Nabokov Carries on Father's Legacy

Always an adventurer, Dmitri Nabokov ’55 accelerated out of Harvard Yard on Commencement Day 50 years ago to embark upon a career studded with a colorful confetti of activity.

His post-graduate path has found him poised behind the wheel of Ferraris and performing operas beside Pavarotti in Milan. He even served a stint in the U.S. Army.

Now that he’s 71, Nabokov, the only son of literary legend Vladimir, is being filmed for Russian television. The crew wants to shoot one of his race cars, perhaps a boat, and to ask him more than 30 questions composed in advance.

While Dmitri seems to have broken into the spotlight, there was once a time when he lived in his father’s shadow.

Since the publication of Vladmir’s famed “Lolita” in 1955, Nabokov has served as executor of his father’s literary estate and as unofficial spokesman for the late author, who also wrote “Pale Fire” and the autobiographical “Speak, Memory.”

More than a custodian of his father’s works, Nabokov has become a jet-setter on his own, splitting his time between Palm Beach and Montreux, Switzerland. Like his father, he plays the prima donna to the media, insisting on interviewing through e-mail with The Crimson and crafting answers in advance for Russian television.


Those who know him describe him as tall and imposing, with a face like his father’s, and one editor calls him “his father’s very best translator.” But Dmitri has accrued a set of accolades and interests all his own.

“His love of fast boats and fast cars and helicopter skiing made him like a James Bond figure,” says Deanne Urmy, editor of “Nabokov’s Butterflies,” a collection of Vladimir’s writings which includes translations by Nabokov.


Nabokov entered Harvard College at age 17—the age he’d like to revert to now, he jokes—and made his own name quickly, starting with the compulsory expository writing program for freshmen. Instead of requiring Nabokov to compose the usual exercises, the instructor let Nabokov write whatever he wanted.

Nabokov went on to concentrate in History and Literature and to live in Lowell House with his older cousin Ivan, who claimed that Nabokov’s priorities in college had been “1) mountain climbing, 2) girls, 3) track, 4) music and 5) my other studies,” Nabokov writes. His entryway, M, also housed the Harvard Mountaineering Club’s office, where Nabokov would spend hours poring over books about faraway peaks and sipping vermouth.

Though he summited a few peaks with his fellow club members, his most memorable excursion was a climb up the sides of Memorial Hall one night. It was the closest he would ever get to the course his father taught on Don Quixote, he jokes.

His father was teaching at Harvard in 1952, which meant that Nabokov could collapse after track practice at his parents’ home to munch on his mother’s blini.

But as he ate, his father would nag Nabokov about his lack of progress on his first professional translation. “A long-suffering, occasionally snow-sprinkled copy of the Russian book sometimes lay for days on the seat of my permanently topless MG-TC,” Nabokov writes, referring to his classic roadster. “Father, when he happened upon the car parked on a nearby street, would meticulously record the page to which the book was opened, and confront me in the evening with my lamentable lack of progress.”

The translation turned out to be a success, eventually finding its way onto syllabi in universities across the country. But the shock waves that his father would send into the literary world three years later had not yet appeared on the radar. “I was still living in a kind of adolescent haze,” Nabokov writes, “unaware of...the full impact that my father’s presence had here, or would have upon world literature.”