Novelist Vladimir Nabokov witnessed the horrors of his century, escaping Revolutionary Russia then Germany under Hitler, and fleeing France with his Jewish wife and son just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis. He repeatedly faced accusations of turning a blind eye to human suffering to write artful tales of depravity. But does one of the greatest writers in the English language really deserve the label of amoral aesthete bestowed on him by so many critics? Using information from newly-declassified intelligence files and recovered military history, journalist Andrea Pitzer argues that far from being a proponent of art for art's sake, Vladimir Nabokov managed to hide disturbing history in his fiction-history that has gone unticed for decades. Nabokov emerges as a kind of documentary conjurer, spending the most productive decades of his career recording a saga of forgotten concentration camps and searing bigotry, from World War I to the Gulag and the Holocaust. Lolita surrenders Humbert Humbert's secret identity, and reveals a Nabokov appalled by American anti-Semitism. The lunatic narrator of Pale Fire recalls Russian tragedies that once haunted the world. From Tsarist courts to Nazi film sets, from CIA front organizations to wartime Casablanca, the story of Nabokov's family is the story of his century-and both are woven inextricably into his fiction.
Andrea Pitzer founded Nieman Storyboard, the narrative nonfiction site of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Her work has also appeared in print in USA Today's Life section and online at HiLowbrow.com. She presented on Nabokov's fiction at the 2009 MLA Conference, is a graduate of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, and lives in northern Virginia.