When considering wives of twentieth-century artists, the line between muse and typist can be hard to find. Ditto chauffeur. Vladimir Nabokov could neither drive nor type, nor remember a telephone number. His beautiful, clever, capable, devoted Véra did it all for him and gave his lectures, too, when he was indisposed. She helped him chase, catch and classify butterflies. She shared his long exile, as he went from Berlin to Paris to American academia to Switzerland, where they ended their days. He dedicated all his books to her. Véra Slonim Nabokov (born in St Petersburg in 1902; died in Montreux in 1991) married the writer in Berlin in 1925. She produced their only child, Dmitri, in 1934. She pushed and guarded her husband through what was not – for a long time after leaving Russia where he was established – a brilliant career. Three times during the Cornell years she rescued Lolita from the bonfire, believing it to be a great book and a subtle probe ‘to the depths of a horrible maniac’. Her critical tolerance was not indiscriminate. She vetoed his wish to write a novel about the love life of Siamese twins. ‘No, you’re not!’ she said, and he obeyed.
With this biography, Stacy Schiff fills in a glaring gap in the ‘wives of’ portrait gallery. It has often been reported how Véra drove the Oldsmobile across the United States while her ‘Volodnya’ wrote Lolita. And anyone who ever took any of Nabokov’s courses during his American academic career in the 1940s and 1950s – Cornell, Wellesley and Harvard gave him house room – was familiar with the poised, white-haired woman who sat at the back of the room, supplying the occasional prompt when the Great Man faltered and escorting him, almost like a security guard, in and out of the classroom.
But the overall picture has been cloudy. And the details present problems because the cosmopolitan, multilingual Véra Nabokov became (and who can blame her?) a not-very-pleasant woman in her American years. In the small-town world of Fifties academia, where wives were silent supper-housekeepers, she disdained floor-polishing and cookie-making in favour of speaking her mind at faculty gatherings. Introduced to a new professor, an expert on Goethe, she declared: ‘I consider Faust one of the shallowest plays ever written.’ Among the liberal academic community she and her husband were conspicuous not only as Germanophobes but as rabid anti-Communists. Véra was not shy of putting in a good word for Senator McCarthy. In America as in Europe, from inclination, she carried a revolver. But her prickliness was one of the reasons he loved her. One of his love letters to her in 1923 refers to her being made of ‘tiny, sharp arrows’.
The inseparability of Mr. and Mrs. Nabokov is part of their legend, but they were inseparable only up to a point. Schiff documents what earlier hagiography has omitted. The handsome, patrician Nabokov was a serial adulterer, susceptible to the charms of European émigrées and American co-eds alike. ‘He liked girls. Just not little girls’, said one of his Wellesley would-be conquests, who has supplied a fetching bathing suit photograph for this biography.
During one affair Nabokov thought of leaving his wife. For a time in 1937 he felt he could not live without Irina Yurievna Guadanini, with whom he was in ‘a delicious daze of adultery’ in Paris. But Véra waited him out, confident perhaps not only of her indispensability but of her beauty. (When an American student piously told Nabokov that beauty was not everything, the great man corrected him. Beauty is everything, he said, and he always delighted in his wife’s chiseled elegance.)
The earlier chapters are the strongest in this well-researched book. Véra Slonim was Jewish, one of the three daughters of a St Petersburg publisher, who took his family into exile after 1917 and joined the half-million Russian émigrés in Berlin. The rise of Hitler and the book-burnings are well described without falling into excessive historiography, the biographer’s trap. The Nabokovs held on in Berlin, where Véra, in spite of her openly declared Jewishness, worked as a teacher until late 1938. They were simply sluggish, Nabokov has said, and, living with relatives, they were comfortable. However, when the book comes to the American and Swiss years of the Nabokovs’ lives, the weight of the reminiscences and anecdotes slows the pace of the narrative. The Nabokovs returned to Europe in 1960, freed from university teaching by the lush profits from Lolita. These seem to have been the happiest years. They resumed their Continental style of life. The sixth floor of the Montreux Palace Hotel was their home until the end of their days (the writer dying in 1976, Véra fifteen years later). Their adored son, an opera singer, was near by in Milan. Véra was busier than ever as agent, translator, lepidopterist and muse. In 1961 her husband finished Pale Fire, her favourite among his books. Theirs is at heart a love story. In Véra, Nabokov found a spiritual Siamese twin, someone who could read his thoughts, who exceeded him in linguistic virtuosity and shared his quirk of seeing sounds in colour. Yet it is also a mystery story. The two remain enigmas, albeit well matched. What is clear, their shared idiosyncrasies apart, is that Véra was in the Talmudic tradition of the practical Jewish wife who deals with the real world to protect her husband the scholar. She was also in the 1950s tradition of the self-effacing wife and mother who deferred to the male breadwinner. Véra Nabokov left America too soon to be championed by the feminist movement as one of those accomplished women who might have achieved great things in her own right had she not been content to be the woman behind the man. What she might have done in her own right is impossible to say. What can be said – for Nabokov said it himself – is that he would never have written a single novel without her.