Sports in Nabokov

Timothy C. Harte, Bryn Mawr College

This paper will address the prominent, yet oddly unappreciated theme of sports in the work of Vladimir Nabokov. From the soccer of Glory to the tennis of Lolita, competitive athletics emerged as an important component of the writer’s modern aesthetic.  In this paper I will discuss the development of sports in Nabokov’s work, showing how a competitive urge, stemming from sports, shaped his artistic views. 

Among twentieth-century Russian writers, in fact, Vladimir Nabokov was perhaps the most enthusiastic proponent of modern sports. Following in Lev Tolstoj’s somewhat athletic footsteps, Nabokov actively participated in sports and was early on highlighting the Russian sports movement with his pen. An aura of athleticism, stemming from the author’s school days, surrounds both Nabokov’s poetry and prose, witness his poem “Velosipedist” of 1918 and two Russian poems with English titles, “Football” and “Lawn Tennis,” both of 1920. Nabokov, like the poet Osip Mandel’štam, was a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Tenišev School, one of the first educational institutions in Russia to embrace organized sports. In his autobiographical Speak, Memory, Nabokov testifies to soccer’s appeal at the school: “The headmaster who knew little about games, though greatly approving of their consociative virtues, was suspicious of my always keeping goal in soccer ‘instead of running about with the other players.’”(185) Athletics were evidently perceived as a means of unifying the students, for they instilled discipline, team spirit and persistence. Nabokov, ever the individualist, was suspicious of just such principles and utilitarian goals, and it is this unabashedly individualistic outlook that defined Nabokov the athlete as well as Nabokov the writer.

What components of athletic competition appealed to Nabokov, and how and why did he implicitly equate the act of writing with the act of participating in athletic endeavors? By focusing on an emerging athletic philosophy in Nabokov’s early work, particularly his poetry and short stories, I hope to demonstrate that sports were not just some idle theme or pastime for the writer. It is rare, in fact, to find a writer so enthusiastic about athletics, especially one who, upon immigrating to America, supported himself by giving tennis lessons. Sports occupied a prominent position in Nabokov’s life, and, as I will explain, in his work as well.