Nabokov’s Childhood: The Tolstoy Theme in Nabokov’s Autobiography and Fiction

Gabriel White, University of California, Berkeley

In this paper, I trace the “Tolstoj theme” in Nabokov’s autobiography and fiction: the appearance of Tolstoy and his works (in various guises) in Speak, Memory, Lolita, and Ada. The results of this investigation contribute to Nabokov scholarship on several levels. First, I argue that Nabokov uses the Tolstoj theme to direct his readers attention to certain crucial features of his works, as well as to elaborate on their meaning. In Speak, Memory, for example, the Tolstoj theme is connected to two central aspects of the young Nabokov’s development into an adult: his earliest experiences with literature, and the progression from childhood and adolescent crushes to the love of his life. Also, I claim that Tolstoyan intertexts underlie certain otherwise enigmatic moments in Nabokov’s fiction (for example, Van’s hand-walking in Ada). This intertextual layer of meaning allows not only for elucidation of these particular moments, but also is significant for interpretation of the work in which they are contained as a whole. Second, I examine the Tolstoj theme in Nabokov’s works in the context of the cultural myths and tradition of autobiographical literature that grow out of Tolstoj’s Childhood (described by Wachtel). In the initially unpublished “Chapter Sixteen” of his autobiography (as well as in the first chapter of The Gift) Nabokov parodies those readers who would uncritically lump his works into such general categories. But I argue that disguised behind Nabokov’s parody are deliberate clues for those who seek that which is uniquely artistic in his works, rather than characteristics his works might share with any given general category. At the same time, by demonstrating (in the active sense of the word) his awareness of the literary conventions and clichés connected to description of childhood, Nabokov seeks to overcome a major problem of autobiographical literature, namely, the conflict between the individual truth of personal memory and the preconceived expectations of genre, literary tradition, and cultural myth.  Furthermore, in addition to guiding his reader through his own texts, Nabokov implicitly insists that Tolstoj’s work be read in the same way, sending his reader back to Childhood to find certain uniquely artistic moments there that have been ignored by the “sentimental cults” (Nabokov 261) that have appropriated the text.


Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.