Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, by Stacy Schiff

A Review of Stacy Schiff’s

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov):

Portrait of a Marriage

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 1999/2000

By Stacy Schiff
Random House ($27.95)

When asked about his wife’s relation to his fiction, Vladimir Nabokov once declared that “most of my works have been dedicated to my wife, and her picture has often been reproduced by some mysterious means of reflected color in the inner mirror of my books.” Always coy, Nabokov failed to mention that his wife, Véra, was also the work’s typist, editor, translator, researcher, and first (and only intended) reader—as well as the author’s secretary, teaching assistant, chauffeur, accountant, ghost-correspondent, cook, and, for many years, financial supporter. But because she retreated so insistently to the background, biographers and critics have always had difficulty putting her in context to the man and to the work. Even Nabokov leaves her nameless in his memoir, Speak, Memory, so what biographer Stacy Schiff has set out for herself is the dauntingly Nabokovian challenge of separating ghostly fact from ghostly fiction.

As with her life, however, Nabokov also dominates her biography. Perhaps there isn’t enough information on Véra herself for Schiff to write anything more than just another Nabokov biography. But since Schiff only spends about twenty pages on the pre-Nabokov Véra, who met her husband when she was twenty-one, and about fifteen pages on the post-Nabokov Véra, who outlived him by thirteen years, the book’s slapped-on subtitle, “Portrait of a Marriage,” seems more accurate than its chosen title, Véra.

Still, looking at Véra and Vladimir as “the Nabokovs”—or as their collaborative moniker, VN—yields interesting surprises. It was after meeting Véra that Nabokov, who was known as a poet, began writing novels. And the meeting itself—Véra sent him a note instructing him to meet her on a bridge, where she arrived wearing a mask—surely informed the nature of his future work. But as the biography progresses, Schiff seems little interested in separating Véra from the masked variations of her that appear in her husband’s novels. And she’s so obsessed with Nabokov’s dopplegängers and mirror images that she projects them onto Véra, often citing the work to make sense of the life.

When the book succeeds at getting near its ostensible subject, however, it shocks the reader with Véra’s oddly amazing presence. By any account a genius, she had almost perfect recall—far better than her famously mnemonic husband—read much more widely than is conceivable, spoke four languages fluently (later learning enough Italian and Swedish to help translate her husband’s novels), and more or less did everything for Vladimir but compose his books. While he wrote, she worked, helped to prepare his lectures, delivered them when he was sick or away, kept up his correspondence, made hard-nosed deals with publishers, and performed almost superhuman amanuensic feats.

All this excellence, however, made the real world a little hazy for Véra Nabokov. In Germany in the 1930s, she was almost blindly oblivious to the Nazis (Véra was Jewish). And as the literary life wore on, dirt-poor or not, she never let go of her old-world prejudices. For all her genius, Véra Nabokov was deeply homophobic, seemingly unaware of feminism, rabidly right-wing (she supported McCarthy and befriended William F. Buckley), was a complacent war-profiteer (she invested Lolita money in McDonnell Aircraft during the Vietnam war), and, to top it all off, she carried a gun.

Not least important, though, she was a woman who for better or worse subjugated her genius to that of her husband—a subject that Schiff handles poorly, not once addressing the relationship in feminist terms. But for all her apologies—and despite her horribly clunky, faux-Nabokovian prose—Schiff somehow succeeds in transmitting her awesome affection for Véra Nabokov to the reader. Which is probably as close as we’ll ever get to the elusive Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

—David Wiley