Nabokov and the Arthur Legend

I recently discovered that Vladimir Nabokov finished his most famous work, Lolita, in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon. Seeing as how it had been forty years since I had read Lolita, I did some digging: turns out there are some Arthurian links in the famous Russian novelist’s life and work.

Stories of Nabokov, including LANCE

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, including “Lance”, available from Amazon. Click here.

Describing his own childhood as nearly “perfect,” Nabokov grew up trilingual (Russian, French, English) in a wealthy St. Petersburg family. He could read English before he could read Russian. His early literary fare: the legends of King Arthur, his Knights, and the Round Table.

Apparently the early exposure made an impact. In 1952 Nabokov published a short story in The New Yorker entitled “Lance” about an aging medievalist named “Boke” (a futuristic declension of “Nabokov,” presumably) keeping vigil at the bedside of his wounded son Lance, just returned from a failed expedition to Mars. According to Charles Nicol in his article, “Nabokov and Science Fiction: Lance”

…the language and subject matter of medieval romance are frequently invoked in the story. For instance, “if Boke’s sources are accurate, the name ‘Lanceloz del Lac‘ occurs for the first time in Verse 3676 of the twelfth-century ‘Roman de la Charrete.”‘ (The reference is to Chretien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charrette, also known as Conte de la Charrette, or simply Lancelot, which Boke may have read with an English crib; my translation includes the following note: “V. 3676.-The hero of the poem is here first mentioned by name” [Chretien: 372]). This apparenta side actually is a direct identification of Lance (who leaves from the region of the Great Lakes and lands near a Martian “lake”) with Lancelot of the Lake. The comparison of Lance and Lancelot is a continual metaphor, running throughout the story.

Nabokov the Arthurian…who knew?

Categories: Arthur and the Grail and State of Jefferson & the Pacific Northwest.