Before Vladimir Nabokov was ten years old, the Russian Revolution of 1905, tsarist political tyranny, and the imprisonment of his father, a deputy in the First Duma, all had affected his life. Briefly a millionaire when he inherited his uncle’s vast fortune in 1916, he was, for a period, the wealthiest writer since Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was, however, forced to make an abrupt adjustment to wrenching exile and extreme poverty, and later claimed he was no more aware of getting his inheritance than he was of losing it.

He narrowly escaped the Bolsheviks in 1919 and in Speak, Memory describes how, ignoring the machine guns strafing his ship as it left the Crimea, he coolly played chess with his father. After his father was assassinated in Berlin in 1922, Nabokov continued to defy history. With his Jewish wife and son, he fled from Germany before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and escaped from...