6. Vladimir Nabokov boasted he could write world-class literature in three languages, even if he thought in images rather than words
Twentieth-century literary titan Vladimir Nabokov may have had Russian as his mother tongue, but he became a worldwide sensation writing in English. His most-famous novel Lolita caused a huge scandal when it was published in 1955. And, thanks to its controversial topic, it continues to provoke to this day. But Lolita was far from Nabokov’s only work of note. He published dozens of works over a 40-year career, making full use of his language skills to craft fine prose for a global audience.
Nabokov was born just before the turn of the century, in Saint Petersburg in 1899. Due to his family’s social status, they were forced to flee Russia with the 1917 Revolution, moving to the Crimea and then to England. It was here that Nabokov enrolled at the prestigious University of Cambridge to read Slavic and Romance languages. In the 1920s, the family moved again, this time to Germany. In Berlin, Nabokov spent much of his time within the Russian exile community. He learned little German but did begin writing and before long was making a name for himself.
Rising anti-Semitism during the 1930s forced Nabokov and his family to move to the United States. Here, he started writing in English after more than a decade penning novels and essays in Russian. The great man of letters himself boasted that he was ‘trilingual’, able to speak and write in English, French and Russia. This was alongside his ability to speak some German, as well as Czech and Ukrainian. However, despite his language skills, Nabokov once revealed that he never actually thought in words anyway. Rather, he claimed to always think in images, and he believed that this was reflected in his writing.