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
page two of two

Yes, I did recognize the humorous tone of the "just a wife" comment and find the combined two sentences that conclude the introduction to Véra "She was not a writer. She was just a wife." hilarious. Most of the wives I know from that generation might just as easily merit that classification. One of the many accomplishments of Véra is its sensitive depiction of the many-sided complexities of the wife role as traditionally defined and artfully executed by Véra Nabokov. I too cringed a bit for the Nabokovs when reading things that had they been alive, one or the other would surely have denied. There are many places in the book where you knowingly and bravely risk censure from the grave. Indeed the mere act of writing a biography about Véra Nabokov might in itself be considered treasonous ("...the more you leave me out Mr. Boyd, the closer to the truth you will be.") Véra Nabokov seems to me like the lion-dog stationed outside of a Buddhist Temple, protecting and guarding the deity within. She/they spent a lifetime erecting this monument. Did you in any way feel compunction in tearing it down?

If there were such a thing as active censure from the grave, there would be no biography. I can't think of a single volume that would fail to make its subject squirm, as we all do when being described by others, with admiration or enmity. How often do we want to destroy our own photographs? So far as the "monument" goes, I didn't feel I was tearing it down. I felt I was surveying it as one does any remarkable, and highly artistic edifice. Véra may or may not have approved of that exposure, but then again, she could never have seen that monument as the outsider does.

As for her cringing, I cringed when reading her denials of various comments the documents clearly proved she had made. If she were going to deny the truth she would deny anything; I couldn't be influenced by what she would or would not approve. In a few instances I did leave things out of the book that she would have been grateful to me for omitting, but I left them out to my own relief, not to hers. Remember that while Véra indeed told Brian he would be more truthful if he left her out, she also confessed to him later that she was everywhere. Only well-hidden.

I had only two tiny glimmers of Véra's approval, and I seized upon them. Shortly after her marriage she had argued that a whole volume could be written on the influence, the inspiration a wife brings to bear on her literary husband. This read to me as an invitation. In the l970s VN assured Field that his wife was well aware that someone, someday would attempt a screed called "VERA!". That was fine with her, so long as she was not alive to see it. Only the truly demented biographer could find consolation in this. And I did.

Throughout the book, we encounter a Véra whose talents as writer were either subsumed or diverted by those of her husband's. What remains from the business and personal correspondence reflects not a creative writer but an astutely critical one, especially in regard to Nabokov's work.

You make a good point. This too was VN's gain, the gain of a man who had observed just before his marriage that the only jealousy as sharp as that between two women is the jealousy one maker of literature feels for another. And that the most corrosive envy of all is that a woman feels for a maker of literature. Véra knew that VN was not only in his own league, but in his own realm, doubtless another reason the marriage worked as well as it did. Had she had more time to exercise her strengths she would have been--she would have despised these analogies--more a Diana Trilling than a Mary McCarthy.

One of Véra's many compensations for the Herculean task of managing the family's business and household matters must have been requests from Nabokov for favors such as the one you quote on page 314:

"Ah sweet socks! So tenderly wooly! Nothing in a nylon blend (so nasty, and which irritate the leg!) Size 46, and the usual length, i.e., not to the knee but not too short. Ah socks! 2 pairs."

Dmitri Nabokov has also commented on the humor and artistry of these inter-family notes. Did you, while researching Véra , encounter further examples of this genre?

The petition for the socks was a favorite of mine, but yes, there were plenty of playful glimmers in the requests VN made of Véra. There were also pure commands: "These pages in triplicate." "Verify epigraph." "Look somewhere in the beginning of the last volume towards the end, I think." "Finish the canto no higher than the middle of the page." Time was short; the work pressed; Véra needed no buttering up. I suppose the lines that felt to me the most tender were those of the renewed correspondence of the l960s, when the couple were separated for brief periods. And the most weighty were the modest carbonic smudge a visitor glimpsed on the rubber-banded stack of index cards that became Pale Fire. In the right-hand corner of the first card VN early on scrawled, "To Véra."

All of Nabokov's American works and many of his Russian ones were famously dedicated "To Véra." Your biography illuminates these inscriptions and colorizes the watermark that Nabokov suggested we look for in all of his books. Were you ever tempted to call the book "To Véra" and how did you finally decide on the simple yet expanding title Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portait of a Marriage?

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) jumped out at me early on. Typographically it spoke volumes: There was this regal, upright, Old World script above and in contrast to the typewritten line, to which Véra had added the parentheses, as if to mute the potency of the alias. The construct was entirely hers; she came to it only gradually. It seemed to me to say a good deal about how she thought about herself. And I thought it pointed nicely, and quietly, to the fact that the book was about a woman but more largely about a marriage, which generally involves (at least) two people.

One of the strangest accounts you present in Véra is that of the, in the end, disastrous relationship between the Nabokovs and a young Swedish poet named Filippa Rolf. Tinged with madness, haunting, dark, sad, revealing, her suicide attempts and final death from kidney cancer, rest uneasily on the text. As the Nabokovs inform Rolf in Véra , "they did not normally lavish this kind of attention on an acolyte." Why do you suppose they were originally so drawn to her?

From what I've gathered, it would have been difficult not to have been drawn to Filippa Rolf, at least at the time the Nabokovs met her. She was brilliant; she was attractive; she conformed to VN's definition of the true eccentric ("a person whose mind and senses are excited by things that the average citizen does not even notice"); she was comfortable in l5 languages; literarily speaking, her household gods were those of the Nabokovs. She was able to discourse spontaneously on Chenier.

The novelist Lore Segal described Rolf to me as "dazzling." Segal also reminded me that Rolf would have been doubly attractive to the Nabokovs; Rolf's talent combined with a ferocious admiration for the work of VN, which she had read attentively. She would have struck a familiar chord in that household, having proved herself a talented poet in a little-read language. Remember that the episode of ill health came only later.

Legend had it that Véra, upon encountering Vladimir at the backyard incinerator, burning one by one the pages of Lolita, intervened to prevent this atrocity. In Véra you note that you were able to locate an eyewitness; a student who was happening past the Nabokov's house at the time. What path led you to Dick Keegan and what was it like as a biographer, to hear a firsthand account of this previously uncorroborated story?

So glad you asked. I assumed at the outset that the Lolita-burning was a piece of Nabokopocrypha. It made an awfully good story after all, right up there with the publisher who had advised VN to turn Lolita into a boy, or the bomb that had obliterated the rue Boileau apartment. I knew there had been no incinerator at the East Seneca Street house. And Véra had denied that the fire had taken place, or had at least protested in the l967 Gilliatt interview that she had no memory of its having done so. Which meant that I had to establish that the episode had--or worse, hadn't--taken place.

Finally in the Barbadette materials in Paris I found an admission on Véra's part that she had saved the manuscript from the flames. This seemed like a long way to go to confirm a story I should simply have taken at face value in the first place. At the same time it told me something else: The Barbadette conversation postdated the Gilliatt one. Which meant that Véra was equally capable of breezing past the truth as she was of revealing it.

I no longer remember who put me in touch with Dick Keegan. He and I spoke several times, at length, about his last year at Cornell, which was the Nabokovs' first. That conversation speaks to the plight of the blinkered biographer. Over several months we discussed Keegan's chauffering VN to campus; his procuring VN cigarettes; Véra interrogating him about whether he had done so; Véra's grading papers; Keegan's attempts to teach VN to drive; VN's analysis of Keegan's girlfriend (not pretty enough). And then one fine day Dick said something like, "Oh, did I ever tell you about Nabby trying to burn his manuscript?"

Immediate chills down the spine. And disbelief: Dick and I had spoken so many times it was easier to believe he was pulling my leg than that this had simply failed to come up. But it is true that I had not once to thought to ask if he'd witnessed a backyard fire. It was also true that everything that Dick reported--including the classroom lines he remembered of VN's--checked out. For example this tidbit, that didn't make it into the book: Keegan was getting visibly antsy at the end of one seminar, as the class was running over and he was meant to be at a Student Council meeting. VN stopped in mid-lecture: "Relax, Mr. Keegan. I am almost at an end and, I assure you, the governed will still be ungoverned when you get to your meeting."

Many wander casually into the Nabokovs' realm, never to return. I suppose, since Véra has only just been published, it is premature to ask, but how does a biographer follow a Nabokov?

At the moment I am more or less bereft ("without a subject, without this master passion, the world is the biographer's desert; he feels his mind enfeebled," was how Catherine Drinker Bowen put it); for whatever reason the withdrawal is more difficult this time.

Should I recover, my instinct is to go someplace very, very different--away from a marriage, probably even away from modern literature. But you see how ineptly I predicted the future last time.

Copyright © 1999 by Stacy Schiff

Suellen Stringer-Hye can be reached by e-mail.

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[ excerpts from the book ]


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