Book Awards E-MAIL US

(Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)
Stacy Schiff
Random House
480 pages



Véra Nabokov
The Other VN

In Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), Stacy Schiff argues that Véra played the central role in creating the fictional construct that Nabokov himself played for the public as 'VN.'.

It's happened before.

A biography 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, I think.

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 upheavals.

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 it.)

And that, I suppose, bears correction.


Véra 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 writes).

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, to Berlin.

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 meet Véra—yet.

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 Schiff writes,


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 memories might."


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 the trait].

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.


It 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.


In 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 in Berlin.

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 the papers."

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.


After 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 tickets.

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.


It 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 in 1943.

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 repertoire."

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 University.


With 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 on campus.


Outside 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 his.

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 'V. Nabokov.'"

But all this changed, of course, once Lolita found a publisher.


After 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 well-known—and profitable.

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 Fire.

After a lifetime's worth of perennial movement, they finally settled on a home, of sorts.


The 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 in Montreux.'"

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 and crash."


Nabokov 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 hidden life.

It's a good decision on her part, I think.

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.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted July 1, 1999



About the Author

Stacy Schiff is the author of Saint-Exupéry: A Biography. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, she lives in New York City and in western Canada.



Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.