8 Nabokov Best Books Update 05/2022

Letters to Véra, edited and translated by Olga Voronina and myself, will be out on November 4. They were written by Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf). In the letters, the couple talks about how they met in 1923 and how Nabokov died in 1976. They cover a lot of time. Véra is famous for being Vladimir’s first reader, editor, typist, secretary, and agent, but not as a co-author. In fact, Nabokov once wrote to her: “I read parts of your little card (about moving). I found it very unpleasant.” It’s possible for me to imagine… (out loud to Ilyusha and Zinzin, and they said they now know who writes my books for me.” People who read the books on this top ten list can see glints, shadows, or more of Véra in Sybil Shade in Pale Fire; Zina Mertz in The Gift; Claire Bishop in Speak, Memory; and “you” in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

Martin Amis isn’t the only one who thinks Vladimir Nabokov is the best writer of the twentieth century and that Ulysses is the best single book of the century. Ulysses, on the other hand, has been ranked higher in some lists than the two books below. People who order books don’t have to take them too seriously, but they should take them into their lives.

Pale Fire (1962)

The world’s first and best hypertext novel, and the best book of its time, is made up of crystallized perfection in a broken form. An Appalachian campus poet’s long autobiographical poem is taken over and annotated line by line by his egotistical next door neighbor, whose notes focus on himself and Zembla rather than the poem and the poet. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a torrent of stories, a magical mix of opposites, poetry and prose, solid homeliness and wild exile, sanity and madness, hilarity and heartbreak. At first, the surface looks like a mirror, but beneath it there are endless depths and echoes, sunken cities with doors that lead to more mysteries and wonders.

Lolita (1955)

Nabokov’s most accessible work, told by one of literature’s most seductive monsters, and another book that many people think is the best of the century. At the age of 38, an attractive man who likes young people is looking for and trapping the 12-year-old love of his life, so he can marry her. Perhaps the only work that shocks later readers even more than the people who read it when it was first written. It mixes memory and desire, passion and playfulness, tenderness and cruelty, love and its opposites: lust, self-love, hatred. As we read again, we learn more about the hunter and the hunted. There are many different ways the hunter is hunted. Because Lolita is so easy to get to, we may still not be able to figure out more about it than even the worlds of Pale Fire and Ada.

Ada (1969) 

Ada; Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov - First edition - 1969  - from Evening Star Books (

One of Nabokov’s most controversial works. Many people don’t like this story about a brother and sister who are in love with each other very much. Others think it’s one of Nabokov’s best works. It’s undoubtedly his most important work, and it’s a story match for Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s full of topsy-turvy pairings, paradise and hell, ardent youth and lecherous old age, and a literary, amorous, and culinary feast, from elegy and romanticism to steampunk. A lot of people think that Nabokov can’t separate himself from his super-talented hero and heroine. People who love it think that he’s criticizing the abuse of privilege of every kind, from wealth to birth order.

Speak, Memory (1951)

If you think Nabokov is the best writer of prose in English, or even in any language, this is a big deal. It has a lot of the qualities that Nabokov thought made the best fiction: precision, control, radiance, force, attention to unique people and places, shapeliness in history and time, and subtly hidden themes.

The Gift (1938)

To many Russian readers, Nabokov’s greatest work. An émigré writer in Berlin, his quick mind engaging with his slow world, discovers his true art and his true love. Fyodor does not let us see until the end that the love story that emerges only halfway through this long novel has actually shaped it from the start, a recognition that magically redeems what had seemed his lost time. Nabokov challenges Proust and Joyce in his portrait of an artist discovering how to render his life into art, his frustration into fulfillment. At the same time he offers his amplest exploration of Russia’s literary heritage, in the nineteenth century and in the emigration, and its historical fate and geographical spread, east into Asia and west into exile. Orhan Pamuk has learned much from this novel.

The Defense (or The Luzhin Defense, 1930) 

In one of Nabokov’s best stories, a chess genius finds chess patterns in the real world just when that has begun to mean so much more to him. This is one of the two most heartwarming stories in Nabokov’s entire body of work. During the game, Luzhin’s charming but painful awkwardness in everyday life fades away, but his supreme concentration there makes it even more difficult to return to the real world.

Luzhin Defense: Nabokov, Vladimir: 9780141196930: Amazon.com: Books

Pnin (1957) 

Another of Nabokov’s most heartwarming books. Prof. Pnin, with his hard-to-understand English, looks like a funny person on campus. But inside, he is selfless, dedicated, infinitely lonely, and so sad that it hurts. The novel looks at humor and sympathy, dislocation and human displacement, and how people move. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fake version of Nabokov or not. Pnin’s precarious independence is now in danger.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)

It was Nabokov’s first book in English, and it was written by a Russian émigré, V., about his half-English brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. V. seems to be re-enacting his brother’s crazy stories as he tries to find Knight and the woman who may have caused his death. So much so that the biography itself starts to look like one of Knight’s stories. Parading is used as a way to get to the highest emotions in this light, quick book. It talks about life and love in a way that is painfully close to what Nabokov felt at the time.

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