Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), by Stacy Schiff Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), by Stacy Schiff, was published in April 1999 by Random House. (Jacket photo: Philippe Halsman Halsman Estate)

An Interview with Stacy Schiff
by Suellen Stringer-Hye

"The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, why do we need it at all?" writes John Updike in his February 4, 1999, New York Review of Books article "One Cheer for Literary Biography." This question can doubly be asked with regard to the literary biographies of writers' wives. To my mind, Stacy Schiff's Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, a biography of Nabokov's wife of 52 years, makes a case for the importance of such books. Véra is fascinating, not just because it is brilliantly written, witty, and about the Nabokovs, but because like Nadezhda Mandelshtam's captivating book Hope Against Hope, about her husband, poet Osip Mandelshtam, it reveals the extent to which literature is indebted to good housekeeping. This outlook was antithetical to both Vladimir and Véra, who dismissed life's banalities as the drab shadows of the only true reality, Art. In Véra, Stacy Schiff valiantly defies the Nabokovs' insistence that only the creative matters and, in the process throws the artist into greater relief, deepening the shadows and revealing in nooks and crannies the human context for Nabokov's immortal gift.

Stacy Schiff was educated at Phillips Academy and Williams College. She was a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster until l990. She left Simon & Schuster to write Saint-Exupéry: A Biography (Knopf, l994) which was a finalist for the l995 Pulitzer Prize and won numerous prizes abroad. Schiff's second book, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, was published by Random House in April, l999. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. Schiff is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our interview was conducted by e-mail over several months.

In the August 13, 1995 Washington Post, Book World article "Biographer Get a Life," written in 1995 after publication of Saint-Exupéry, you describe (humorously) the difficulties attendant to the biographer in search of her Second Subject and the importance of choosing the right candidate for the job. To the casual observer, Saint-Exupéry and Véra Nabokov could not have had less in common. Why did you select her as the subject of your second biography?

Saint-Exupéry and Véra Nabokov could not have had less in common, even to the not-so-casual observer. But who would want to write the same book twice? I wanted to go on a different adventure, to learn something new. And too I think the out-of-work biographer deliberately reaches for a project different from his last. Byron's newest chronicler wrote last on Georgia O'Keefe, J.P. Morgan's on Alice James. The life-writer has been described as a serial monogamist but that is not to say that he marries the same women twice; all kinds of things about the prior book move him to embrace new ground.

I can speak less certainly to the Why Véra question, which I think is the kind of thing you figure out 10 years down the road. This much is true, however: Like countless other (re)readers I had flipped past Nabokov's dedication pages blindly, to get to the meat of the matter. At some point in l994 the words "To Véra" jumped off a page and suddenly conjured up a real person. The following year, I think unrelatedly, I read Brian Boyd for the first time and was left with a sense of someone hiding--very effectively. I had already established that I wanted to write about a relationship, preferably a marriage, but possibly a set of siblings; I felt I had something to say, or learn, about coupledom. My father had died; I had been thinking about families a lot. When it all came together I tried to chase the Nabokovs away. The more I did, the more Véra grew into an obsession. Who was this woman? And what did that cryptic line in Andrew Field--about the marriage being as essential and intricate as the work--really mean? As for VN, the art might not mirror the man, but a marriage, well a marriage was a different story.

It's clear that I don't speak with great authority on this subject. I've now looked back at the Washington Post piece. To see that I thought I was after a subject who lived his life in a Romance language; wrote as revealing a letter as Saint-Exupéry; and could cause whole dinner tables to collapse in laughter. Go figure.

I assume, since you were reading Boyd's biography, that your interest in Nabokov was more than passing. Were you a Nabokov "fan" before writing Véra ?

A devoted and constant one, though not necessarily of the same volumes I am now. I told Stephen Schiff--to whom I am not related, though I wish I were--that the whole project had been an elaborate ruse to spend five years reading Nabokov. He advised me not to say as much, but there is some truth to it. I'd love to write on Malraux, but I'd hate actually to have to read Malraux.

Leaving aside the coincidence of the Schiffs (as Nabokov wrote in Ada, "some law of logic should fix the number of coincidences in a given domain, after which they cease to be coincidences and form, instead, the living organism of a new truth"), Brian Boyd and Andrew Field, writing about Nabokov during Véra's lifetime, did not think it possible or even desirable to attempt her biography. Initially Boyd discouraged you from writing about her and in the book you describe Véra as "morbidly private" and a person who was not likely to leave much of a record for a biographer. Were you concerned that a book about "just a wife" would add little to the understanding of her husband's art and even if in fact it would, that you would have little with which to work in order to bring her portrait to life?

Let me back up a few steps. I don't know that Brian or Andrew Field felt as you say. Their sights were trained on VN. He was their subject, not Véra. Brian indeed discouraged me when my turn came; he told me there was no documentation, no paper trail. He adds today that he also cringed at the idea for VN's sake. At the same time it had been he who had written, "His genius, her loyalty, their love made a story that readers the world over will not soon forget." That was a difficult line for me to ignore.

My concerns were legion, but the documentation was not first among them; in a life in which wife serves as secretary there is no shortage of paper trail. There was much separating of wheat from chaff, but little facts about Véra turned up all over the correspondences, just as the author of Nikolai Gogol promises they will. Too much material is a curse of its own kind. And the biographer blessed with copious archives conjures as well with his mysteries. Of greater concern to me was that I was writing about a woman who essentially spent her life sitting at a desk.

As to the "just a wife" part of your question, I had tongue firmly in cheek when I used those words. That had been James Laughlin's description of Véra, whom he did not like. I thought it amusing that Laughlin offered up this formulation after Véra had corresponded with him about her husband's business for decades; to my mind, that isn't the definition of "just a wife." On the other hand, I fully set out to write about just a wife, which is to say that I primarily meant to find out who this woman rustling around in the background was. I had in mind Zelda Fitzgerald, Nora Joyce, Alice James. I did know that to some extent VN would be revealed in the process. Often I had to piece together his history and then flip it to find Véra. The reverse was also true; it made sense that in doing so, that in prying these two lives apart, the figure in the carpet was going to be revealed.

As for casting light on the art, my intention was a little different. It was along the lines of what Adam Gopnik meant when he wrote of a particular volume that it "does all that biography can do for art, which is not to show that art expresses a life but to show that art is life, in another dimension: that it is made up of the hundred bits of navel lint and household bric-a-brac and family jokes that constitute our own existence, only fixed for good, still breathing."

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[ excerpts from the book ]


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