Of the subjects Stacy Schiff has written about, one, Cleopatra, issued only a single written word that we can presume came directly from her. (This was ginesthoi, Greek for “let it be done”.) The words we’re sure came through the hands of Véra Nabokov, subject of Schiff’s Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), include decades of her husband Vladimir’s near-daily letters as well as the typing of all of his novels, along with translations in English, Russian, German, French and Italian. But almost all of the words that went through Véra’s hands were placed under Vladimir’s name. The only person allowed to make suggestions as Vladimir wrote, she nevertheless insisted to one of her husband’s biographers that “the more you leave me out, the closer to the truth you will be”. Cleopatra was drastically rewritten by Roman and European historians. Véra largely erased herself.
Véra grew up just a few miles from her future husband in Pre-Soviet St. Petersburg without ever meeting Vladimir until they both became émigrés in Berlin in their twenties (which were also the twenties). She sought out Vladimir based on his published poems and readings he had done. (All her life, she would deny any memory of just how they met, but she had already memorized his verses by their first meeting.) She would spend a half century as Vladimir’s wife, secretary, agent, translator and driver. For Vladimir to maintain the isolation he needed in order to write (“I am writing my novel. I do not read the papers.”), she provided a wall between him and a world of interruptions. She worked while he wrote (as a translator in Weimar Berlin); she worked at his work (preparing his lectures and grading his students in America in the forties and fifties).
And, more than simply being an overworked assistant, she was his constant reader and constant confidant. Schiff wrote:
The Nabokovs came—and went—as a couple. Most people never saw him without her. Not only were they inseparable but their sentences fused, on the page and in person. They shared a datebook. Their handwritings invade each other’s notebooks; he would begin from one end, she from the other.
They even shared synesthesia together—associating colors with other non-visual senses:
Two synesthetics might have a thorny discussion over breakfast as to the color of Monday, the taste of E-flat. They might commit a poem to memory chromatically; they might recognize the silhouettes of numbers.
And yet despite these extraordinary creative intimacies with one of the towering figures of literature, Véra emphatically denied any literary or public significance at all. Schiff quotes Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd as feeling that “she could have been a writer of talent had she chosen to be, but believed so fervently in Nabokov’s gift that she felt she could accomplish more by assisting him than she might have on her own”.
Immediate questions arise to the modern reader about whether this undeniably talented woman should have existed in her husband’s shadow. But the whole of her biography shows that this is exactly where she preferred to be. Véra had a “near-religious appreciation” of literature, Schiff wrote, and believed Vladimir was “the greatest writer of his generation; to that single truth she held strong for sixty-eight years.”
Throughout, Schiff trusts her readers to form their own opinions on Véra. The conclusions are all there for the reader to make, though the biographer almost never preempts us. In fact, it’s only after most of four-hundred pages that Schiff makes an outright judgment of her subject: “In short she was a shrewish, controlling, dragon lady”. By that point—having read of Véra’s narrow and unyielding opinions, her vicious defenses of her husband, her highly selective memory—we can only agree, though we’ve already formed a great fondness in order to make it that far.
In an essay on Lolita, Martin Amis posited that the “perfect novel” would be completely underlined. Schiff’s Véra may as well be completely underlined. You would have to seek out passages in Véra that were not a marvel. Through every page of a lengthy book, she is able to deftly encapsulate an entire life, even a life that tried its best to disappear.
This is even more impressive given that Véra is essentially a book about letter-writing, which is what a great portion of Véra’s life was spent on and which forms the larger part of the book’s sources. Schiff sculpts and forms those details, finding corollaries in letters written decades apart, in a way that truly befits Vladimir’s professed “combinational delight” in pursuing patterns in the raw errata of life.
Three years into the marriage, Vladimir apologized to his mother for writing her in pencil; Véra was in the next room correcting proofs, with what was presumably the couple’s only pen. Thirty-five years later Véra lodged the same complaint.
There’s a great intimacy in what Schiff shows us in the Nabokov’s marriage, but they allowed very few glances into their inner lives. “They did the biographer no favors,” Schiff wrote. “They spent very little time apart. Why could they not be like Louise Colet and Flaubert, one hundred letters and only six visits in only a year and a half?” Véra destroyed all of her letters to Vladimir.
The couple had exceedingly few close friends, though they did inspire at least a couple obsessives. The poet Filipa Rolf, who stayed with the Nabokovs for two uncomfortable weeks, chased after their unreturned affections through almost daily letters for seventeen years. Vladimir’s mistress, Irina Guadanini, would ache for him for forty years after Véra put an end to their affair.
If we really insist on knowing Mr. and Mrs. Nabokov, they both stated that we do so only through the art—but not through art as biography. Vladimir “had held that style alone should constitute a writer’s biography”. By this measure, we have a full enough image of Véra according to this description by Vladimir: “her picture has often been reproduced by some mysterious means of reflected color in the inner mirrors of my books”. No one outside of their marriage was allowed on the walls of their life. They were remote and strikingly arrogant, truth be told. “We are as far from knowing the last meaningful words Véra and Vladimir exchanged,” Schiff wrote, “as we are from knowing those that had been imparted [when they met] on a Berlin sidewalk fifty-four years earlier.” If we find several unlit, unmirrored walls in their home, we’re not to ask for more light. The Nabokovs simply did not put their unedited selves on display.
On their own terms, the Nabokov’s marriage was pristine, just like the novels. (And if either the novels or the marriage was not pristine, they certainly would never acknowledge it.) But, also like the inimitable novels, the marriage is unlikely to serve as a model to anyone else.