Defining Nabokov’s Exile

By Emily Erdmann

As part of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’s lecture series on exiles, “Homesick and Sick of Home,” Miami welcomed Roman Utkin, a Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies professor at Wesleyan University, to present on “Beyond Exile: Nabokov in Berlin and Practices of Not Belonging.”  Utkin’s talk informed students on Berlin’s role as a hub for Russian exiles after the 1917 revolutions and as an influencing agent on Vladimir Nabokov as a writer and anti-assimilationist. Despite Nabokov’s self-proclaimed separation from both the title of “exile” (a label he deemed pejorative) and the act of assimilating, Utkin argued that the 20th century writer was actually molded by his displacement to the extent that his works reflected his location and his transient status.

Nabokov personally takes an unprecedented approach to exile: rather than bemoaning the loss of his homeland, as did his contemporaries, he represents exile as a natural state of being. This concept is best represented in his description of “Eden,” a city zoo composed of bars which exile mankind from the utopia within. Utkin suggested that Eden evokes thoughts of The Fall of Man as the exile of man from paradise. Exile was thus born at the dawn of mankind and is as natural and unavoidable as sin.

Referring to the zoo, Nabokov claims “It is Eden nonetheless, insofar as man is able to reproduce it” (95). To him, exile is but a state of mind, to be reproduced, or expressed, in man’s creation. Utkin quoted Nabokov as having stated that “Any genuine artist emigrates into his own art and abides there.” Art requires creativity—a process which implies the creation of something new. Creating something new, in turn, requires a unique perspective, which ultimately implies that the creator is, at least intellectually, distinct or set apart from a collective.  In this sense, I see the validity in Nabokov’s claim that an artist abides in the exile that is his art; however, I think the exile of an artist is therefore too commonplace, while that of an émigré is more limited and situational to the point where it is merely a coincidence that these two vastly different states of alienation happen to share the same name.  Nabokov is exiled as an artist—able to see life from a different perspective than most, able to view a pipe on a more profound level than anyone before him; however, he is also exiled as an émigré, determined to “make Berlin his own [and] attempt to overcome Berlin’s otherness,” as Utkin put it. An artist may choose to self-alienate; an émigré seldom has a choice.

Jacob Emery, a Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures Associate Professor at Indiana University Bloomington, defined Nabokov’s “double exile” differently, as contingent upon his age. Eric Naiman relays Emery’s argument, which claims that a young Nabokov, “The writer of ‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu,’ had lost his native land [while] the author of “A Guide to Berlin” [had] lost his native tongue” (225). Thus, Nabokov’s temporal location is also a factor in the defining of his exilic state.

I find validity in each definition of Nabokov’s exile. Each argument, from Nabokov himself to Emery, Naiman, and Utkin, revolves around three key marks: geographic exile, assimilation, and time. A unified definition is best clarified and summarized through the following quotations from Nabokov’s short story “The Visit to the Museum.” Nabokov’s narrator laments, “Alas, it was not the Russia I remembered, but the factual Russia of today, forbidden to me, hopelessly slavish, and hopelessly my own native land” (258). Relentlessly attached to his own native land and unable to “shed all the integument of exile” (259), Nabokov, despite his opposition to assimilation and exile as a label, was indeed in a state of perpetual transition—an exile in gradual assimilation. Barred from the Eden he once called home, and yet still hopelessly chained to this past reality, he could not advance to a future outside of exile. Therefore, Nabokov’s identity cannot be defined without exile.

Emily Erdmann is a senior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.


Nabokov, Vladimir. “The Visit to the Museum.” Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to

Yanovsky, edited by Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 249-259.

Nabokov, Vladimir, and Dmitri Nabokov. “A Guide to Berlin.” Details of a Sunset: and Other

Stories, McGraw-Hill International, Inc., 1976, pp. 90–98.

Naiman, Eric. “The Costs of Character: The Maiming of the Narrator in ‘A Guide to

Berlin.’” Nabokov, Perversely, Cornell University Press, 2010, pp. 221–232.

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