Letters from Vladimir Nabokov could be as welcome to their recipients as an enquiry from the taxman or a reproach from an ex-spouse. His most helpful American supporter, Edmund Wilson, was berated for a ‘hopeless infatuation with the Russian language’ and ‘incomprehensible incomprehension of … Eugene Onegin’. Nabokov’s much-abused first biographer, Andrew Field, who tried too hard to probe his subject’s friends, relatives and ancestors, was not only dismissed as a ‘rat’ writing ‘tripe’, but also told, ‘The style and tone of your work are beyond redemption.’ Yet within the tiny inner circle formed by his wife, Véra, and son, Dmitri, Nabokov was unfailingly affectionate and attentive, and in all the surviving correspondence there are few scorpion stings. Perhaps the only chilling aspect is that such love for his wife and son left Nabokov with relatively little sympathy for his widowed mother and struggling siblings.
The letters here span fifty-three years; the bulk stem from the mid-1920s and the 1930s, when Vladimir and Véra were often in different European countries, as he, like so many Russian émigré literati, desperately sought publishers, translators, academic employers and residence permits, and she remained in Berlin, where she worked