Letters to Véra
By Vladimir Nabokov
864 pages, $28
Reviewed by Alisa Sniderman
“What the hell, Sir, do you know about my married life?” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in response to Matthew Hodgart’s review of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). In The New York Review of Books, Hodgart had suggested that the reunion of Van and Ada — “both rather horrible creatures” in Nabokov’s opinion — somehow reflected the author’s real-life marriage. Nabokov demanded a prompt apology, which Hodgart delivered via a letter to the editors in which he acknowledged that his “extrapolation” was “unwarranted.”
Now, with the publication of Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, his wife of 52 years, expertly translated into English and carefully annotated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, we are privy to the author’s genuine devotion; although, as the letters also reveal, the couple suffered their share of domestic woe, worry, and even betrayal. What distinguished the marriage, perhaps, was their shared love of literature and the idiosyncratic ways this passion colored their everyday reality. In fact, Letters to Véra (Knopf; 2015) is worth reading for the prose alone. But there is more. As Stacey Schiff notes in her biography Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov (1999), Nabokov once called Véra his “first and best reader.” Indeed, Nabokov’s letters to Véra testify to the significance of her role.
“I can’t tell you anything in words—and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone, do you know what I mean, in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision,” Vladimir wrote to Véra on November 8, 1923. And in the same letter he mentions that she “can be bruised by an ugly diminutive.” Already, in those early days of their courtship, Nabokov was aware of Véra’s high literary standards; he brought his best observations to the table not to seduce a wide-eyed young woman but to prove his literary craftsmanship to a kindred spirit. Although the correspondence is one-sided (the ever-private Véra destroyed all her letters to her husband), we catch glimpses of the enigmatic woman who enchanted and challenged the author throughout their life together. In many of his letters he teases and scolds her for not writing back: “I am the only Russian émigré in Berlin who writes to his wife every day,” he insists; “It is a mystery to me why you do not write,” he complains; “You seem to write to everyone except me,” he accuses, and then as if resigned he writes, “You’re voiceless, like all that’s beautiful… I’m already used to the thought that I won’t get a single letter more from you, my bad love, you.” At one point, Nabokov even speculates that had they “published a little book — a collection of [her] letters and [his] — there would have been no more than 20% of [her] share.” However, Véra’s silence acquires dimension and meaning depending on the year and the events of their lives, and given an introduction from Boyd in which he provides historical and biographical context, the reader is able to guess at varying reasons behind her reserve.
The letters from the early courtship, dating back before their wedding on April 15, 1925, suggest that Véra may have been playing hard to get: Nabokov was already famous in Russian émigré circles, as much for his amorous conquests as for his promising poetry and prose. But regardless of how often she wrote, she was never a mere receiver, rather an evidently sophisticated and demanding peer, for whom he delivered observations like this one: “Over the snows, in the mists, the sunset shone through tenderly, dimly, like the undeveloped colors of decalcomania (you know what I mean?)” In one letter, dated June 25, 1926, Nabokov thanks Vera for her description of “a delicious sunset” over which he “began to drool” as soon as he read it. In another, dated January 8, 1924, he writes:
But then I received today — finally — your wonderful (stellar!) letter. You know, we are terribly alike… For example, in letters: we both like 1) to slip in foreign words unnoticed, 2) to quote from favorite books, 3) to translate impressions from one sense (for example, vision) to another (for example, taste), 4) to apologize at the end for imaginary nonsense; and much more.
No wonder Vladimir complained and longed for Véra’s response. Like him, she was a synesthete, a lover of literature, a stickler for detail: she understood what he meant when he wrote about “how we unfairly insult things with our inattentiveness,” and his letters to her reflect his inimitable style: His gift for metaphor —“Wonderful pink feathers of parallel clouds have just died out in the matt-blue sky — the ethereal ribs of heaven”; his sense of humor — “I dropped a lamp the other day, and it had a cardiac arrest”; and his signature use of qualifying parentheticals —“All in all, everything here was unusually successful (except for one lapsus lingui during the discussion yesterday: student: ‘but don’t you think that a reader must live with the characters?’ I: ‘no, — with the author.’).
Although Véra remains in the shadows in this collection, Boyd emphasizes her indomitable spirit in his introduction. Throughout the years she took on many roles — life partner, friend, lover, teaching assistant, typist, researcher, agent, chauffeur, secretary, snow-shoveler — but she was no pushover. As Boyd puts it, Véra “dedicated herself to serve Nabokov, but on her own terms.” Both Boyd and Schiff (in her biography) stress that it took a woman of immense strength, compassion, and intellectual prowess to stand by Nabokov’s side, to know when to encourage him and when to rein him in. Like her husband, Véra appreciated masks and deception in art, but when it came to her own marriage she could tell when she was being deceived and she would not stand for it.
“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.” Nabokov’s 15th novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, begins with this famous inversion of Leo Tolstoy’s opening sentence of Anna Karenina. Indeed many of the letters, both happy and unhappy, will strike the reader as typically prosaic. They brim with financial worry, illness—a vivid case of food poisoning—descriptions of hygiene (soiled underwear and dull razors), made-up terms of endearment, pangs of real or feigned jealousy (“My dear life, why don’t you write me anything about your new acquaintance ‘from Moscow’? Well? I’m very curious… Is he young and handsome? Well?”). There are even traces of vulgarity here and there — that very quality that Nabokov criticized in others—poshlust. In his study of Gogol, Nabokov defines poshlust “not only as the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” As his letters to Véra attest, he himself was not immune.
In 1937, a year during which he wrote home often, Vladimir was trying to make a name and a living in the literary circles of Paris; Véra remained in Berlin, caring for little Dmitri, their son. On the surface, the letters from that time show Nabokov desperately trying to make arrangements to reunite with his family: he writes about visas, bureaucratic red tape, travel routes. In fact, he was having an affair with another Russian émigré, an aspiring poet and dog groomer, Irina Guadanini, and those familiar with his biography will detect a whisper of deception in seemingly innocuous phrases like “Irina has lost her good looks”; “I see thousands of people — the Kokoshkin-Guadaninis (don’t you dare be jealous)”; “giving English lessons to Irina G. (fifteen)”; and in his point-blank denials — “all the Irinas in the world are powerless.” Véra must have seen through the smoke and mirrors because in a letter dated April 20, Vladimir finally addresses “the vile rumors” that have reached her in Berlin. He deflects accusations with the excuse that people say “nasty things” about him because he “pull[s] people’s leg a good deal.” In truth, Irina was not an easily dismissible dalliance and the marriage was severely tested. Whatever the setbacks, later letters indicate that the couple was able to elevate their union to an art: to prove that happy marriage is a fiction, after all, one continuously written and rewritten by husband and wife. Years afterward, lecturing about Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenin” as he called it, Nabokov would say:
Levin’s marriage is based on metaphysical, not only physical, concept of love, on willingness for self-sacrifice, on mutual respect. The Anna-Vronski alliance was founded only in carnal love and therein lay its doom.
In Resisting Representation (1994), Elaine Scarry notes the scarcity of fictions about marriage, about what happens after the echo of the wedding bells dies down:
Everybody, as Bruno Bettelheim once lamented, already knows how to court: flirtation, desire, the initiation of love, the proposal of marriage, all obsessively represented in the novel, are all subjects about which people are in little need of instruction, while the perpetuation of love, the sustaining of vows, the keeping of the promise, the daily rerepair of marriage, are subjects about which many people would gladly accept inventive instruction, and subjects about which literature is nearly silent.
Actually though, there are plenty of fictional portrayals of marital misery. From Madame Bovary to Revolutionary Road to On Chesil Beach to Gone Girl, novels throughout the ages have described what can go wrong after we say our “I do’s.” Even Nabokov’s own fiction, which so often chronicles the throes of passion and obsession — from the philistine allure of adultery to a variety of sexual aberrations including pedophilia and incest — does not give us many examples of truly happy couples: the young Fyodor and Zina of The Gift, the elderly Shades of Pale Fire. It’s difficult to capture a happy and successful marriage, perhaps because those who are lucky enough to have one tend to keep it to themselves. Can we therefore conclude from his letters to his wife that the Nabokovs were happy? Not really. Nabokov’s letters afford us only a peek — and the nature of correspondence is that it marks time and distance apart. Thus, as Boyd notes in his introduction, “the second half of their life together, from 1950 to 1977, occupies only 5 percent of the letters that follow.” Still, there are rare gems from their time together. A note on an index card left for Véra from 1969 reads: “How charming to hear your pure little voice in the garden from my balcony. Such sweet notes, such a tender rhythm!” An anniversary message, accompanying flowers, reads simply as: “Forty-five springs!” In 1975, Nabokov was still writing poetry to his wife:
And do you recall the thunderstorms of our childhood?
Frightful thunder over the verandah — and at once
The most azure aftermath
and on everything — diamonds?
Most moving, perhaps, are those lines in the letters that indicate the exclusive and private nature of their bond. In the summer of 1926, Nabokov sprinkled the letters with word games she seemed to have no problem solving. As Nabokov scholar Gennady Barabtarlo mentions in the Appendix One: Riddles, “it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.” No doubt at least some of the games relied on inside jokes, shared history, an intimate code. In Schiff’s biography of Véra, she quotes the young Swedish poet Filippa Rolf, who visited the Nabokovs in Nice in 1961, and wrote: “They are mating like butterflies behind any bush right in the middle of the conversation, and they separate so quickly that one doesn’t notice until later.”
In the last chapter of Speak, Memory, his celebrated memoir, Nabokov addresses his wife over the heads of other readers: “The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.” “We had a very unusual relationship,” Véra Nabokov told Martin Amis when he visited her in Montreux in 1981. So husband and wife eluded the prying outside scholar and fan — so they continue to elude us, even in this collection of letters, strange, beautiful, revealing as they are.