Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lenin, Oppenheimer, Nabokov

Vladimir Lenin was born on this day in 1870, and Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atom bomb was born the same day 34 years later. I imagine this coincidence was among the proofs offered when Oppenheimer was accused of being a Soviet sympathizer and spy and lost his security clearance in 1954. He was 50. It's true, he had been friends with known communists, and it was a time of witch hunts. He'd also had the audacity to express doubts about the morality of the weapon he had created. A conscience can be a dangerous thing. Oppenheimer appears on pages 157 and 191 in A Book of Ages. Lenin only appears in other people's anecdotes.

Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 22 in 1899 in Russia to an aristocratic St. Petersburg family. They fled Russia in 1919, living briefly in England, where Vladimir entered Cambridge University, then settling in Berlin. Nabokov grew up speaking three languages, Russian, English and French, and actually learned to read English before he learned to read his mother tongue, but he wrote his first nine novels in Russian. He only began writing in English when he was 42. He appears five times in A Book of Ages. My favorite anecdote is from when he was 49 and teaching at Cornell. He had an unusual method of teaching literature, having his students memorize Madame Bovary's hairstyles and the layout of the railway carriage from Anna Karenina. Also in the book are a couple of stories about his most famous novel, Lolita. Nabokov collected butterflies and had several varieties named after him. He never learned to drive a car.

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