Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on November 22nd, 2015

Letters to Véra
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd
Alfred A. Knopf, 864 pages, $35

Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, author of the seminally twisted novel Lolita, dazzled readers in any genre he took up, including among his dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, translation, criticism, and memoirs a heartbreakingly moving and entertaining collection of letters that he exchanged with the American writer and critic Edmund Wilson. His more general Selected Letters also paints a rich portrait of his extraordinary mind and life, but that volume omitted nearly all of his letters to his singularly brilliant wife, Véra. From their initial masked-ball meeting in 1923 until his death in 1977, Véra was Nabokov’s sole intended reader for every book that he wrote, and any biographical account invariably employs the word “genius” to describe her, and so the decades-awaited Letters to Véra fills in much of the missing texture of the love-relationship that Nabokov described as “cloudless.”

Co-edited by Brian Boyd, whose two-volume biography serves as the gold standard for Nabokov studies, Letters to Véra follows the couple’s early romance as Russian émigrés in 1920s Berlin, which they fled for Paris in 1937 to escape the Nazis, and then to America in 1940 to escape the Nazis again, and then to international fame after the publication of Lolita in the 1950s. The greatest mass of letters recounts Nabokov’s brilliant literary tours through 1920s and 1930s Europe, along with his concurrently exhausting searches for work to support his family and his writing. The most illuminating batch of letters, from the spring and summer of 1926, recounts in minute detail his everyday reading and writing and teaching and eating schedule, written at Véra’s request to keep her informed and amused as she attempted to gain weight and manage her anxiety in a German sanatorium, giving the reader a glimpse of some of the accompanying pain that this loving couple endured.

The most excruciating batch of letters recounts his search for work in 1930s Paris while he was also having an affair, his stress-exacerbated psoriasis nearly driving him to suicide as Véra kept her distance with their young son, Dmitri. Illuminating all of this with a nearly Nabokovian brilliance himself, co-editor Boyd fills in all the background details in a staggering two-hundred pages of endnotes that relentlessly track down nearly every person or book or butterfly that Nabokov mentions. Boyd and co-editor/co-translator Olga Voronina have also rendered Nabokov’s Russian into a supple and agile English that sounds startlingly like the master’s own playful pyrotechnics, often coining ingenious cross-language puns with a literary mimesis comparable to the butterfly mimicry that lepidopterist Nabokov relentlessly traced throughout both art and nature.

As Nabokov finally finds success after decades of intense and precarious labor, he’s separated from Véra less and less, causing this collection to peter out rapidly, but the encompassing silence of the final years speaks volumes about the couple’s ultimate closeness and connectedness. Not simply cloudless, Vladimir and Véra’s full-spectrum love is one of literature’s greatest stories, and incorporating nearly every aspect of for-better-or-worse, this monumental volume wildly surpasses its every expectation.

—David Wiley