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Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage
“Without my wife,” Vladimir Nabokov once noted, “I wouldn't have written a single novel.”
At once a love story, a portrait of a marriage, and an answer to a riddle, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) explores a remarkable literary partnership—that of a woman who devoted her life to her husband's art and a man who dedicated his works to his wife. Open a volume of Nabokov's, and there is Véra on the dedication page, front and center. But search for her elsewhere, and the woman to whom the author of Lolita was married for fifty-two years, who carried on his correspondence in his name, fades from view.
In a beautifully limned portrait, Stacy Schiff has now restored her to life. Schiff follows Véra Nabokov from her affluent St. Petersburg childhood, through the dramatic escape from Bolshevik Russia, to the streets of Weimar Berlin, where Véra makes a spectacular entrance into the life of her future husband, then a gifted but struggling writer of Russian verse. In the three decades that pass before he metamorphoses into the celebrated author of Lolita, Véra proves to be nothing less than his full creative partner. She had a need to do something great with her life. And as he made clear from the start, her husband had a very great need of her. Publishers, relatives, colleagues, agreed: "He would have been nowhere without her." This Nabokov well realized, acutely so when the marriage nearly foundered in the late 1930s.
In Berlin until a hair-raisingly late 1938, Véra supported the family. At Cornell, she attended every one of her husband's lectures, replacing him when he was sick. She drove the Oldsmobile in the back seat of which he composed Lolita; she was the woman who stayed in all of Humbert Humbert's motel rooms. She plucked the manuscript of that novel from the flames to which its author attempted to sacrifice it, commanding, "We are keeping this."
She proved no less steely when negotiating a publishing contract. She transcribed her memories of their son's early days so that Nabokov could draw on them for Speak, Memory. She was at all times his first reader, his memory, his foil, his muse. She corrected his stories in German, his memoir in French, his poetry in Italian—and translated Pale Fire into Russian when in her eighties. Through it all, she proved a woman of uncanny wisdom, a conventional wife with a splendidly unconventional mind. Largely because of her, the hallmarks of Nabokov's fiction—the doppelgängers, the impersonators, the Siamese twins, the mirror images, the distorted mirror images, the parodies of self—came to manifest themselves in the routine the couple developed for dealing with the world.
Drawing on a wealth of unpublished materials, including Vladimir's diaries and his letters to Véra, Stacy Schiff paints a discerning portrait of an elusive couple. Hers is a startlingly different image of the great writer, remembered best for his pronouncements and posturing. And she gives center stage to the disarming woman who was so much at the heart of it all, whose influence came so much to bear on the literature. In a narrative that combines superb scholarship with elegant prose, she offers up the crucial, missing piece of the Nabokov story.
Listen to a sample from the audio edition of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), as read by Anna Fields.
Reviews and Praise
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
"There are many good reasons to be interested in the life of Véra Nabokov, but the best one is that Stacy Schiff has written it. She is the rising star of literary biography: witty, lucid, penetrating and humane." Judith Thurman
"Véra is an astonishingly fine book—a tale told with wit and elegance, a tale that succeeds in encompassing both the intimacy of a marriage and the sweep of history...I'm in awe of Stacy Schiff's talent." Jonathan Harr
"Véra is a beautiful book. Built on a heroic scale, it is subtle, intimate, and richly argued. Almost every page projects a truly remarkable woman and her part as tutelary spirit in the work of a great writer. Has there ever been a literary marriage so productive, complex, and intriguing as this one?" Justin Kaplan
"I am truly in love with this book. Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast." Anita Shreve
"Schiff has succeeded in creating an elegantly nuanced portrait of the artist's wife, showing us just how pivotal Nabokov's marriage was to his hermetic existence and how it indelibly shaped his work. She effortlessly conjures up the disparate worlds the couple inhabited...a formidable challenge for a biography—a challenge that Ms. Schiff, with this book, has most persuasively met." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"An absorbing story, illuminated by Schiff's flair for the succinct insight...This portrait of a fifty-two-year marriage to a woman who was teh writer's prime reader open up Nabokov's private life....But the triumph of Véra is not just in providing entrée to her famous husband. She fascinates of her own right." Lyndall Gordon, The New York Times Book Review
"Schiff has performed a monumental task in drawing a nuanced and fairly detailed portrait of the woman behind the mask both husband and wife conspired to create.... Writing in sprightly prose that captures the 'verbal tennis' of the couple's interactions, [she] has given us a vivid and truthful portrait of a proud and gifted woman whose contribution to Vladimir Nabokov's life and career was immense." The Boston Globe
"A sharply focused, vividly detailed portrait. Schiff's elegant prose style [is] at once forceful and playfully allusive in the nicest Nabokovian fashion." The Los Angeles Times
"Artful...both revolutionary and old-fashioned, an intimate biography that leaves both the imagination and the privacy of its subject intact." Newsday
"Illuminating...'Without my wife,' Nabokov once remarked, 'I wouldn't have written a single novel.'...Schiff's work boldly and brilliantly illuminates how complex was this deceptively simple statement...A superb portrait." Louise DeSalvo, The Chicago Tribune