Women in Nabokov’s Life and Art

by Nailya Garipova (Volume editor) Juan José Torres Núñez (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 272 Pages


Despite the considerable amount of criticism that Vladimir Nabokov’s literary legacy has produced since the sixties, the studies on his female characters are scarce, except the ones on Lolita. This volume delves into Nabokov’s women from different perspectives and points of view. The contributions are from different parts of the world, some from prominent scholars. These Nabokovians study the gender issue in Nabokov’s life and art, paying tribute to his women. The volume has two closely connected parts. In the first one, the reader can find biographical essays that discuss the role of the real women in Nabokov’s life and how their love, support and suffering are reflected in his prose. The second part deals with Nabokov’s women in his fiction. There is a discussion of the representation of female voices.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: the gallery of Nabokov’s women
  • Part I: Women in Nabokov’s Life
  • “An ideal spouse for a writer”: the reality and myths in Véra Nabokov’s life
  • Véra’s role in Nabokov’s life and prose
  • Remorse and Nabokov’s women
  • Carmencita: Valentina Shulgina. The evolution of Eros in Nabokov’s work
  • “Or of the air itself”: Nabokov’s “mothers” as bearers of spiritual understanding
  • Part II: Women in Nabokov’s Art
  • Intriguing patterns
  • Fetching yet faithless: problematic mistresses in Nabokov’s fiction
  • The Nabokovian society woman: a Kirchner’s cocotte?
  • “A weird place”: Nabokov and the topography of the foreign governess
  • Inaccessible female voices
  • Narrating her own absence: the narrator and protagonist of A Slice of Life
  • Making sense of death: inaccessible women in Nabokov’s short stories
  • Individual portraits
  • An invisible harlequin in Nabokov’s last novel: “You” in the protagonist’s world and afterworld
  • ‘Fires of my loins’: female characters in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


Introduction: the gallery of Nabokov’s women

The recent publication of the book Letters to Véra reveals Nabokov’s lifelong love, tenderness and passion of one of the most important women in his life, Véra. These letters bring back the gender issue in Nabokov’s life and art. Looking at all his writings – poetry, critical essays, translations, drama, novels, short stories, and especially those works with the names of the female protagonists in their titles (Mary, Lolita, Ada, The Original of Laura, “Natasha”, “Colette” or “Mademoiselle O”), or with female-like titles (“A Russian Beauty” or “The Vane Sisters”) – we are surprised to see that very few scholars have written on Nabokov’s female characters. Despite the considerable amount of criticism that his literary legacy has produced since the sixties, the studies on Nabokov’s female characters are scarce (except the ones on Lolita).

This volume discusses women in Nabokov from diverse perspectives and points of view. The contributions are from different parts of the world, some from very well-known scholars, who study the gender issue in Nabokov’s life and art. These Nabokovians want to pay tribute to Nabokov’s women, giving them a name and a right place in history.

In the structure of this volume one important feature of Nabokov’s legacy has been considered: the so-called “impact” of the writer’s life on his fiction (Shajovskaya 1991, Gurbolikova 1995, Nosik 2000, among many others). An attentive reader can find easily echoes of Nabokov’s real life reflected in his prose. Events from the writer’s life have clearly influenced his art, but like his hero, what Nabokov does is to “shuffle, twist, mix, rechew and rebelch everything, add such spices of [his] own and impregnate things so much with [himself] that nothing remains of the autobiography but dust – the kind of dust, of course, which makes the most orange of skies” (Gift, 331–32). Nevertheless, as Kuzmanovich (2005: 28) points out, “tracing a single motif among Nabokov’s life and work remains for both, novices and experts, a necessary process and fairly rewarding way of reading his work”.

← 9 | 10 →Bearing Kuzmanovich’s words in mind, the present volume has two closely connected parts. In the first one, the reader can find biographical essays that discuss the role of the real women – Valentina Shulgina, Véra, Elena and Irina – in Nabokov’s life and how their love, support and torments are reflected in his prose. The second part deals with Nabokov’s women in his art. There is a discussion of the representation of female voices in his works.

The famous quotation “behind every successful man there is a woman” by Graucho Marx, can be used in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. As Saul Steinberg wrote, “it would be difficult to write about Véra without mentioning Vladimir. But it would be impossible to write about Vladimir without mentioning Véra” (quoted in Schiff, 1999: xiv). To attain the title of an “ideal spouse for a writer” is difficult enough, but it is more difficult to keep it for good. However, as ELENA UKHOVA shows in the article that opens this volume, it became possible for Véra, who was Nabokov’s muse and critic, secretary and editor, literary agent, lecture assistant, driver and the mother of his only child. Ukhova focuses on Véra as a person and as a woman, with her worries and dreams, with her virtues and her defects, and as the artist’s ideal partner. She believes that Nabokov’s success has been possible thanks to Véra’s support.

In the second article we see that one of the most original writers in the world, Nabokov, is equally renowned for his marriage. ALEXANDRA POPOFF argues that Véra’s creative partnership with Nabokov was typical for their time and milieu. According to her, far from being unparalleled, the Nabokovs’ marriage reflected a cultural trend of their country of origin. Popoff also examines the effects of the close marriage over time and the presence of Véra in Nabokov’s fiction.

However, the undoubtedly notorious lifelong marriage of Nabokov and Véra, called “cloudless”, could be argued. Nabokov’s short but intense affair with Irina Guadanini, which has been an open secret for years, proves it. Although it has been considered by some scholars as an insignificant and fleeting flirt in Nabokov’s life, it is obvious that Irina left her mark on his life and art. FRANCES PELTZ ASSA shows us that the memory of Irina was too important to Nabokov to be dealt with by archetype. Her essay discusses Irina’s presence in Nabokov’s works as a prototype for some of his female characters. Through a close analysis of Nina from “Spring in Fialta”, Frances Peltz Assa demonstrates that this character is created with tenderness, and effectively achieves ← 10 | 11 →the emotion of pity for her, and something less complimentary, for the narrator.

Apart from the devoted and widely praised Véra, and somewhat “dismissed” and dangerous Irina, there was another woman in Nabokov’s life who left an indelible memory in his legacy: Valentina (Liusia) Shulgina. PRISCILLA MEYER writes about Nabokov’s first love and her influence on his works. According to her, Nabokov came to associate Liusia with Carmen because of her likeness to the opera singer, Liubov’ Alexandrovna Del’mas, who sang the role of Carmen in Saint Petersburg. PRISCILLA MEYER shows how Nabokov crafts the theme of first love using the figure of Carmen, heightening his commentary on the distortions brought about by nostalgia. Meyer also traces the evolution of the Liusia-Carmen theme and its connection with sexual obsession in Nabokov’s mature works.

Another woman who played an essential role in Nabokov’s life was his mother Elena, who affectionately nurtured his personality and nourished his interests. NORA SCHOLZ studies Elena’s “heritage” in Nabokov’s novels. She focuses on his deep connection with his mother through his spiritual insight and explains how it is reflected in the relationship between fictional mothers and sons.

The second part of the book opens with JULIAN CONNOLLY’s discussion of the recurrence of a curious pattern in Nabokov’s depiction of male-female relations. In several works, a male protagonist or narrator seems to be deeply infatuated with a woman who appears to be somewhat shallower or more conventional than he is (or at least, that is how he sees it). While in some of the early works, the narrator or main figure holds himself out to be more sensitive than the object of his love, the reader cannot be sure how accurate this self-assessment is. As time progresses, however, Nabokov complicates the situation by depicting the male figure as clearly flawed, or by suggesting that the female figure is more complex and interesting than the male might give her credit for. Connolly presents a close analysis and explication of this intriguing pattern in Nabokov’s work.

Continuing the exploration of recurrent patterns in the depiction of an ambivalent Nabokov’s woman, ALEXIA GASSIN looks at the society whore in his works. She analyses in detail all the characteristics to underline the parody of the society woman that Nabokov presents. Her study of a central figure of Berlin, namely the prostitute, in Nabokov’s ← 11 | 12 →novels and short stories provides an effective way of showing the influence of the German culture in his works.

Another repeated pattern in the use of female voices is that of a foreign governess. As SABINE METZGER asserts, the governess’s role may be marginal among Nabokov’s female voices, but within his oeuvre she is by no means marginalized. Generically, Nabokov grants the figure of the governess an outstanding position at the intersection of fiction and autobiography. Never fully at home in their employers’ country, and never at home again in their native country when the world of her employers has ceased to exist, the foreign governess seems to belong nowhere, and the “weird place” comes to stand for this condition of essential not-belonging. As Metzger points out, the “weird place” unfolds a topography of the foreign governess, addressing her topos or place in Nabokov’s works.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
Vladimir Nabokov Biography Fiction Life Art Women
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 272 pp.

Biographical notes

Nailya Garipova (Volume editor) Juan José Torres Núñez (Volume editor)

Nailya Garipova teaches an M.A. course on Culture and Literature at the University of Almeria, Spain. She holds a Ph.D. in English, with a thesis on Language and Culture in Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels. She has published essays and books on Nabokov, contemporary literature and foreign language teaching. Juan José Torres Núñez teaches English and American literature at the University of Almeria, Spain. He holds a Ph.D. on Theatre Arts. He has written on various authors, including Nabokov, and co-edited the volume Estudios de literatura norteamericana: Nabokov y otros autores contemporáneos. He is the author of bilingual plays, English/Spanish, five poetry collections and a novel.


Title: Women in Nabokov’s Life and Art