The Real Life of Nabokov
Long-lasting love: Vladimir and Véra in Montreux in 1969 (photo: Giuseppe Pino/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
These letters could hardly have been published earlier. Their recipient — Nabokov's private and protective wife — needed to have died (which she did in 1991). Their son Dmitry needed to have agreed to their publication — which he did, soon before he himself died in 2012. Now, they come to us from the hands of two scholars and translators.
The book is long, like the marriage it documents. But it feels more uneven than that marriage, since its partners wrote only on the rare occasions of their separation by necessities of health, career, or family. (A touching exception is Nabokov's 46th wedding anniversary greeting, addressed from and to the Montreux Palace Hotel.) During a six-week separation in 1926, Nabokov wrote more than 50 letters, whereas between 1945 and 1965 he wrote only six.
The effect is that of an irregularly kept diary, which makes no attempt to summarise what has occurred during its gaps. On one page he tells Véra that she is to join him living in London; on the next, two years later, he tells her that he is soon to find work in Massachusetts.
The timing of these periods apart makes it unsurprising that he fails to mention certain important events in his life: the death of his brother in a concentration camp in 1945; the publication of Lolita in 1955. Other omissions, however, lack this explanation. Former Russian prime minister Kerensky, meeting Nabokov in 1945, was "horrified that I am so apolitical". Despite living, and writing these letters, during Weimar hyperinflation, the application of the Nuremberg Laws to his Jewish wife, the Second World War, and the onset of the Cold War, he makes almost no reference to any of these things.
He writes about himself — his reading, writing, social life, eating, carefulness with money, and difficulty obtaining visas — interspersed with striking vignettes. In these respects his letters resemble those of his contemporary D.H. Lawrence (to whose newly published and banned Lady Chatterley's Lover he makes snorting reference) — but unlike Lawrence, he does not broadly analyse the state of the societies in which he finds himself. He is concerned instead with detail, of that which he can see.
His opportunities for epistolary engagement with Véra's life were, in fact, limited. From his earliest letters onwards he complains of how little she writes (one letter to every five of his); and such letters as she wrote she destroyed. We can infer, however, that she was more anxious and depressive than her husband, who perpetually plays the role of comforter and entertainer. What we cannot infer are the mental and moral resources which allowed her to be Nabokov's typist, editor, translator and agent. Particularly when she was supporting their son in 1937, while he was in Paris having an affair of which she had heard and which he denied, the difference of their roles is understandable.