Rare Photos: Vladimir Nabokov

All the fuss about the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s last “novel” was pointless. The book is just a collection of notes that’s been cleverly marketed, says Nathaniel Rich.

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

Rare Photos: Vladimir Nabokov

"Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written," John Updike once wrote. "That is, ecstatically." In 1959, LIFE Magazine sent photographer Carl Mydans to Ithaca, New York to shoot the Russian-born author, whose magnum opus "Lolita" was breaking sales records across the country. Most of the photos from that series were never published - a handful appeared in LIFE's international edition - but they offer an unique look into the private life of one of the titans of American literature. To mark the recent publication of Nabokov's last, unfinished novel "The Original of Laura," LIFE now presents the unpublished photos from that shoot.

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

Vera Challenges the Master

Along with butterfly catching, Nabokov's other favorite pastime was chess and he claimed to craft chess problems with the same "originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity" that he used to create art. Here, he squares off against his wife, Vera, possibly relying on the Luzhin Defense.

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

The Author Lunges

Nabokov nearly catches an unsuspecting butterfly.

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

The Butterfly Effect

Nabokov displays a day's haul. In 1967, he told The Paris Review: "The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all."

Carl Mydans / LIFE.com

Portrait of the Author

Few modern authors can boast Nabokov's critical reception or his sphere of influence. His every word was a joy to read. Here, the opening lines from Lolita, perhaps his most famous: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

To see the rest of the rare and unpublished photos of Nabokov, go to LIFE.com.