(Original Review, 1992-02-10)
I can speak and write English pretty well, and I am completely lacking in Nabokov's talent for prose. I do, however, wonder whether the fact that English was his fourth or fifth language may have enabled him to approach writing in a different way. He seems to be very aware of structural features, and I wonder if this skill came out of his ability to speak numerous languages? I'd have to say that's undoubtedly true: the more languages one knows the more one becomes aware of how each one works and, often, greater facility in manipulating them to one's uses.
The one point with Nabokov though which should not be overlooked is that although English was not his first language (likely his third, I think, behind Russian/French) he did speak it from a very young age. Indeed, his Anglophile father had hired an English governess. Now, for an alternative case, the great ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano only learnt English in his 30s and become one of the finest twentieth century writers of non-fiction.
As far as I can remember, I haven't got Boyd's biography or “Speak, Memory” to hand, but the first language Nabokov spoke was English because he had English nannies, which caused his worried father to make sure that the toddler Nabokov got a good grounding in Russian (got a good grounding? I think that thrumming you can hear is the sound of Nabokov spinning).
I might have misremembered because I know he famously had a French governess and it could have been French, but I think I'm correct. He definitely didn't speak Russian first. It was common among Russian aristos - their first one was usually French, then English and German. Foreign tutors raised the kids, so by the school age they were fluent in several languages. Russian was considered somewhat pleb and coarse among super poshos (just like Normans considered Anglo-Saxon too common for the ruling class). Think Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (all of the correspondence is in French, and Steva and Dollie’s - anglicised Stepan and Darya’s - wee kids are introduced in the scene where they are loudly arguing in foreignese). Some dainty ladies barely spoke their native language, so when Napoleon happened they dropped French in a surge of patriotism (see Julie) and had to communicate in broken Russian and, probably, interpretive dance :-) Btw, in his preface for the Russian translation Nabokov confessed that once he started writing, he discovered that, to his horror, his Russian got rusty and lost its nuances and fluidity (boo-hoo, baiting for compliments, eh?)
[2018 EDIT: It is my understanding that it is written English and written French that Nabokov learned first. He spoke Russian with his parents of course. In 2012, when I reviewed “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad, I vented a little on how Nabokov wanted to undervalue other fellow writers. Alas, I think the same today as I did in 1992...there’s something missing in some of Nabokov’s novels. Had read "Invitation to a Beheading" and hated it. Had read and seen several interviews with Nabokov and found him to be insufferably smug and self-righteous, particularly in his attitude towards other writers as I said above. And "Lolita" has plenty of flaws - the ridiculously convenient death of Lolita's mother, the hammy quasi-theatrical showdown between the narrator and his rival at the end. Even those famous opening lines grated on me ("you can always count on a murderer to have a fancy prose style" - really?) But for the most part it is so exquisitely written, so witty and perceptive, with paragraph after paragraph of such jaw droppingly gorgeous sentences that (almost) everything else can be forgiven. Come to think of it, not all can be forgiven.]