Review of Nabokov Under Glass

In 1999, the New York Public Library celebrated the centenary of Vladimir Nabokov’s birth with an exhibition of materials from the prolific author’s archive. Sixteen years later, much of the information and many images of the materials featured in the physical exhibit can still be accessed through the library’s digital exhibition, Nabokov Under Glass. This fascinating exhibition chronicles Nabokov’s writing, correspondence, and Lepidoptera to provide his curious readers with a deeper look into his incredible life, impressive career, and ingenious mind.

The convenient layout of the homepage makes the exhibit easily navigable. A list of links on the left hand side of the page offers an introduction as well as general information about the collection and the library itself. However, the main focus of the homepage is the “Exhibition Timeline” which allows visitors to enter four different sections of the collection. In an unusual but particularly helpful feature, the timeline is divided geographically, so the first impression each visitor receives is of Nabokov’s international associations.  By designating the four temporal segments of his life in accordance to his geographical location, the exhibit emphasizes the major impact of his national ties and émigré status on his artistic works.

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Vladimir Nabokov, List of clothing for trip to Cape Cod (Summer 1944). Holograph manuscript on the verso of a letter from Katharine White, dated July 3, 1944. Berg Collection

Upon clicking on any of the four timeline segments, visitors are taken to a new page featuring a number of subsections arranged in chronological order. The first title in “Russia 1899-1919” is “Early Life and Poems,” while the last title, found in Switzerland 1966-1977” is “Look at the Harlequins! New York, 1974.” Most of the sections feature one picture underneath the grouping title showing a related item featured in the archive collection. All photographs are accompanied by explanatory descriptions and citations, such as this packing list for a summer trip, which provides a fun look into Nabokov’s daily life. Clicking on any picture allows visitors to take a closer look at the interesting materials from Nabokov’s archives.

Visitors are also able to read more information about each section of the exhibition by clicking on the grouping titles featured in each timeline segment. For example, the ninth section, listed in “Europe 1919-1939” is called “Otchaianie. Berlin, 1936 (Despair, 1966).” By selecting this title, visitors are taken to a subpage with a few paragraphs describing the writing and publishing process behind Nabokov’s third novel, Despair. Below this follows a list of physical materials related to the book which could be found in the 1999 exhibition, and underneath visitors can immediately access any of the other timeline segments through convenient links. The detailed discussions in each section of the exhibition provide visitors with a wealth of information to contextualize and enlighten understandings of Nabokov’s written works.

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W. J. Holland, The Butterfly Book (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Doran, 1933). Nabokov’s copy, with his extensive holograph annotations throughout, signed on the title page, Dmitri Nabokov, etc. Berg Collection

Especially interesting is the section entitled “Lepidopterological Papers, 1941-53,” which gives readers an impression of Nabokov’s lesser known career as a lepidopterist. The fascinating discussion of his impressive discoveries grants his readers a deeper look into his intelligent and creative mind, beyond his artistic production. Sections such as these highlight the biographical nature of the exhibition – it is not simply a catalog of works by a particular writer but an investigation of the man behind the books. Overall, this digital exhibition provides visitors with a thorough and extensive overview of Vladimir Nabokov’s life and works that can add significantly to any reader’s appreciation of his writing.

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