Thursday, January 26, 2012

Extracurricular #3: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov

Hello reading public! Some time early next week I will be sharing my review of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer”. Now though, I’d like to share some thoughts on an ‘extra-curricular’ book I’ve just finished reading.

The book is 2000’s Vera {Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov} by Stacy Schiff, who made bookchat headlines more recently with her phenomenal 2010 biography of Cleopatra. As the title kindly informs those of you not already given to prying into the personal lives of great writers, Schiff’s subject is the elusive Vera Nabokov (née Slonim), wife of the great Vladimir.

From the moment she sought him out (in Berlin in the 1920s - he was best known as a young poet of potential; she had memorized reams of his verse) they were never apart, even when geographically distant. Though she only makes one explicit appearance in the fiction, Nabokov famously asserted that his wife colored every one of his books. Her hand was even a bit more direct than all that – though she would deny it, she was also his first and sharpest editor. She answered their letters, and forged them into a single entity, the aloof and (ambiguous, initially) “VN”.

The life that Schiff throws together sparkles with wit; with insight into the works and the faint but unmistakable imprint of Vera in Vladimir’s fiction; and, in its especially readable first 100-ish pages, with fine portraits of the Russian exiles of the post-Revolution. Ultimately, however, it founders on the same rock that a number of writer biographies smash upon: writer’s lives tend to be not nearly so interesting as their work. Vera’s life has its events – the early escape from Russia, the move to America, the struggles with poverty before the pair won world-wide acclaim – but it is not the sort of life that Shakespeare could hang a tragedy on, as he did with Cleopatra. As a dedicated Nabokovian, there was enough material here to sustain my interest. I am not sure what the effect would be on a reader who brought less prior interest to the subjects.

Despite the 2000 year gap that separates Vera from Schiff’s more recent subject, one senses a similar sort of problem confronting the author – her subject, though much written about, is nonetheless hard to grasp in her own essence - her ‘true nature’ evades even a writer of Schiff’s dedication. In Cleopatra’s case, this is the fault of the devouring centuries. In Vera’s case, it is the fault of Vera Nabokov.

In other biographies of less world-historical figures, and especially literary ones, a good deal of extra interest can nonetheless be generated by a close examination of the personalities and feelings involved. Here, again, the subject works against Schiff. Vera famously burned every love-letter she wrote to Vladimir (and even most of the strictly-business ones, too) – our accounts of their courtship depend entirely on reading between the lines in his letters to her. In public appearances, she did everything possible to keep her own thoughts private except concerning the literary genius of her husband. Rather than the outpourings of feeling and the series of private thoughts, the public control, the decorum, and reticence are the biography.

Schiff’s subtitle (ie, Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) is piercingly accurate. Never have I read the account of a woman so determined to define herself (publically, at least) by her marriage. In this feminist era, it is a strange thing to read about. And there are some passages that portray Vladimir in a less than flattering light, to a modern view. Vlad is nearly helpless and perfectly content to let Vera take care of all the domestic tasks. With Vladimir unwilling to hold down a normal job, Vera is forced to work in Berlin and Paris as a typist to support the family (while Vlad’s letters tend to whine a bit about how her work leaves her too tired to help him write.)

And yet, despite an initial reaction of alienation (how could she feel this way, pursue this course willingly?) I ultimately could not come to dismiss Vera’s story and her goals as entirely anti-feminist. It is true, she never tried to stand out as a separate individual. But in the course of her book, Schiff convincingly makes the case. This was not an instance of a man forcing his will over a woman, consuming her independent identity. This was the case of a woman seeking a man out and forging out of him a marriage, a true union of two beings into one identity. And if there is a single Nabokov most responsible for Vladimir’s fame and reputation, it is Vera. From arranging his interviews and answering his mail, to spending her remaining years after his death laying the foundations for his posthumous legacy and busily interfering with the swarming biographers, Vera was the architect of “VN”. The name was his, the limelight was his. But the union, the identity, and the soul was theirs, and the plan, if it was anyone’s, was hers.

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