(Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)



February 23, 2011 | ISBN 9780307781765

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About the Book

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR BIOGRAPHY • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the award–winning author of The Revolutionary and The Witches comes “an elegantly nuanced portrait of [Vladimir Nabokov’s] wife, showing us just how pivotal Nabokov’s marriage was to his hermetic existence and how it indelibly shaped his work.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Monumental.”—The Boston Globe
“Utterly romantic.”—New York magazine
“Deeply moving.”—The Seattle Times

Stacy Schiff brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time: Vladimir Nabokov, émigré author of Lolita; Pale Fire; and Speak, Memory, and his beloved wife, Véra. Nabokov wrote his books first for himself, second for his wife, 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 twentieth 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.
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Praise for Véra

“An absorbing story, illumined by Schiff’s flair for the succinct insight . . . This portrait of a fifty-two-year marriage to a woman who was the writer’s prime reader opens up Nabokov’s private life. . . . But the triumph of Véra is not just in providing entrée to her famous husband. She fascinates of her own right.”The New York Times Book Review

“Schiff has performed a monumental task in drawing a nuanced and fairly detailed portrait of the woman behind the mask both husband and wife conspired to create. . . . Writing in sprightly prose that captures the ‘verbal tennis’ of the couple’s interactions, [she] has given us a vivid and truthful portrait of a proud and gifted woman whose contribution to Vladimir Nabokov’s life and career was immense.”The Boston Globe

“A sharply focused, vividly detailed portrait. Schiff’s elegant prose style [is] at once forceful and playfully allusive in the nicest Nabokovian fashion.”Los Angeles Times

“Artful . . . both revolutionary and old-fashioned, an intimate biography that leaves both the dignity and the privacy of its subject intact.”Newsday

“Illuminating . . . ‘Without my wife,’ Nabokov once remarked, ‘I wouldn’t have written a single novel.’ . . . Schiff’s work boldly and brilliantly illuminates how complex was this deceptively simple statement . . . A superb portrait.”The Chicago Tribune

“Absorbing, often wildly amusing, and deeply moving . . . Véra’s mere listening to Lolita did more than we shall ever know to determine what we read when we read Lolita.”The Seattle Times

“Excellent . . . Behind every great man is a book about a great woman. The same is true of Schiff’s Véra, and yet it is more than just a portrait of a marriage. It is a necessary contribution to Nabokov scholarship. . . . Véra is both love story and literary study. . . . Schiff has done a splendid job.”San Jose Mercury News
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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."

About the Author

Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent books include Cleopatra: A Life and The Witches: Salem, 1692. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff lives in New York City. More by Stacy Schiff
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