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). The excerpts below are copyright © 1999 Stacy Schiff and appear here with the kind permission of the author and Random House. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.

Chapter One
page two of two

2

Nearly a half million Russians had settled in Berlin over the previous three years, when the ruble went a long way and the city was cheaper for those fleeing the Revolution than any other. Its suburbs, where residence permits could be obtained easily, proved especially welcoming. There were émigré Russian everythings: Russian hairdressers, Russian grocers, Russian pawnshops, Russian antique stores, Russian foreign-exchange speculators, Russian orchestras. There were two Russian soccer teams. To some it seemed as if the Russians had taken over Berlin; these were not downtrodden, frightened refugees but a sophisticated, vibrant community of professionals and aristocrats. Rul was one of 150 Russian-language newspapers and journals; by 1923 Berlin outshone Petrograd and Moscow as the center of Russian book publishing. Eighty-six Russian publishing firms were founded in Berlin, one of them by Evsei Slonim, Véra's father. He and a partner briefly opened a firm called Orbis. Véra worked in the office during the days, evidently in order to earn the money for horseback riding in the Tiergarten. All of this would change with the inflation; the next years of exile were to be substantially leaner. By 1924, the center of the Russian emigration would shift to Paris. But for a few more months Russian cultural life burned on brightly in Berlin, with a slate of readings and festive gatherings each evening.

Véra and Vladimir in Berlin, 1923
Véra and Vladimir in Berlin, 1923
[Photo from Vladimir Nabokov: A Pictorial Biography, compiled and edited by Ellendea Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, c1991).]

With Nabokov's return, the romance continued through the fall of 1923 on the sidewalks of Berlin, in the southwest suburbs of the city. In their meandering the two were hardly alone. The poet Nina Berberova, who had yet to meet either Véra or Vladimir, remembered that "all of us sleepless Russians wandered these streets until dawn." The critic Vladislav Khodasevich, with whom Berberova lived for a decade, remembered a sea of "clinging couples like statues"; those lovers were to be frozen in every doorway in Nabokov's Glory, in whispering mid-embrace. In October Nabokov's sisters and younger brother moved with their mother to Prague, where she could claim a Czech government pension. Vladimir accompanied the family, whom he surprised with the precipitate announcement that he was returning to Berlin, for reasons that became clear only later. Véra helped him to retain a room at a boardinghouse; she lived with her family a fifteen-minute walk away. Their assignations--arranged by note or telephone--took place on street corners, near railway bridges, in the Grunewald. Nabokov's winter poems are saturated in images of Véra, a slender shadow detaching itself from the velvety darkness, poised to explore the black magic of the Berlin streets. The world may have been falling apart around them, but the poetry is full of enchantment and rebirth, as eight months before it had been full of self-pity and despair. Nabokov was yet to coin the phrase, but there is everywhere proof that he had found in Véra a companion who could devise a harlequin: "Divining, you notice all / all night's silhouetted games / I start to talk-you answer, / as if rounding off a line of verse." Acutely aware that he was in the company of a translator, he felt impelled to choose his words with an invigorating exactitude. He sensed that with Véra one had to speak "amazingly." He cursed the telephone, over which everything came out so wretchedly. He feared bruising her with an "inept endearment." At once he seized upon something a later admirer was to describe thusly: "With her for a reader, the classics would reveal themselves like paintings liberated from layers of carelessly applied varnish." He felt she spoke with enormous distinction. Never has any woman received so many tributes to her vowels.

It is clear that the two slipped quickly into a relationship; by November Nabokov was swearing that he loved as never before, with an infinite tenderness, that he regretted every minute of the past he had not shared with Véra. The ease with which the two fell together is clearer still if we allow ourselves a glimpse at the thematic shadows the Berlin nights cast on the fictions, which is a little like saying we shall now base our idea of female anatomy on the work of Picasso. This both was and was not the case; the image is more refraction than reflection. But the trails are there all the same. During a November separation Nabokov had written Véra: "You came into my life and not the way a casual visitor might (you know, 'without removing one's hat') but as one enters a kingdom, where all the rivers have waited for your reflection, all the roads for your footfall." A month later he returned to the same image:

Have you ever thought about how strangely, how easily our lives came together? And this is probably that God, bored up in heaven, experienced a passion he doesn't often have. It's as if in your soul there is a preprepared spot for every one of my thoughts. When Monte Cristo came to the Palace he had purchased, he saw on the table, among other things, a lacquered box, and he said to his major domo who had arrived earlier to set everything up, "My gloves should be here." The latter beamed and opened this otherwise unexceptional lacquered box, and indeed: the gloves.
"In everything from fables there is a grain of truth," he concluded, before asking her to telephone his old apartment very late at night, so as to be certain to disturb his ex-neighbors.

When the muckraking "biograffitist" comes along in the 1974 Look at the Harlequins! to ask how Vadim Vadimovich N. met the woman who turned his life around, our narrator shuts the door in his face-but not before referring him to See under Real, a novel written thirty-five years earlier, in English. See under Real's actual and phonetic counterpart is The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, written thirty-five years earlier, in English. It is almost impossible to separate Véra from the fictional Clare in that novel, who "entered his life without knocking, as one might step into the wrong room because of its vague resemblance to one's own. She stayed there forgetting the way out and quietly getting used to the strange creatures she found there and petted despite their amazing shapes." From the original manuscript Nabokov had deleted a line, which followed the passage about how well Clare fitted into Sebastian's life: "They became lovers in such a speedy manner that for anyone who did not know them, she might have passed for a fast girl or he for a vulgar seducer." Events move with the same lightning speed in The Gift, for wholly nonfictional reasons: "Despite the complexity of her mind, a most convincing simplicity was natural to her, so that she could permit herself much that others would be unable to get away with, and the very speed of their coming together seemed to Fyodor completely natural in the sharp light of her directness."

Between Véra and her fictional shadows there is plenty of room for distortion--"They're all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar," Dora Maar grumbled, dismissing nearly a decade of portraits--but Nabokov did indulge in a certain amount of autoplagiarism. His early letters to Véra sound familiar to readers of The Gift; his enchantment with her was precisely that of the preordained variety Fyodor feels for Zina, who had in turn been clipping the young poet's work two years before she meets him. Nabokov perfectly summarized the correspondence in that novel:

What was it about her that fascinated him most of all? Her perfect understanding, the absolute pitch of her instinct for everything that he himself loved? In talking to her one could get along without any bridges, and he would barely have time to notice some amusing feature of the night before she would point it out. And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensible, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them.
In 1924 he had written Véra along very much the same lines, declaring: "You and I are entirely special; such wonders as we know, no one else knows, and nobody loves the way we love." Despite her perfect understanding, Véra Nabokov was always quick to deny all resemblance between Zina and herself. She shares even that elusiveness with her fictional counterpart. When Fyodor suggests to Zina that their romance will be the very theme of his book, Zina--a character in someone else's book to begin with--shudders. But then the result will be autobiographical!

The self-effacement predated the literature. In the last months that Nabokov lived with his mother in Berlin, Véra did not meet his family, as Svetlana had often done. When she telephoned and wrote to him in Prague in the fall and again over the winter she did so under an assumed name. When Nabokov's sisters asked who was calling, Véra replied "Madame Bertrand." Already Vladimir complained that she was not holding up her side of the correspondence; he kept expecting one of his sisters to dash in excitedly, bearing an envelope from "Madame Bertrand." This masquerade continued until 1924. Why the deliberate camouflage? In part Véra seemed determined to tread with the silent but firm footfall Nabokov found so appealing, entering "as if gliding across glass," "airborne and unexpected," as he had it in two November 1923 poems. She had little aptitude for drama, for which--as she may have suspected--Nabokov's two younger sisters had a more highly developed taste; Elena Nabokov Sikorski fondly recalled having listened in on her brother's amorous conversations. (She understood even at the time that Madame Bertrand and Véra were one and the same.) Véra may have been aware too of a need for delicacy at Nabokov's end. A Jewish name has a certain ring to aristocratic Russian ears, and while she would have known that Nabokov's father had championed all sorts of unpopular causes-democracy and Jewish emancipation among them-she may have been unwilling to run any risks with his mother. To a German they appeared to be two attractive Russian émigrés of about the same age; to some Russian eyes the couple did not look so eminently well-matched. It is possible too that Véra kept her name to herself simply out of what would later be revealed to be a hypertrophied sense of discretion.

And the mask? With its whirl of charity balls, Russian Berlin was full of masks. Nabokov's literature is a veritable carnival of them, in which--cleverly and infuriatingly--the crucial piece of information is often disguised, a ruse Nabokov much admired in Gogol. "Is 'mask' the keyword?" asks Humbert in Lolita. Certainly it matters more than the charity ball, or who pursued whom. Even before she met him, Véra Slonim knew her man, counted on his being able to recognize the "delight in the semitranslucent mystery." She sensed--was it something he had written, or something she had heard said of him?--that he would agree that "a little obscurity here throws in relief the clarity of the rest." And she knew how to hide behind her words, which became something of a family specialty. Certainly the veils did nothing to detract from her allure as far as her husband-to-be was concerned. In his most personal apotheosis of a mask, Nabokov wrote Véra a year after their 1925 marriage: "My sweet, today I sense especially vividly that since that very day when you came to me in the mask that I have been unbelievably happy, that the golden age of my soul has begun." He referred to his own use of disguises as "the little silk mask of an additional pen name." Conversely, there were plenty of reasons why at twenty-one, in Berlin, Véra Slonim would be exquisitely attuned to the risk of exposing herself, above and beyond her taste in gnomic prose poems. One scrap of evidence suggests that she generally fostered a taste for camouflage, a happy weakness for a translator to have. In a 1924 letter Nabokov had asked her to describe what she was wearing. He was pleased by her response; he could picture her perfectly, so well that he was impatient to remove several items. Furthermore she had included an unnecessary accessory in her description. "But you really wouldn't dare wear a mask," chided Nabokov, when the two had known each other for precisely eight months. "You are my mask."

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[ interview with author Stacy Schiff ]


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