Vladimir Nabokov

Boyd, Brian

Brian Boyd (1952- ), University Distinguished Professor, English and Drama, Auckland, New Zealand, has worked on Nabokov since the early 1970s, as an annotator, archivist, bibliographer, biographer, critic, editor, and translator, and on documentary and photographic projects.

He discovered Nabokov at high school, wrote about him as a freshman at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, and there went on to write an MA thesis on Pale Fire, Ada, and Transparent Things (1974), which Nabokov read and commended. Boyd wrote a PhD dissertation at Toronto on “Nabokov and Ada” (1979), which characteristically paid attention to small details and large structures, and to the relation between Nabokov’s style and his thought, metaphysical and ethical, throughout his work. Carl Proffer read the first chapters and sent them to Véra Nabokov, who asked to see more.

After submitting his thesis, Boyd in the spring of 1979 researched in the libraries of the US Northeast, with the intention of writing a bibliography of Nabokov to correct Andrew Field’s 1973 bibliography, and of including biographical data about the circumstances of composition and publication to provide the basis for future scholarship not to be found in Field’s biography (1977). When Véra Nabokov read the whole thesis, she invited Boyd to visit her in Montreux. He did, on the way to a post-doctoral fellowship (on New Zealand literature) at the University of Auckland.

Shortly after Boyd reached Auckland, Véra invited him to catalog her husband’s archive (everything except what had been given to the Library of Congress in the early 1960s in return for tax concessions) so that she could both find her own way in the material and offer it for sale. He did this during the winters of 1979-80 and 1980-81, then managed to extract Véra’s approval to write a biography of Nabokov. Focus on that delayed publication of the much-shortened book of his thesis, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness (1985, 2nd expanded ed. 2001).

Boyd’s critical biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, was published in 1990 and 1991. In 1991, shortly after Véra’s death, he negotiated between Dmitri Nabokov and the New York Public Library over the conditions on selling the Montreux archive. In 1993 he began to publish, in The Nabokovian, “Annotations to Ada,” a chapter of the novel at a time.

He has edited Nabokov’s English novels and his memoirs for the Library of America (3 vols., 1996); the Everyman edition of Speak, Memory (1999) with the first book publication of Chapter 16; and, with lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, Nabokov’s Butterflies (1999). That centenary year he also published Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. In 2004 he launched AdaOnline, a hyperlinked version of his Ada annotations. In 2008, with Stanislav Shvabrin, he published an edition of Nabokov’s verse translations, Verses and Versions. In 2011 he published a selection of his uncollected Nabokov essays, Stalking Nabokov. In 2014 he and Olga Voronina published their edition and translation of Nabokov’s Letters to Véra. He has also edited, with Anastasia Tolstoy, Think, Write, Speak, Nabokov’s uncollected interviews, essays, and reviews, forthcoming in 2019.  

In addition also to hundreds of articles/ chapters/ forewords/ afterwords/ reviews on Nabokov, Boyd works on literature from Homer to the present, from epics to comics, including two books on Shakespeare (Words That Count, 2004, Why Lyrics Last, 2012), and books on literature and evolution (especially On the Origin of Stories, 2009) and on art and evolution (On the Origin of Art, exhibition and book, 2016). He also writes on the arts, humanities, and sciences, and on language and reason, and on philosophy. His work has appeared in 19 languages. His main current project is researching a biography of philosopher Karl Popper.

Boyd explains his priorities in Nabokov research: “Finding all Nabokov’s writings and all the facts about his life, documenting them, and if possible editing all he has written, both for scholars and for ordinary readers. Describing and explaining the surfaces and depths and structures of the works—all the works (though lately I have had to limit myself to the major works in English)—and the ideas behind the works, and the relationships between the verbal details and the intellectual and imaginative designs.”

University webpage; Wikipedia; Guernica interview.