Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

by Stacy Schiff

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography and hailed by critics as both “monumental” (The Boston Globe) and “utterly romantic” (New York magazine), Stacy Schiff’s Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time. Vladimir Nabokov—the émigré author of Lolita; Pale Fire; and Speak, Memory—wrote his books first for himself, second for his wife, Véra, and third for no one at all.

“Without my wife,” he once noted, “I wouldn’t have written a single novel.” Set in prewar Europe and postwar America, spanning much of the century, the story of the Nabokovs’ fifty-two-year marriage reads as vividly as a novel. Véra, both beautiful and brilliant, is its outsized heroine—a woman who loves as deeply and intelligently as did the great romantic heroines of Austen and Tolstoy. Stacy Schiff's Véra is a triumph of the biographical form.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375755347
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/04/2000
Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 241,303
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Stacy Schiff's Saint Exupéry was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She lives in New York City.

Hometown:

New York, New York

Date of Birth:

October 26, 1961

Place of Birth:

Adams, Massachusetts

Education:

B.A., Williams College, 1982

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

PETERSBURG 3848


The crudest curriculum vitae crows and flaps its wings in a style peculiar to the undersigner. I doubt whether you can even give your telephone number without giving something of yourself.

—Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol


Véra Nabokov neither wrote her memoirs nor considered doing so. Even at the end of her long life, she remained the world's least likely candidate to set down the confessions of a white widowed female. (She did keep a diary of one girl's fortunes, but the girl was Lolita.) When asked how she had met the man to whom she had been married for fifty-two years she begged the question, with varying degrees of geniality. "I don't remember" was the stock response, a perfectly transparent statement coming from the woman who could recite volumes of her husband's verse by heart. At another time she parried with: "Who are you, the KGB?" One of the few trusted scholars cornered her. Here is your husband's account of the events of May 8, 1923; do you care to elaborate? "No," shot back Mrs. Nabokov. In the biographer's ears rang the sound of the portcullis crashing down. For all anyone knew she had been born Mrs. Nabokov.

Which she had not. Vladimir Nabokov's version, delivered more or less consistently, was that he had met the last of his fiancées in Germany.* "I met my wife, Véra Slonim, at one of the émigré charity balls in Berlin at which it was fashionable for Russian young ladies to sell punch, books, flowers, and toys," he stated plainly. When a biographer noted as much, adding that Nabokov left shortly thereafter for the south of France, Mrs. Nabokov went to work in the margins. "All this is rot," she offered by way of corrective. Of Nabokov's 1923 trip to France another scholar observed: "While there he wrote once to a girl named Véra Slonim whom he had met at a charity ball before leaving." Coolly Mrs. Nabokov announced that this single sentence bulged with three untruths, which she made no effort to identify.

In all likelihood the ball was a "'reminiscence' . . . born many years later" on the part of Nabokov, who anointed May 8 as the day on which he had met his wife-to-be. A lavish dance was held in Berlin—one of those "organized by society ladies and attended by the German elite and numerous members of the diplomatic corps," in Véra's more glamorous description, and which both future Nabokovs were in the habit of attending—but on May 9. These balls took place with regular succession; Nabokov had met a previous fiancée at one such benefit.* Ultimately we are left to weigh his expert fumbling of dates against Véra's equally expert denial of what may in truth very well have happened; the scale tips in neither direction. Between the husband's burnishing of facts and the wife's sweeping of those facts under the carpet, much is possible. "But without these fairy tales the world would not be real," proclaimed Nabokov, who could not resist the later temptation to confide in a visiting publisher that he and Véra had met and fallen instantly in love when they were thirteen or fourteen and summering with their families in Switzerland. (He was writing Ada at the time of the confession.)

However it happened, in the beginning were two people and a mask. Véra Slonim made a dramatic entrance into the life of Vladimir Nabokov late on a spring Berlin evening, on a bridge, over a chestnut-lined canal. Either to confuse her identity or to confirm it—it is possible the two had glimpsed each other at a ball earlier in the year, or that she had taken her cue from something he had published†—she wore a black satin mask. Nabokov would have been able to discern little more than a pair of wide, sparkling blue eyes, the "tender lips" about which he was soon to write, a mane of light, wavy hair. She was thin and fine-boned, with translucent skin and an entirely regal bearing. He may not even have known her name, though it is certain that she knew his. There is some evidence that Véra had been the one to initiate the meeting, as Nabokov later told his sister had been the case. He had by 1923 come to enjoy some recognition for his poetry, which he wrote under the name V. Sirin,* and which he published regularly in Rul (The Rudder), the leading Russian paper of the emigration. He had given a public reading as recently as a month earlier. Moreover he cut a dashing figure. "He was, as a young man, extremely beautiful" was the closest Véra Nabokov came to acknowledging as much.

Russian Berlin was a small town, small enough that she may also have known the young poet's heart had been broken in January, when his fiancée had called off their engagement. Véra Nabokov rarely divulged personal details under anything less than duress. But if she had been the one to pursue Nabokov—as word in the émigré community had it later†—there was all the more reason for her silence. She did not remove the mask in the course of the initial conversation, either because she feared her looks would distract from her conversation (as has been suggested), or (as seems more consistent with female logic) because she feared they might not. There was little cause for alarm; she knew a surefire way of turning a writer's head. She recited his verse for him. Her delivery was exquisite; Nabokov always marveled over a "certain unusual refinement" in her speech. The effect was instantaneous. As important to a man who believed in remembered futures and prophetic dreams, there was something oddly familiar about Véra Slonim. Asked in his seventies if he had known instantly that this woman represented his future, he replied, "I suppose one could say so," and looked to his wife with a smile. There would have been a good deal familiar to her about him. "I know practically by heart every one of his poems from 1922 on," she asserted much later. She had attended his readings; her earliest album of Sirin clippings opens with several pieces from 1921 and 1922, clippings which show no signs of having been pasted in after the fact. The disguise—it retroconsciously became "a dear, dear mask"—was evidently still in place when the two parted that evening, on the Hohenzollernplatz in Wilmersdorf. They could not have seen each other more than a few times before Nabokov's departure for France, yet within weeks he had written her that a moth had flown into his ear, reminding him of her.

From France, where he went as a farmhand to recover from his broken engagement, Nabokov wrote two letters at the end of May. The first he dispatched on the twenty-fifth, to eighteen-year-old Svetlana Siewert, the former fiancée. He realized he should not be writing but—liberated by geography—permitted himself the luxury. He had clearly been reprimanded for his persistence before. While he had told friends he could never forgive Svetlana, he could not help himself; she would simply have to hear the tender things he had to say. He had spent months composing despondent verse, convinced that his life was over. Svetlana and her family, he claimed, were "linked in my memory to the greatest happiness I ever had or will have." He remained stubbornly in love with her, saw her everywhere he looked. He had traveled through Dresden, Strasbourg, Lyon, and Nice, and felt no differently anywhere. He planned to continue on to North Africa, "and if I find someplace on the planet where neither you, nor your shadow can be found, then I will settle there forever."


* Nabokov chose the pseudonym in part so as not to be confused with his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, an eminent jurist and statesman, and a founder of the Constitutional Democratic party.
† The rumor on the street was that Véra had written Vladimir in advance, asking that he meet her, at which meeting she appeared masked. The Nabokovs' son never learned how his parents first met.
* Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov was killed by a bullet intended for a political opponent, whom he attempted to shield with his body.
† Decades later in his notes to Eugene Onegin, he wrote with feeling about "a rejected suitor's unquenchable exasperation with an unforgettable girl and her Philistine parents."

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Harr

Véra is an astonishingly fine book—a tale told with wit and elegance, a tale that succeeds in encompassing both the intimacy of a marriage and the sweep of history. I found it a great pleasure to read. And I'm in awe of Stacy Schiff's talent.

Anita Shreve

I am truly in love with this book. Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast.

Reading Group Guide

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Vera. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.

1) l. Schiff describes the Russia of Vera Slonim's childhood as one in which Jewish families obligatorily engaged in "what must have seemed like a colossal, rigged game of Simon Says" (p. 20). Do you think this tells you anything about the woman who would become Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov? How did Vera Slonim's father shape the person she would become? Do you think it mattered that her mother was to a large extent invisible in her own childhood?

2. Do you think the Nabokovs' joint gift for synesthesia—"the ability to transfer the observations of one sense into the vocabulary of another" (p. 38)—had any impact on their relationship?

3. To what do you attribute Vera Nabokov's secretiveness? Relatedly, how do you explain the couple's unwillingness to answer the question of how they first met?

4. Do you see Vera Nabokov as a victim? Does your view of her change—once, or incrementally, or not at all—in the course of the biography? Does she strike you as an appealing character?

5. In your opinion, was the Nabokovs' a happy marriage? Do you think Nabokov's passionate affair of l937 left a lasting mark on the marriage? Did that affair come as a surprise to you, or did you sense it coming?

6. At Vera Nabokov's first encounter with a new Goethe scholar at Cornell, she immediately informed him, "I consider Faust one of the shallowest plays ever written" (p. l87). To what do you attribute her statement?

7. How do you reconcile Vera Nabokov's claim that her English was not strong enough to permit her to write something about her husband with the masses of letters she did compose?

8. Why do you think the author lists the reasons the Cornell students provided for Vera Nabokov's presence in her husband's classroom (pp. l75-6)?

9. What did Vera Nabokov think of Lolita? Are her feelings toward the novel consistent? To your mind, was she happy to see it published?

10. The relationship between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson is one of the great vexed literary friendships of our time. Would the friendship have played itself out differently had Vera not been part of the picture?

11. "Generally she held people—herself especially—to the standards of her husband's literature, standards to which few of us, and even fewer publishers, rise," writes Schiff (p. 305). Is it your impression that Mrs. Nabokov was reasonable and the world less so, or vice versa?

l2. Why do you think the author included the l96l interlude with Filippa Rolf, the Swedish poet? When do you first become aware of her in the biography?

13. Can you explain the force of Vera Nabokov's disdain for Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago (p. 242-3)? Are you sympathetic with her sentiments?

14. What kind of childhood would you say Dmitri Nabokov had? On p. 209, his mother sends him instructions for the Lermontov translation his parents secure for him, assuring him that he can count on assistance at their end. What do you make of his having been groomed as family translator?

l5. Where is Vera Nabokov reflected in her husband's work? And what does her life tell you about the creative process, and about the climate in which an artist creates?

l6. What do you make of Nabokov's insistence on having his wife at his side at all times? Why did he want her there for interviews?

17. Schiff has chosen an old Russian proverb ("He likes like an eyewitness") as her epigraph to the last chapter. What is this quotation meant to signal to the reader?

18. By today's standards Vera Nabokov was hardly a woman of great accomplishments. Nor did she grow up in a household in which women played visible professional roles. Do you think of her as having had a career? Or is she something of a disappointment, from a feminist point of view?

19. What do you learn about Nabokov the man from reading about his wife? Has your opinion of him changed?

20. Are you aware as you read of an overall shape of Vera Nabokov's life, and of recurrent or overall themes in that life? Do you think all lives have themes?

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