Reviews — From the February 2016 issue

Family Business

Mr. and Mrs. Nabokov’s half-century

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Discussed in this essay:

Letters to Véra, by Vladimir Nabokov. Edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd. Knopf. 864 pages. $40.

Writers produce marital advice of varying emotional fitness and reliability. Hemingway pushed the hunter virtues of ruthlessness and traveling light: “The first great gift for a man is to be healthy and the second, maybe greater, is to fall [in] with healthy women. You can always trade one healthy woman in on another. But start with a sick woman and see where you get.” John Updike, chasing the topic across a library shelf, became a spokesman for dissatisfaction. “A person who has what he wants,” he told The Paris Review, “a satisfied person, a content person, ceases to be a person.” Happiness erases self, powers down the receptors; the “eyes get fat.” Lorrie Moore took over Updike’s consulting room as prose relationship specialist. She noted where Updike had directed the credit (“Perhaps I could have made a go of the literary business without my first wife . . . but I cannot imagine how”) and shared advice in her sly style: light to your face, a comic thump as your back turns. “Women writers should marry somebody who thinks writing is cute. Because if they really realized what writing was, they would run a mile.” Later on she reflagged: “Writers all need Véra.”

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Gstaad, Switzerland, 1971, by Horst Tappe © Horst Tappe Foundation/Granger, New York City

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Gstaad, Switzerland, 1971, by Horst Tappe © Horst Tappe Foundation/Granger, New York City

“No marriage of a major twentieth-century writer lasted longer,” Brian Boyd tells us at the start of Letters to Véra, which collects Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife of fifty-two years. Companion, agent, live-in editor, bodyguard, and the dedicatee of almost all her husband’s books, Véra Nabokov, née Slonim, has reached a strange elevation in our cultural sky. “The Legend of Véra Nabokov,” runs the headline in a recent Atlantic article: “Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse.” It’s easy to understand the pining. When Vladimir crossed campus to teach, Véra walked a few steps ahead, opening doors. She did all the driving. Also the paper grading, letter replying, contract haggling, editor nudging. She carried a pistol, for Vladimir-protection on the more hazardous butterfly-collecting trips. (He liked to have her unbag and exhibit the gun at parties.) She was his first and best reader, greeting the books when they were still, as her husband said, “warm and wet.” She prevented him from burning Lolita. In 1981, four years after the writer’s death, Martin Amis made a pilgrimage to the Swiss hotel suite that was part of the Nabokovs’ Lolita winnings. An awful moment: Véra misconstrued a compliment to Vladimir as criticism. “What?” she asked. “And,” Amis writes, “every atom in her body seemed to tremble with indignation.”

Cracking open Letters — with its slightly repellent cover photo, the young couple overdressed in a way that seals them into the past — we expect something impossible: the swoony and romantic bolted to the solid how-to and D.I.Y. The first thing you notice is Nabokov’s endearments — in the leadoff letter he is already calling Véra “my strange joy, my tender night.” The endearments pile up, crossing borders, oceans, decades. These are more or less in order:

My lovely, my sun, my song, my enchantment, my kitty, my mousie, my sweet little legs, my long, warm happiness, my grand ciel rose, my multi-colored love, my gold-voiced angel, my radiance, my life.

You understand the crucial word. Always the “my.” “I need so little,” he wrote at the beginning. “A bottle of ink, a speck of sun on the floor — and you.” What mattered was binding Véra, keeping her there by this fond possessive.

The couple met in 1923, at a springtime Berlin charity ball. Nabokov might have appreciated the double patterning: the greatest generosity — his life’s partner — went to him; and they would be broke for three decades. Véra arrived masked. She had the kind of in-person loveliness that comes wrong with photos. (Years later she told a friend, in the Nabokov style that puts even inanimate relations on a squalling and personal footing: “The camera and I have been at odds since I was a child.”) They talked on a bridge overlooking a canal.

In the letter he sent after, what comes through most is gratified, mistrustful surprise. They had spoken with such instant harmony that he suspected a trick. “I won’t hide it,” Nabokov wrote. “I’m so unused to being — well, understood.” It’s the first entry in Letters to Véra, and really the whole thing: a voice finding a listener, and a fellow speaker. She was the person, he said, with whom he could talk about thoughts and clouds. “Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale,” he wrote. And a few months later: “With you one needs to talk wonderfully.” And a few months after that: “As if in your soul there’s a place prepared in advance for my every thought.”

Both were born in St. Petersburg — he in 1899, she in 1902 — and both were de-citizened by revolution in 1917. Before their marriage in 1925, Vladimir, following a tradition among Russian litterateurs, handed over an intercourse résumé. Here’s everybody. It contained twenty-eight names. Véra’s precursor was Svetlana Siewert, a seventeen-year-old émigré; she and Vladimir were briefly engaged until her parents decided that they didn’t like the look of his financial prospects. For he was already, unavoidably, a writer. If he’d lost both hands, the young Vladimir claimed, he’d learn to write with his teeth. “I am becoming more and more firmly convinced,” he told Véra early on, “that art is the only thing that matters in life. I am ready to endure Chinese torture to find a single epithet.” (This echoes an odiferous pain-for-gain ratio proposed by Flaubert in a letter of his own: “There is a Latin phrase [applied to misers] that means roughly, ‘To pick up a farthing from the shit with your teeth.’ I am like them: I will stop at nothing to find gold.”) Véra, who memorized and translated poetry, was Vladimir’s immediate accomplice. A spouse less committed to art would have required him to be less committed.

Letters to Véra is a one-sided affair. We get only Vladimir’s outgoing; Véra destroyed her replies. She was, in any case, an infrequent correspondent, a fact that pained her husband; the Germany years of the book (400 pages) could be retitled “Unreturned Letters to Véra.” They provide a warm and appealing portrait of the young artist. Nabokov wrote fiction into the small hours, rose late, and earned a shaky living tutoring the children of the Berlin rich in a triumvirate of subjects: tennis, boxing, poetry. (Aspects of the Nabokov style: elegance, violence, eloquence.) He told Véra everything (his favorite snacks, his new clothes), sent her sketches of mornings (“a boiled-milk sky, with skin — but if you pushed it aside with a teaspoon, the sun was really nice”) and twilights (“Wonderful pink feathers of parallel clouds . . . the ethereal ribs of heaven”). When he does receive a return letter, his gratitude is matchless, palpable: “Your letters . . . they’re almost touches, and that is the greatest thing you can say about a letter.” And: “I keep walking around in the letter you wrote on, on every side, I wander over it like a fly, with my head down, my love!” The letters even give instruction in how to fight: “I am furious with you, but I love you very dearly.

The Nabokovs’ only child, Dmitri, was born in May 1934, eleven years after the night on the bridge over the canal. Since Vladimir was home at the time, Letters to Véra skips the delivery. The story resumes two years later, with Vladimir on the road, sending Véra a lovely account of the changed emotional temperature of fatherhood: “When I think about him, there’s a kind of heavenly melting inside my soul.” He was about to begin a series of actions that would nearly demolish the family he and Véra had made.

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