Before 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.