Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)
Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Nabokov’s fiercely loyal wife Véra, partly because her subject is so brilliant and fascinating, and partly because Schiff, the author of Cleopatra: A Life and the recent The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, is such a skilled writer. Her work here is both a scholarly and a literary achievement, showing a completely different side to the Nabokov mythology than previously seen. Her Véra is a tough, intelligent counterpart to her famous husband. Nabokov once said, “Without my wife, I wouldn’t have written a single novel.” And Schiff, obviously, wouldn’t have written her great biography. We can thank Véra for both.
Letters to Véra
If, for whatever reason, Schiff’s excellent book doesn’t sell you on the love between Vladimir and Véra, then let this wonderful companion volume settle the dispute. Edited by Olga Voronina and (what do you know?) Brian Boyd, Letters to Véra unambiguously depicts the rare connection between the two. At one point, Vladimir asks his wife, whom he sometimes refers to as “my enchantment,” to “focus and try to tell me which two pictures are hanging in my room” as “an experiment in telepathy.” He imagined that through sheer mental communication over a great distance, Véra could tell him the answer to his question. Even if this is an absurd idea, the very fact that Nabokov thought about this enough to write it to her shows just how strong their bond was.
And now, from the man himself: Speak, Memory is Nabokov’s autobiography, but this being Nabokov, it’s not exactly a straightforward literary experience. Filled with detailed descriptions of his creative developments, Speak, Memory is presented as a series of discursive episodes, roving through his family history, his love of butterflies, his love of Véra, and his years in America. There’s even a chess problem in there. Some of it’s impressionistic, some of it likely fictional, but as rendered in Nabokov’s inimitable stylistic verve, this memoir is as playful and enriching as anything the great master wrote.
To begin with, we’ve got to get to know Nabokov the writer in order to care about his life. Vintage Nabokov offers an apt selection of the inimitable author’s eclectic oeuvre, from Lolita to his brilliant short stories.
While Vintage Nabokov gives you a good sense of his fiction, it leaves out Nabokov’s great love: poetry. Lesser known than his novels and stories, Nabokov’s poetry is nonetheless the work of a master craftsman.
Maar’s book aptly delves into Nabokov’s life and work, providing a rich overview of the polymath’s idiosyncratic existence, his beguiling artistic talents, and his peculiar behavior. Maar also analyzes the novels, stories, essays, and poems with the acumen of, well, of Nabokov himself.
A Hero of Our Time
One aspect of Nabokov’s literary interests that is often overlooked is his translation work. With A Hero of Our Time, the classic Russian adventure tale from 1840, Nabokov—who translated the work with his son—shows that not only could he create his own art, but that he could handle the work of others with just as much skill and delicacy.
His friendship with Edmund Wilson, the most noted literary critic of the first half of the twentieth century, is legendary, but a great deal of that stems not from the relationship that existed but the way in which it ended so catastrophically. Alex Beam takes the reader deep into the minds and careers of these two enormous figures, and finds fragile egos, bruised pride, and stubbornness on a grand scale. It all began when Nabokov published his translation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, which Wilson, who has once been Nabokov’s greatest champion, vituperatively panned in the New York Review of Books. Nabokov responded in kind, and from there, an important friendship between these two towering literary talents began to swiftly, spectacularly, crash.
July 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s death in 1977. He was a multilingual master of prose who crafted some of the twentieth century’s most enduring works of fiction, including Lolita; Pale Fire; Ada, or Ardor; Pnin; and Invitation to a Beheading. His sentences were more like sculptures than strings of words, even when he wrote in English, his fourth language. Although profound on the darkness of human behavior, he was also funny as hell—who could forget, for instance, how he unceremoniously explained Humbert’s mother’s death in Lolita with two words: “picnic, lightning”? His fiction could be challenging and ambitiously experimental, as in his novel Pale Fire, which consists of a 999-line poem written by one of the characters, and endnotes to the poem written by another. Nabokov’s novels were each tour de forces.
But Nabokov’s extra-textual activities were also fascinating and noteworthy in their own right. He lived in Russia, where he was born, Berlin, numerous cities in the U.S., and Switzerland. As a professor, Nabokov taught literature at Wellesley and Cornell, and at this last college, he taught none other than Thomas Pynchon. He volunteered as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, as Nabokov was a dedicated lepidopterist—that is, a studier of butterflies—and throughout his life spent many days collecting and cataloging butterflies.
He never learned to drive, though, so during his many lepidopterist expeditions, his wife Véra performed the chauffeur duties. And Véra Nabokov, née Slonim, is another wonderful aspect of Nabokov’s legacy, so much so she’s earned a place in literary history. Vladimir, in fact, was so dependent on Véra that she was also, according to Martin Amis, her husband’s “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy.” Their marriage lasted 52 years.
The following books will collectively give you a sense of Vladimir and Véra’s life together—the brushes with history, their nomadic existence, Vladimir’s creative genius, his obsession with butterflies, Véra’s brilliance, and, of course, their grand love for each other. And you can also see just how widely influential these two remarkable individuals were, in various fields, and to various people.
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