Among recent gifts to Harvard Library, the papers and books of the Nabokov family—Vladimir Nabokov, his wife Véra, and his son Dmitri—takes pride of place. Jointly stewarded by Houghton Library and the Museum of Comparative Zoology (where Nabokov was curator of lepidoptery), the collection was given to Harvard University by the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation. While most Nabokov papers reside at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, these materials were retained by Dmitri until his death in 2012. The papers are now being cataloged and will be available for research in 2019. In this post, we’ll focus on one of the richly annotated books that came with the collection.
While the collection includes numerous books by and about Vladimir Nabokov, annotated with corrections, questions, disputations, and other interferences, this book served a more workaday purpose: it is a Russian grammar, printed in 1942 and evidently used in teaching the subject. In the years during and following World War II, Nabokov taught Russian grammar and literature as a lecturer at Wellesley College. He was an established author in his homeland then, but a new arrival and relative unknown in the United States, and it would be another decade before Lolita would propel him both to fame and to infamy. In 1977, the New Yorker published an account of Nabokov’s Russian literature course from a student’s perspective, available
The grammar text is densely annotated throughout, as Nabokov organized lessons and emphasized exercises; he also made corrections to the text in both Russian and English. Nabokov introduced the study of Russian language and literature to Wellesley, as wartime alliance with the U.S.S.R. spurred academic interest in the subject; this textbook is evidence of his process as he worked to bring his first language across to a new culture and a new generation. For example, a flyleaf in the rear of the book illustrates the complexity of Russian verbs —a difficulty for his students which Nabokov likely anticipated. Here Nabokov has written out twelve different ways of saying, “I read” (Я читаю) and “I write” (Я пишу) in the past tense.
Turning toward the volume’s endpapers, we find evidence of Nabokov’s multifarious intellect: blank leaves at the front and back are covered with observations on butterflies from Nabokov the lepidopterist. (For more on his six-year tenure at MCZ, see this post from the Ernst Mayr Library’s blog.) To add another layer, the books and papers in this collection also reflect Nabokov’s interest in, and authorship of, chess problems. Collectively, they offer new lenses through which to see this eminent literary family.
The books annotated by Vladimir Nabokov are available for research at Houghton Library, and can be found in HOLLIS.
From Houghton Library. Thanks to bibliographic assistant Ryan Wheeler for contributing this post.