The novelist Vladimir Nabokov, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1899). He described himself as "a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library." He learned to read and write English before he could do so in Russian, and his family spoke in a mixture of English, French, and Russian. He had a happy childhood, complementing his studies with tennis, soccer, butterfly collecting, and art. But Nabokov's family had to flee Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Nabokov never saw Russia again, and he missed it terribly. His novels were banned in his home country, but among Russian expatriates he came to be known as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he sailed to America and arrived in New York City poor and almost completely unknown.
He struggled to support his family with a series of jobs teaching at New England colleges. He eventually got a job at Cornell University teaching modern literature, where he forced his students to memorize the details of Madame Bovary's hairdo, a diagram of Anna Karenina's railway carriage, and a map of James Joyce's Dublin.
He wanted to distinguish himself as a writer in America. He decided to switch to writing in English, but he found the transition agonizing. In one of his first poems in English, about giving up the Russian language, Nabokov wrote, "Just here we part, / softest of tongues, my true one, all my own ... / And I am left to grope for heart and art / and start anew with clumsy tools of stone."
In the summer of 1951, he began to work on a novel that his friends told him he should never publish because it would be too scandalous—it was about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl. The novel was indeed a scandal when it came out in 1955, but the scandal made it a huge success and allowed Nabokov to quit his job teaching. And that novel was, of course, Lolita.