of James Joyce's wife has been written, as has one
of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, and Ernest Hemingway's
assorted wives have shared space in a joint biography.
Nonetheless, skeptics might wonder whether we really
needed a biography of Vladimir Nabokov's wife, Véra.
After all, Nabokov himself has been studied at length,
most recently in an extended, two-volume biography
by Brian Boyd. Surely, one might argue, Véra
has vicariously gotten all the attention she deserves.
Feminist revisionism aside, Véra
herself would have agreed with the naysayers. Indeed,
whenever biographers and reporters approached her
for information about herself, she rather sternly
pointed them back to her husband, as if to say:
it's the artist, stupid.
But Véra's a special case,
While Zelda Fitzgerald is noteworthy
largely for the debilitating effect she had on her
husband's work, Véra deserves extended study
at least partly because she played such a profoundly
complicated role in helping her husband produce
such a steady, impervious body of work in the middle
of some of this century's most ferocious social
To go even further, as Stacy Schiff
does in her new Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),
you might even argue that Véra played the
central role in creating the fictional construct
that Nabokov himself played for the public as 'VN.'
Of course, given that Nabokov's
name is connected most readily to that pedophiliac
masterpiece, Lolita, the casual reader might
be excused for not knowing that there was
a Mrs. Nabokov. Or that Lolita was written
while the Nabokovs happily trekked across America
together in quest of rare butterflies for Nabokov's
collection. (In fact, Véra was personally
responsible for the manuscript of Lolita
surviving at all; she once literally pulled it from
the fire into which Nabokov had disgustedly flung
And that, I suppose, bears correction.
grew up as the second of three daughters in a prosperous
Jewish family in St. Petersburg. She was well-read,
ambitious and, at times, outspoken. As an adult,
Véra claimed to speak five languages: French
(her first language as a child), English ("the
language of play" in her childhood), Russian
and German. The fifth language is unknown, unless,
as Schiff points out, it was telepathy (which Véra
claimed to have all her life). Although anti-Semitic
laws kept Véra from participating easily
in the best schools, her intelligence—and
doting father—insured that she found satisfactory
supplementary education at home—piano, ballet,
tennis, and, of course, the classics ("Dickens,
Byron, Tolstoy, Maupassant and the English poets
constituted a large part of the fare," Schiff
It was, in short, a perfect childhood.
The Russian Revolution brought
all that to an end, of course. In 1914, St. Petersburg
became Petrograd, and when Lenin came to power in
1917, Véra's family was forced to flee first
to the Crimea, then to Vienna and finally, in 1921,
Nabokov's family was likewise
swept up in the exodus. His father, a liberal aristocrat,
had served as Minister of Justice in the Provisional
Government that followed Tsar Nicholas II's abdication,
and with Lenin's return, he and his family fled
to the Crimea and then to Berlin, to join that city's
expanding group of Russian expatriates.
Given Nabokov's growing reputation
among the Russian expatriates, it might have been
inevitable that the young, dashing poet would cross
paths with Véra. Indeed, Nabokov, who believed
strongly that fate had led him to his future wife,
narrowly missed meeting Véra when he went
to her father's publishing office (a short-lived
business) to discuss his translating a Dostoevsky
novel. The deal fell through, and Nabokov didn't
It wasn't their first near-encounter,
as far as Nabokov was concerned. They had had mutual
friends in St. Petersburg, and he even told others
that, as an infant, he had been strolled beside
his future wife's carriage in a public garden. Years
later, when the biographer Andrew Field asked the
Nabokovs what would have happened to them had there
been no Russian Revolution, Nabokov interrupted
his wife's answer to say: "You would have met
me in Petersburg, and we would have married and
been living more or less as we are now." As
For the two not to have met
and married remained wholly unimaginable to the
man with the protean imagination: He held an almost
religious conviction about the stubborn inevitability
of their union. He who had been so much buffeted
about by history—who having lost his country,
his father and his fiancee [from an earlier engagement],
had every reason to believe, as he did, that Fate
was ill-inclined toward him—preferred to
see coincidence as a marvelous artist.
As it turned out, they met in
Berlin in 1923, and in a flurry of meetings, letters
and poems, they quickly fell in love. They had two
things in common: a love of literature and acute
synesthesia (the mixing of disparate senses—most
often, 'colored hearing'). As Schiff points out,
"Two people gifted with synesthesia fall into
each other's arms as two people with photographic
Nabokov was fascinated to
discover that while his palette differed from
Véra's, nature occasionally blended colors.
His "m," for example, was pink (pink
flannel, to be exact); Véra's was blue;
their son's pinkish blue [their son inherited
Or so he liked to believe.
Sharing this information decades later with
a visitor, he was interrupted by Véra,
who gently attempted to set the record straight.
Her "m" was strawberry-colored. "She
spoils everything by saying she sees it in strawberry,"
grumbled her husband, demonstrating another
truth about synesthetics: Their recall is so
perfect that its defects tend to be those of
perception rather than of fact. Nothing is lost
on the synesthetic, for whom reality—and
in Véra Slonim's case, the printed page—bears
an added dimension. For the Nabokovs, it amounted
to their own private son et lumiere.
They were married April 15, 1925.
was not a perfect life in Berlin, despite the economic
boom the city was experiencing. Véra's father
had been financially ruined, and her parents separated;
Nabokov's father was killed by an assassin's bullet
intended for a political opponent (the father had
thrown himself in the bullet's path, to shield the
opponent), and his mother was struggling to survive
on a small pension.
Still, Véra worked as a
stenographer and gave English lessons to make money.
Nabokov himself gave English lessons and tennis
lessons. But in between lessons, he wrote, shifting
from poetry to prose. In the ten years the couple
spent in Berlin, he wrote seven novels, thirty-some
short stories and sundry poems.
Largely, he was able to produce
such a volume of work because Véra saw to
the bills, the mail, the shopping—the bulk
of life's daily demands that Nabokov refused to
deal with. At one point early in their relationship,
Nabokov claimed jokingly to be afraid of the post
office; later, he said he hated "everything
connected with the post: stamps, envelopes, finding
the right address." And as Schiff writes,
Telephone numbers proved delusions
in his hands. Objects had a tendency to run
for their lives in his presence. The man who
was afflicted by perfect recall of his own past
proved constitutionally incapable of remembering
the name of someone to whom he had been introduced
on repeated occasions weeks before...He lent
his own list of tortures, near verbatim, to
Van Veen in Ada: "The obstructive
behavior of stupid, inimical things—the
wrong pocket, the ruptured shoestring, the idle
hanger toppling with a shrug and a hingle-tingle
in the darkness of a wardrobe..." From
the list of things Nabokov bragged about never
having learned to do—type, drive, speak
German, retrieve a lost object, fold an umbrella,
answer the phone, cut a book's pages, give the
time of day to a philistine—it is easy
to deduce what Véra was to spend her
life doing. She never compiled a list of favorite
dislikes, at least on paper.
From Vladimir Nabokov's perspective,
it would seem to have been the ideal writer's life.
But, of course, it was not to last.
1929, Berlin's economy (buoyed, until then, by foreign
investment) collapsed with the Stock Market Crash.
In 1932, the Reichstag was dissolved, and Hitler
began his steady climb to the head of the German
government. A year later, Hitler became chancellor,
and in February 1933, the Reichstag burned. The
first Jewish laws were enacted that spring, and
a Jewish exodus began.
But, strangely, the Nabokovs stayed
Véra, as a Jew, was certainly
aware of the Nazis' climb to power. She "witnessed
firsthand the destruction of a culture in May 1933,"
Schiff writes, "when she stumbled upon a book-burning
on her way home. It was twilight; she stayed long
enough to hear the crowd burst into patriotic song
but hurried on before the storm troopers began to
prance around their bonfire." Soon, the swastikas
and storm troopers were everywhere.
So why did they stay?
Schiff suggests a few reasons:
Russia didn't offer a better haven, the Nabokovs
were still making ends meet in Berlin, and, perhaps
most importantly, "Nabokov did not find politics
in any way broke his literary stride." Indeed,
in 1934, he wrote that writers "should occupy
themselves only with their own meaningless, innocent
intoxications. I am writing my novel. I do not read
But Véra did. And after
the birth of their son Dimtri in the spring of 1934
(in keeping with her refusal to draw attention to
herself, Véra had concealed the pregnancy
from virtually everyone but her husband), the situation
grew worse. Indeed, Nabokov was to recall that,
as Véra typed up the manuscript for An
Invitation to a Beheading, "[W]e heard
Hitler's voice from rooftop speakers."
In 1933, they had been granted
visas, but they didn't use them—probably at
first, Schiff suggests, because of Véra's
pregnancy and then because of the time-consuming
problems the new baby posed. Eventually, though,
dwindling resources forced Nabokov to look abroad—to
America, even—for academic work. ("I
am not afraid of living in the American boondocks,"
he wrote to an American friend.)
Still, nothing came of his searches.
Then, in May of 1936, General
Biskupsky was appointed to lead Hitler's Department
of Emigre Affairs, and he chose Sergei Taboritsky—the
man who had killed Nabokov's father—to be
his undersecretary. Taboritsky's task, Véra
said, was "ferreting out Russian Jews and maintaining
a corps of Russian fascist translators and intelligence
agents to interrogate prisoners of war." Soon,
the department began registering Russians in Berlin,
and the Nabokovs searched desperately for a way
to escape Germany.
Finally, in January 1937, Nabokov
traveled to Belgium for a reading. He never returned
to Germany. Véra stayed behind in Berlin
for three months, arranging the final stages of
their emigration, and then, after a series of failed
plans, she joined Nabokov in Prague.
visiting Nabokov's mother in Prague, they traveled
to France, and Véra soon discovered her husband
had been engaged in a poorly concealed affair with
an unmarried woman in her absence. For some time,
Nabokov hesitated, unsure which to choose: the lover
or his wife and son. "Véra's response
to the affair," Schiff writes, "was to
blame herself. She felt she had neglected her husband
because of the daunting task of caring for a child
and on account of the unbearably difficult material
conditions under which they had lived in Berlin.
Vladimir explained as much to Irina [the other woman],
reporting that his wife was now doing all she could
to make up for her inattention."
In the end, of course, he chose
to stay with Véra.
Infidelity wasn't the only trouble
Véra faced in France. Despite their best
efforts, they could not procure Nabokov a teaching
position in England (their first choice) or America.
War was declared in France, and the Nabokovs sent
their son to the French countryside, where he stayed
for three months. By law, Vladimir Nabokov would
soon either have to leave France or join the French
army. He became even more adamant in his letters
to friends, relatives, universities and publishers
in America. Finally, in February 1940, visas were
granted to the Nabokovs, but they didn't have the
six hundred and fifty dollars needed for three steamer
Happily, a Jewish rescue organization
procured half-fare tickets, and another agency came
up with the rest of the funds—one day after
the Nazis invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
On the day the Nabokovs set sail for America, the
Nazis were seventy miles outside Paris and advancing.
The Nabokovs arrived in New York
on May 27, 1940. "There was plenty of cause
for concern," Schiff writes:
For the third time a mythical,
flourishing world had collapsed behind the Nabokovs,
who escaped as if through a trapdoor. This one
came hanging down behind them. It was not literally
true that they had made their way "out
of a cell, which in fact was no longer there."
Despite what Vladimir liked later to claim,
the building at 59, rue Boileau [their last
apartment building in Paris] was not obliterated
by a bomb. The Germans were in Paris on June
14, however; the Champlain [the ship
on which the Nabokovs had crossed the Atlantic]
hit a mine and sank on its next westbound crossing.
And among the many borders they had traversed
the Nabokovs had this time crossed a truly semantic
divide. In Berlin and Paris a Russian counted
as an emigre. In America, she was a refugee.
Véra's English conversation
skills were weak, she found, and perhaps worst of
all, she soon discovered that wives in America were
expected to cook, clean, iron, wash clothes and
then clean everything again.
wasn't an easy transition for Nabokov himself either.
He couldn't initially find an American publisher
willing to take on his work, and he adamantly refused
to take on the one job offered him—wrapping
packages in the Scribner's bookstore. ("One
of the few things that I decidedly do not know how
to do is wrap something," Nabokov asserted.)
Then he got some book review assignments and delivered
a few guest lectures. Eventually, Stanford University
offered a ten-week summer position, which he gratefully
accepted, as they were virtually penniless.
Still, so great was Nabokov's
optimistic belief that Fate would see them through
their troubles that he actually turned down a permanent
teaching position in Ridgefield. "It's true,"
Nabokov admitted, "it is quaint here, but all
the trees have been chemically treated, so there
probably aren't many butterflies."
And that, as far as he was concerned,
settled the issue.
In the meantime, Véra had
taken a job writing for a French newspaper but was
forced to quit during an attack of sciatica. Fate,
though, seemed to be on Nabokov's side after all:
when the Stanford post ended, Wellesley offered
Nabokov a one-year position, and they were back
East when America entered the Second World War.
Nabokov was more interested in
his work with the butterfly collection in Cambridge's
Museum of Comparative Zoology than he was either
in the war or his teaching responsibilities ("Wars
pass," he noted. "Bugs stay.") Dutifully,
Véra typed his ciriculum vitae for him and
drew up a list of lecture topics. Despite his indifference,
he received another two-course appointment at Wellesley
Still, through a series of one-year
appointments at Wellesley, they never seemed to
have enough money, despite Nabokov's optimism (and
fruitless demands for pay raises). From 1944 to
1947, Véra took a series of secretarial jobs
and academic assistant positions. In 1945, when
Nabokov tried to turn down a Russian Literature
course offer from Wellesley, Véra offered
to write the lectures herself, if he would only
accept the position. "Sparing her husband the
necessity of looking up dates or biographical details,
which she knew he found tedious," Schiff writes,
"she compiled a concise history of Russian
literature. Together the two rewrote some thirty
lectures, which Nabokov delivered twice a week at
Wellesley; these proved part of the repertoire for
nearly fifteen years, ultimately part of the published
So close was Véra to Nabokov's
teaching responsibilities that she actually delivered
his lectures in his place when he was too sick with
the flu to show up—or when, as he did in 1947,
he traveled to another college for a job interview.
She was, according to the students who saw both
Nabokovs lecture, better organized and more disciplined
than her husband.
The job searches paid off: in
1947, Nabokov accepted a permanent position at Cornell
the move to Cornell, Véra took up another
responsibility: driving. Véra tried to persuade
Nabokov to learn to drive himself, to no avail,
as Schiff notes:
It was virtually impossible
for him. He had very little interest in focusing
on the road; he insisted that he was terrified
of sliding behind the wheel. He distrusted cars,
unsurprising in a man who claimed to be intimidated
by electrical pencil sharpeners but odd all
the same for the author of the most original
road novel ever written.
So Véra drove him to class,
and, in the summers, she played chauffeur on their
cross-country butterfly-collecting journeys. She
didn't mind the driving; in fact, she was a speed
demon. After driving Nabokov to a dentist's office
in a neighboring town, her husband wrote that they
returned home "minus my teeth and the Massachusetts
part of her license."
Véra also took on a more
active—and ubiquitous—role in Nabokov's
classroom at Cornell. Indeed, many students thought
the silver-haired woman accompanying their professor
was Nabokov's paid assistant, rather than his wife,
a misconception the Nabokovs did little to correct.
Nabokov even addressed Véra has "my
assistant" in class (a few examples: "My
assistant will now move the blackboard to the other
side of the room," "My assistant will
now pass out the bluebooks," and "My assistant
will now draw an oval-faced woman").
She carried his briefcase,
and opened any doors that stood in his way.
In the classroom she sat either in the front
row of the lecture hall or, more often, in a
chair on the dais, to the professor's left.
Her eyes rarely left him. If he dropped a piece
of chalk she retrieved it; if he needed a page
number or a quotation she provided it. Otherwise
she had no speaking role during the lecture.
After class she erased the blackboard. She lingered
at the podium while Nabokov answered questions.
When he forgot his glasses she was dispatched
on a search-and-rescue mission. The professor
labored uncomfortably from memory until her
return. She rarely missed a class, although
she did occasionally teach one, and she often
proctored exams alone. All administrative affairs
were delegated to her.
They made an amusing pair—Nabokov
(dressed in pink shirts and yellow ties) "the
buffoon, the showman, the sage, the evangelist,
the classroom conjurer" in Schiff's words,
and Véra (dressed in black) a "stern,
sphinxlike person," Nabokov's "polar twin."
Nabokov's classes soon became among the most popular
the lecture hall, Véra was decidedly more
aggressive, even bullying, particularly when it
came to dispensing literary judgments. (It was,
it seems, a trait she shared with her husband.)
And while the students were fooled by the 'my assistant'
vocabulary into thinking Véra played merely
a meek, subservient role in the marriage, Nabokov's
fellow professors and writers were not. Indeed,
they soon learned to address mail to Véra
rather than Nabokov, if they needed something answered
quickly. And Nabokov adopted his wife's literary
assessments as his own nearly as often as she borrowed
Inevitably, the couple's separate
identities began to merge. "I, or rather Véra,
have-has typed out already ten pages of The Person
from Porlock," he wrote to their mutual
friend, Edmund Wilson. Further muddying the distinction
between the author and his wife, Wilson in turn
apologized to Véra when he found he
didn't think as highly of the manuscript as he did
of Nabokov's earlier work (it became Bend Sinister).
Likewise, whenever people tried to praise Nabokov's
work, he would cut them off by saying, "Tell
it to Véra."
Véra made use of the various
layers of identity and often hid behind her husband's
signature when writing his letters. She even invented
a third character ("J.G. Smith") for particularly
forceful notes. "In the early 1950s,"
Schiff writes, "those letters to which Véra
did lend her signature as well as her voice went
out from 'Véra Nabokov' or from a more neutral
But all this changed, of course,
once Lolita found a publisher.
failing to secure an American publisher for Lolita
(he couldn't even use the postal service to
mail it, for fear of prosecution—a guaranteed
deal-killer when it comes to manuscript submissions),
Nabokov settled on Maurice Girodias's far less reputable
Olympia Press in Paris (among Girodias's forgotten
masterpieces: White Thighs). And although
he feared it would cost him his teaching position
at Cornell, Nabokov acquiesced to Girodias's demands
that he let it be published under his real name.
Time passed, and nothing happened.
The book appeared in France, but not in America
or England. Then, Graham Greene called it one of
the three best books of 1955. The conservative Sunday
Express in turn called it "sheer unrestrained
pornography"—and between the two highly
publicized positions, Nabokov found his book suddenly
Indeed, once the book found an
American publisher (suddenly an easy task, given
the publicity), it became "the first novel
since Gone with the Wind to sell a hundred
thousand copies within three weeks of publication."
Soon, the sales quadrupled, as the book became a
world-wide 'event.' Buoyed by royalty payments (and
despite finding himself suddenly in a seventy-percent
tax bracket), Nabokov was finally able to quit teaching.
February 1, 1959 marked the end of the professor
and his assistant.
It also marked the end of Véra's
anonymity. Rather abruptly, she began signing letters
as "Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov." And she even
submitted to interview and photography requests
for a simple reason: she had to show the world there
was a Mrs. Nabokov—and let people see
that Mrs. Nabokov was of legal age to marry.
The New York Post took
pains to observe that he was accompanied to
[the Harvard Club] reception by "his wife,
Véra, a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired
woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita."
At the Harvard Club reception as elsewhere,
admirers told Véra that they had not
exactly expected the author to show up with
his distinguished-looking wife of thirty-three
years. "Yes, Véra replied, smiling,
unflappable. "It's the main reason I'm
here." At her elbow her husband chuckled,
admitting that he had been tempted to hire a
child escort for the occasion. But the truth
was a potent one: Véra's existence kept
the fiction in its place, reassured readers
skittish about Lolita's subject that
Nabokov's perversities were of a different kind.
With Véra now playing a
decidedly more visible role in her husband's career,
the Nabokovs crossed the Atlantic—for the
first time in over twenty years. They were pursued
everywhere by the press.
They stayed in Europe until February
1960, when they moved briefly to Hollywood so that
Nabokov could produce the screenplay for Stanley
Kubrick's adaptation of Lolita (Nabokov had
turned down Kubrick's request earlier, but changed
his mind when Kubrick doubled his offer). They returned
to Europe in November, and, after moving frequently,
they officially settled down in Switzerland's Montreux
Palace—largely because it was quiet enough
in the off season to allow Nabokov to work on Pale
After a lifetime's worth of perennial
movement, they finally settled on a home, of sorts.
years in Switzerland were increasingly marked, many
visitors thought, with loneliness. And many critics
found Nabokov's books from the Montreux years (Pale
Fire, Ada and Look at the Harlequins!)
a little cold and insular. They were, it seemed,
on the verge of disappearing behind their own suddenly
empty masks. It wasn't something that particularly
bothered either Nabokov; in fact, Schiff notes that
"Vladimir himself delighted in explaining that
the living, breathing, breakfasting Nabokov was
but the poor relation of the writer, only too happy
to refer to himself as 'the person I usually impersonate
Of course, the general public
blithely settled for the 'VN' mask, but friends
made note of the change. In a letter to a mutual
friend, Edmund Wilson asked "Have you seen
Volodya Nabokov on the cover of Newsweek?
He looks like some model who had been hired to pose
as Volodya Vladimir Nabokov." And Jason Epstein
opined privately that "It is a false idea to
imagine a real Nabokov."
The mask(s) worked, though. Nabokov
quietly wrote his novels, undisturbed, and Véra
continued to answer his voluminous mail and scrupulously
check the translations of his books (she taught
herself various foreign languages to do this, though
she balked at the Hindi translation of Lolita).
But as the years passed, both she and Nabokov slowed
down. Then, after a long series of illnesses, Nabokov
died on July 2, 1977, in a Swiss hospital. True
to form, Véra didn't let her emotions show.
When a nurse "precipitated herself bodily upon
Véra, with condolences," Schiff writes,
Véra pushed her away
with an acid, "S'il vous plait, Madame."
She had no patience for cliches and did not
intend to play the grieving widow. When she
saw her sister-in-law that month she issued
equally stern (and unnecessary) instructions
for the visit: "But please, no tears, no
wails, none of that." She had a similar
request to make regarding the quiet ceremony
in nearby Clarens that followed the cremation
on July 7: She asked a family member not to
embrace her. She appeared in perfect command
of herself on that occasion, as the forty or
so friends and relatives who gathered at the
hillside cemetery...expected she would. The
mask had served her well for over half a century;
there was no reason to drop it now.
Only with her son, on the day
of Nabokov's death, did she allow herself to grieve,
telling him quietly, "Let's rent an airplane
scholars looking for yet another reading of Nabokov's
works will be somewhat disappointed with Schiff's
Véra. She certainly deals with the
more obvious elements of the novels that refer to
Véra herself, and the extended attention
Schiff gives to the hoopla surrounding the publication
of Lolita is quite strong. But largely, she's
concerned simply with narrating a complicated, largely
It's a good decision on her part,
Where Brenda Maddox's Nora
is too often merely a rehash of the relevant
Nora material from Richard Ellmann's definitive
Joyce biography, and where Bernice Kert's The
Hemingway Women is mostly useful in trying to
explain why anyone would live with an oaf like Hemingway,
Schiff's biography is an original work that adds
new material to the existing Nabokov studies.
Indeed, she's pulled off something
quite impressive, here: she's managed to clarify
our understanding and appreciation of an intensely
private woman while also offering a more complicated—and
more complete—portrait of Nabokov himself,
both as an artist and a man.