's later novels, but it is one of the most popular and a good introduction to his work.

1930 saw the publication in Berlin of "The Defence". This novel tells the story of the life and death of a chess grandmaster. The chess theme is one that recurs through-out Nabokov's novels. He had a great interest in chess in general, and chess problems in particular. In "Speak Memory", he mentions with some pride the publication of a two-move problem of his own invention. Some more of his problems are published alongside some poems in "Poems and Problems" (1970, US only).

In "The Defence", the grandmaster Luzhin is obsessed with the game. He sees the relationships between external objects as potential 'moves', and his inability to deal with reality eventually brings about his destruction. The use of chess as a theme by Nabokov is not a surprising one, as it gives a believable background to the manic characters who recur in his novels. The world of chess is one that continues to throw up more than its fair share of eccentrics and neurotics.

The short spy story "The Eye" appeared in Russia in 1930, and in 1932 "Glory" appeared. This is a rather rambling story of an emigre Russian, and for me is not one of Nabokov's most memorable novels.

All of these early novels appeared in English translations during the 1960s and 1970s, and none of them is particularly scarce. Details of the U.S. and U.K. first editions are given in the bibliography.

The first Nabokov novel to appear in English was "Camera Obscura". In 1932, the novel was published in Paris, with the English translation issued here (by 'V. Sirin') in 1936. It is very scarce, and a Very Good copy in dust wrapper could fetch around 1,000+. The first edition issued in America in 1938 was greatly revised, and retitled "Laughter in the Dark". This edition appeared in the U.K. published by Weidenfeld in 1961.

In the story, Nabokov again explores the emotional triangle of wife, husband and mistress. The happily married husband Albinus seeks sexual fulfilment with an usher that he meets at a cinema. His marriage is destroyed and he loses his wife and daughter. He is besotted with his lover, but she secretly sees one of her own former lovers, and they prey on their hapless victim. The bizarre twist in the plot which gives the story its title occurs when Albinus is in an accident and loses his sight.

Nabokov did not earn enough money to live purely by his writing until the publication of "Lolita" in 1958. He supplemented his income during his time in Germany in various ways. These included compiling crossword puzzles and chess problems for emigre Russian - newspapers. He also produced a number of translations from and into Russian including Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland".

A notable feature of his books is wordplay, in which he indulges in many of his novels. Some of it is very simple, for example the reversal of a character called Odon in "Pale Fire" to give his brother's name Nodo. Other examples are far more complex, and require a knowledge of Russian, English and sometimes other Euro-pean languages to grasp their full extent.

Seeing the point of these wordplays is something similar to the pleasure in solving cryptic crossword puzzles. However, they are not intrusive in the sense that if they can not be seen (I don't know a word of Russian and probably miss the point of many of them), they do not detract from the pleasure in reading the book.

In 1936, "Despair" was published in Russian. This is another exploration of the emotional triangle. The twist here is that the narrator, Hermann, attempts to murder his double, a tramp, whom he meets in Prague. The object is to pass off the tramp as himself and get his wife to claim the life insurance money. The use of doubles and mirror images is another recurrent theme in Nabokov's work. Nabokov translated the novel into English himself, and it was published (by 'V. Nabokoff-Sirin') in 1937. It is another rare title, and a VG copy without d/w would fetch 300-400. Revised editions were issued by Weidenfeld in the UK. and Putnam in the U.S. in 1966. These should cost around 15 each.

In 1937-38 "The Gift" appeared in serial form in a Russian emigre magazine, 'Sovremennye Zapiski'. The novel did not appear in book form until, 1952, when a Russian version was published in New York. The English translation by Nabokov was published in 1963. The book is held to be one of Nabokov's best novels. It is a complex one, containing the 'biographies' of three people, written by the fictional character Fyodor Godunov. Two of these people are fictional, while the third, Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevski, was a Russian radical of the 19th century. The story of his life as told by Godunov was censored in the novel. In a curious case of life imitating art, that particular chapter of the book was censored in the first publication of "The Gift" in serial form.

One of the fictional characters in "The Gift" was an expert in lepidoptery, and next to writing, this was Nabokov's other main interest in life. It was also one in which he was singularly successful. In "Speak Memory" there is a whole chapter devoted to his introduction to the world of butter-flies. He found a number of books in a store-room in his parents' country house in Russia, the titles of which would excite many collectors of natural history books.

In 1937, the Nabokovs left Berlin and moved to Paris, to escape the rise of the Nazis in Germany. The following year, the short, curious novel "Invitation to a Beheading" was published. This was the last of his novels to be published in Russian, with the English version appearing in 1959. Nabokov's change from writing in Russian to writing in English was a painful one. In a postscript to "Lolita", he says that "My private tragedy . . . is that I had to abandon my natural idiom... for a second-rate brand of English." However, his later novels in English have such control of the language, that it is impossible to tell that it is not his native tongue.

In 1940, the Nabokovs again successfully evaded the Nazis when they set sail for the United States. Here Nabokov earned his living by teaching at Wellesley College, and serving as a Research Fellow in the Museum Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He came an American citizen in 1945, and he lived in America until 1960 when he returned to Europe to live in Switzerland. From 1948 to 1959 he lectured in Russian literature at Cornell University. In 1973 he was awarded the American National Medal for Literature.

The first of Nabokov's English novels "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" is the story of a young author, recently deceased, written by his brother. It was published in America in 1941, with the U.K. edition following in 1945; both books are scarce. In 1944, Nabokov's critical memoir of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol was published in America. This is worth around 60, as is the U.K. edition published three years later.

The next novel was "Bend Sinister", a hard-hitting indictment of totalitarianism and the people it brings to power. It is remarkable because Nabokov appears to be more involved in his subject matter than he is in his other novels. It is an excellent and harrowing novel, culminating in the abduction by the authorities of the philosopher Krug's young son.

The autobiography of the first half of Nabokov's life "Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir" appeared in America in 1951 and in the U.K. later that year. A revised edition entitled "Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited" was published in the 1960s. This is a thoroughly entertaining book, and contains considerable detail on Nabokov's family and background, as well as his early years of writing. Both the U.K. and U.S. firsts are scarce and could sell for up to 100.

In 1955, his third English novel appeared, not in the U.S, where it was considered too risque for publication, but in Paris (in 2 vols) published by the Olympia Press. The book was "Lolita", which was a turning point for Nabokov as it became a bestseller and enabled him to devote his efforts to writing full-time. The Paris edition is rare, and unlikely to change hands for less than 100. The U.S. and U.K. firsts published in 1958 and 1959 respectively are much easier to find, as they had large first editions following the success of the book in France.

The book itself is the story of the obsessive love of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert for the twelve-year-old girl, Dolores Haze ("Lolita"). Humbert is entranced by the girl as soon as he meets her, and goes to extraordinary lengths to stay with her. He marries her mother, although his loathing for her is apparent from the start of the book. Eventually he takes off with Lolita in his car, but of course their relationship is doomed to failure.

The theme of the novel was, and still is, a controversial issue. In fact, the sexual side of the relationship of Humbert and his 'nymphet' is tackled in a very restrained way by Nabokov. However, he was hounded by both book critics and moralists for daring to write about this taboo subject. From "Lolita" onwards, Nabokov's U.K. first editions are much easier to find, and none of them should cost the collector more than about 30.

The next novel was the excellent "Pnin" (1957). It tells the story of Timofey Pnin, who is a Russian emigre living and teaching in America. He has had an unlucky life in some ways, and an unhappy marriage. He is one of Nabokov's most likable and enduring characters, and the series of episodes in his life are narrated with great wit and humour.

1962 saw the publication of the remarkable novel "Pale Fire". This book is a preface and commentary by one Charles Kinbote of "Pale Fire", a poem of one thousand lines in four cantos by John Shade. It is made clear early on that Shade is recently deceased, and the mode of his death is revealed gradually in the notes to the poem. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles Kinbote is a madman, and has been hounding Shade and his wife with stories of the king of a distant land, 'Zembla'. Kinbote endeavours to persuade Shade to write his poem about King Charles, and tries to read references to Zembla into the poem that he annotates after Shade's death. In fact, the poem is a beautifully written story about the tragic death of Shade's daughter.

If this sounds complicated, it is. The novel can be read at many different levels: as the tragic but moving poem; the romantic tale of the escape of a king from his country; a parody of literary criticism, and many others. It is a bizarre, unique and outstanding book.

Nabokov's last major novel was "Ada" (1969) which tells the story of a lifelong love affair between the woman of the title and Van, the narrator. The description of the house, 'Ardis' in which Van was brought up is excellent, and the whole epic tale told with great sensitivity.

His remaining two novels were "Transparent Things" (1973) and "Look at the Harlequins" (1974). Neither of these novels has the originality of his earlier work.

Nabokov also wrote a large number of short stories. Many of these originally appeared in the "New Yorker" or emigre magazines, and were later published in a number of collections which are detailed in the bibliography. Some of them are very well constructed and show Nabokov to be a gifted short story teller. Some poems and essays were also published, and some of his lectures appeared after his death in 1977.

Interest in Nabokov, and particularly in "Lolita" has increased recently with the publication of an English translation of "The Enchanter" by his son Dmitri. This is described in "Lolita" as the 'first throb' of that book and was written in Russia in 1939. The novel itself is very different from "Lolita", and lacks its sparkle. However, it is a fascinating addition to a Nabokov collection and interesting from a literary point of as an idea that was to result in a best-selling novel seventeen years later.

The publication of "The Enchanter" will reinforce the association of Nabokov and "Lolita".

It is difficult at present to judge where he will be placed in the hierarchy of English literature. Few authors have attracted such a diversity of views from literary critics.

From the collector's point of view, with renewed interest in Nabokov following the publication of a new book, the early first editions can only increase in value. It is also unlikely that the comparatively low prices of the later first editions will last for long.

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