Day 522: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Cover for VeraBefore I start on my review of Véra, I just wanted to comment on the death of Mary Stewart, which I just heard about. I have been reading and re-reading Mary Stewart’s books since I was a young girl. Not only did she write some of the best romantic suspense stories ever, but she also wrote a much-praised historical-fantasy series about Merlin. Her works were well grounded in their settings and beautifully evoked places (some of which we will never see again, such as 60’s Damascus and Beirut). To my surprise, my post about her book This Rough Magic continues to be one of the most visited on my site. We are going to miss Mary Stewart. I have re-read Stewart’s books so many times that I can write reviews of them from memory. I’ll post another one soon.

***

I’ve read two biographies now by Stacy Schiff, and both of them are about elusive women. Cleopatra was elusive because most of the information about her life is available only from prejudiced sources. Véra Evseevna Nabokov was elusive because she wanted to be.

Véra considered Nabokov to be a genius and his work to be of sole importance. She never publicly acknowledged her own contribution to it. Even the subtitle of this biography reflects the way she presented herself, always as Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

I don’t know a lot about Nabokov. I have read only one of his books, Lolita, but I found it astounding. Despite my dislike of the subject matter, reading it was an amazing experience, and I found the use of language astonishingly beautiful. But you do not need to be familiar with Nabokov’s oeuvre to find this biography, which won the Pulitzer, fascinating.

The Nabokovs had a truly collaborative relationship even though they never publicly acknowledged it. Although Véra denied helping him write, he often called her his first reader. Visitors heard her tell him to reword phrases or even remark, “You can’t say that!” For years, she typed up his manuscripts from his note cards or his dictation. She oversaw the translations of his work into different languages, even laboriously correcting them in the several languages she spoke. She was exacting about the use of words. She took care of all Nabokov’s correspondence, even to friends and family, as well as his business and financial affairs. She was the gatekeeper for interviews and visitors. She also drove him everywhere (and carried the luggage). Her entire married life was dedicated to providing him time and peace to write.

In areas even more directly affecting the success of his literary career, it was at Véra’s suggestion that Nabokov begin to write fiction in addition to poetry. Once the Nabokovs emigrated to America, Véra convinced Vladimir to begin writing in English. She pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of the fire on three different occasions, and it became his most famous work. Students taking his classes at Cornell were bemused by his “assistant,” who provided quotations or page references just when he needed them, drew complex diagrams on the blackboard, and erased it after class. Véra also taught his literature and language classes for him on many occasions and was acknowledged as a better, more systematic Russian language teacher than her husband.

Véra never seemed to resent this role she had taken on; she fostered it. But she was in no sense a nonentity. In correspondence she was much more direct than her husband. Although they tended to share correspondence—he would start a letter, perhaps; she would finish it; he would sign it—she was always left to impart the hard news—the refusal of contracts, the dictation of terms, the correction of translations. Many people believed that she was a dragon who was screening Nabokov’s mail or keeping people away from him, but she was doing what he wanted.

The couple was seldom seen apart. Although Nabokov had an affair early in their marriage and liked to flirt with women, he dedicated almost all his books to Véra. They had an extraordinary marriage, and this is an extraordinary, surprisingly entertaining book.

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13 thoughts on “Day 522: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

  1. Carolyn O May 19, 2014 / 11:55 am

    Love this review — I’d love to read this book. I thought her biography of Cleopatra was very well done. And thank you for the note about Mary Stewart. I’ve not read her books, but now I want to!

    • whatmeread May 19, 2014 / 11:57 am

      Schiff won the Pulitzer for this one. The Nabokovs come up with some zingers, which makes the book entertaining.

      Mary Stewart may seem a bit old-fashioned, and her later works are not as good (she was getting old), but I still love her. She is a lot more subtle than most romantic suspense writers.

    • whatmeread May 20, 2014 / 12:50 pm

      I meant to mention yesterday, Carolyn, that Stewart’s heroines are fond of poetry.

      • Carolyn O May 20, 2014 / 1:36 pm

        I am ever-more convinced!

      • whatmeread May 20, 2014 / 1:40 pm

        Maybe not all of them, but there’s a lot of quoting going on! Some of the heroes, too! In This Rough Magic, it’s more Shakespeare because of the theme of the novel. I think she picks poetry themes and quotes that way. For example, the title of The Ivy Tree comes from an old Northumbrian (or somewhere up north) song, and I believe the chapters are titled with similar quotes. I could be wrong. It’s been awhile.

  2. Alina (literaryvittles) May 19, 2014 / 3:00 pm

    I had no idea Vera and Vladimir had this kind of relationship! I, too, was astounded by “Lolita” – incredibly beautiful, incredibly disturbing. I am quite frustrated that Vera never took any of the credit for herself, though. The thought of a woman existing purely to “serve her husband” really upsets me—though if I’m remembering correctly, didn’t Nabokov dedicate “Lolita” to Vera?

    • whatmeread May 19, 2014 / 3:09 pm

      Yes, he dedicated most of his books to her. I wanted to make it clear that this was what Vera wanted. She felt that everything should be subservient to his art. Of course, this was great for him. Keep in mind that this was much more common for this generation anyway.

    • whatmeread May 19, 2014 / 3:09 pm

      Except for the luggage carrying, which apparently freaked all their neighbors out!

      • Alina (literaryvittles) May 19, 2014 / 3:18 pm

        ha! Well, wasn’t he rather portly in his later years? I guess the luggage could have been a struggle. Yes, you did make it clear that it was what Vera wanted. But that still doesn’t make it right in my eyes! Generational differences or no.

  3. Cecilia May 20, 2014 / 7:03 am

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I had no idea. I wonder how many other remarkable women there are behind great writers. Although Vera wanted to be low-profiled, it’s great that someone came forth and told her story, and in a way that justifies her efforts and achievements.

    I learned of Mary Stewart through you. It is always so sad when a favorite author passes on.

    • whatmeread May 20, 2014 / 7:33 am

      Yes, their relationship was more equal than Vera wanted others to know, despite the luggage hauling. He had it good, though, didn’t he?

      I love Mary Stewart. She hasn’t been writing the best books since the 90’s, but her older books are great.

  4. writereads May 20, 2014 / 11:58 am

    This book sounds fascinating! Great review and thank you for the recommend. Interesting that she made his art her life’s work. -Tania

    • whatmeread May 20, 2014 / 12:00 pm

      Yes, another reader wondered how many other author’s wives have done that. We probably don’t hear about it very often. Thanks for the compliment!

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