‘His Joy, His Life’ - Vladimir Nabokov

When he mailed the first missive to the woman who would become his wife, Vladimir Nabokov was a penurious, Berlin-based poet known to the émigré community as “V. Sirin,” a name that felt more familiar to him than his own. He dreamed still of Russia. When he mailed his last letter, he was a wealthy American novelist living in Switzerland, self-conscious about the quality of his Russian. In between came a shelf of literature, three wrenching changes of country, and nearly fifty years of marriage. It was the longest-running, most intimate correspondence of Nabokov’s life, in part because his wife quickly came to handle most others. Her husband had, she explained to William Maxwell when he phoned in 1964 on New Yorker business, a “communicatory neurosis.”

She molted too, from the fictional Mme Bertran, a code name she assumed in Berlin to disguise herself from Nabokov’s family, to the marble, monumental Véra Nabokov of Montreux. Both had been “perfectly normal trilingual children” in St. Petersburg, where their paths crossed but never intersected. When finally they met, in their early twenties, in Germany, Nabokov believed destiny had arranged the encounter. Their union felt to him preordained, a point he made by summoning an image from The Count of Monte Cristo. He mangled it a bit; he generally felt himself beyond language, illiterate, clumsy on the page when it came to Véra Evseevna Slonim. “I can’t tell you anything in words,” wailed the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century. He knew a fairy tale when he saw one. He was a man deeply in love.

Enchanted by Véra’s lightness, laugh, and “unique charm,” her “stretchy vowels,” “sweet long legs,” and “little dachshund paws”—he did not mention the pages of his verse that she had committed to memory—he poured out his heart. He needed her desperately. He could not write a word without hearing it in her pronunciation. He could not wait for her to read his pages. She understood his every comma. “All the happiness of the world, the riches, power and adventures, all the promises of religions, all the enchantment of nature and even human fame” could not equal, he swore in 1925, two of her letters.

Very quickly she began to color his writing. A pleasure of any extended collection of correspondence lies in the savory anticipations; we read for the shimmer of the future, to which we alone are privy. Vladimir and Véra had known each other for seven months when he invited her to move to America with him. He could offer “a sunny, simple happiness—and not an altogether common one,” a promise on which he largely delivered. “Your father,” he informed her in 1926, a year after their marriage, “finds that I ‘specialize in risqué subjects.’” All would happen precisely as the couple envisioned, if not remotely on schedule.

And Nabokov found the means to express the “cirrus-cumulus sensations” that would produce what he always referred to, needed to think of as, a cloudless marriage. Within months of their 1923 meeting, Véra was his joy, his life, his music, his love. She was also his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet—since he was not keeping a list he feared he might be repeating himself (he was); he worried he would run out of critters (he did not)—his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.

Through the 1920s he wrote to her of his admiration for Madame Bovary, of the color of snow, of Lenin’s death, about that quack Freud, the half-eaten chocolate in his hand, Longfellow, the yapping of a dog with a tail like a French horn, the rasp of his palm on his unshaved face (it sounded like a car braking), about—it was Nabokov in a nutshell—his fear of the post office, the etymology of the word “tennis,” the “thunderstormy tension that’s the harbinger of a poem.” He omitted no detail of his ablutions, his tailoring, his tennis game, his diet (there would appear to be an unheralded link between cold cuts and literary genius), in part because she made it easy for him to do so. Before a 1926 separation, Véra supplied her husband with a block of dated pages. “My darling,” he reminded her near the end of the first month apart, as he faithfully and exuberantly worked his way through the notepad, “I am the only Russian émigré in Berlin who writes to his wife every day.”

He was needling her. As if gathering her strength for the lifetime of paperwork ahead, Véra proved a disappointing correspondent. “Don’t you find our conversation somewhat…one-sided?” Nabokov wondered in 1924. He had been tempted to mail her a blank sheet of paper with a question mark in the middle but hated to waste the stamp. “My beloved insecticle,” he reminded his wife two years later, “today, by my count, I’m writing my hundredth page to you. And yours will make up no more than ten or so. Is this amiable?” He estimated that he had generated 80 percent of their correspondence. “You write disgustingly rarely to me,” he observed, sounding what was to become a half-century-long refrain.

In the end all of the correspondence would be his. Somewhere along the line, Véra’s letters disappeared. Dmitri Nabokov maintained that his mother—pathologically private, and well aware who the writer in the household was—destroyed them, although there is no evidence that she did so. It is just as likely that their recipient misplaced them; he was a man in whose hands telephone numbers evaporated, who could lose a book of matches in a tiny room, who might entrust his return ticket to the train conductor. We are left to reconstruct the object of Nabokov’s affection entirely from his side of the correspondence.

For all his sense of predestination—for all the rivers waiting for Véra’s reflection, the roads for her steps—theirs was not a marriage of similar minds. He effuses; he swoons; he levitates. She tugs him a little back to earth. He concocts a plan for the two of them to escape for a spell to Biarritz; his “long bird of paradise with the precious tail” does not think visas or funds will allow it. “Try not to look at this as if it were myth,” Vladimir rebukes Véra, a year into their marriage, although he is himself unable to crack the thorny riddle: “How can we get 500 marks?”

For the most part he appreciates her “silly, practical thoughts” and indulges her moods. “Try to be cheery when I come back,” he begged in 1942 from wintertime St. Paul, “(but I love you when you’re low, too).” He is cross with her only when she describes a butterfly as “yellow.” “There are,” rails the man who would hold that he often reproduced Véra’s picture “by some mysterious means of reflected color in the inner mirrors of my books,” who splashed prisms across the page, “a million shades of yellow.”

For once happiness writes in iridescent color. Togetherness does not; it is an irony of the Nabokovs’ lives that we owe most of their correspondence to financial hardship. After Hurricane Lolita swept through in 1958, delivering them from all such concerns, we have, properly speaking, only eight letters. The earlier gems for the most part date from the trip Nabokov took as a farmhand shortly after the two met; to his 1925 turn as a traveling companion; to the 1942 proto-Pnin circuit of the American South, as a lecturer, when he was still shaking off the urge to write in Russian, when briefly he allows himself to mourn his loss, having traded his mother tongue for a language that “is an illusion and an ersatz.”

In 1936 and 1937 Nabokov traveled to Paris, to which most of the Russian émigré community had then gravitated. The idea was to cultivate literary contacts, deliver some paid readings, ultimately to remove his family from Hitler’s Germany. (By that point they were a family of three, Dmitri having been born, silently in these pages, in the spring of 1934.) Nabokov had been plotting a Parisian move since late 1932. “We will rewrite Despair,” he promised Véra, “and in January we will move here.” The translation was made. The move was not.

Four years later, with a greater sense of urgency, he returned to France. Véra remained his angel and his enchantment but the quotidian asphyxiates the endearments. Might she file the papers for an American copyright? What should he talk about with a British editor? Should he buy a butterfly net? Which of the Russian works should he translate next? He tried out some lines and submitted embryonic ideas, along with pleas for razor blades. From La Rotonde, a coffee at his elbow, he reported that he was the toast of Russian Paris. On the one hand, he floated in “a syrup of compliments.” On the other, he railed against the “concentric whirlwinds” in which he lived. “I was absolutely not made for the colourful life here,” he griped, the more so as it left him without the ballast of his writing hours. To save money he accepted all dinner invitations. (He is not as superior as he will sound in Speak, Memory. The morbid dislike of Parisian restaurants would come later.) The letters are studded with proper names; he seems to have visited with the entire emigration.

And he missed his wife. He was “furiously bored,” miserable, enervated without her. He had no one to whom he could complain. By April, after eleven weeks apart, the separation had become a torture. He could endure it no longer: “Without the air which comes from you I can neither think nor write,” Nabokov grumbled. In the same letter he admitted that he had shared passages of her recent letter with two friends. “They said they understood now who writes my books for me,” he added. He hoped she was flattered.

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