Dear Poochums

Michael Wood

There’s a French translation of Anna Karenina that offers an interesting version of the novel’s first sentence. ‘Tous les bonheurs se ressemblent,’ it says, ‘mais chaque infortune a sa physionomie particulière.’ All happinesses are alike but every unhappiness has its own features. The more usual translation includes the idea of the family, as in: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ (Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky). The implied proposition is that happy families are not much use to a novelist, and the next sentence confirms this view. ‘All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.’ Very promising.

Throughout his life Vladimir Nabokov was keen to refute all three of these claims: that happiness is monotonous, that happy families are indistinguishable and that only unhappiness provides narrative. He begins his novel Ada, for example, with a bumbling comic inversion of Tolstoy’s sentence, which is at once a swipe at common practices of (mis)translation and a perfectly serious counter-suggestion: ‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy families are more or less alike.’ And he ends his autobiographical Speak, Memory with an evocation of happiness as a form of intimate, particular knowledge. Addressing his wife Véra without naming her (he has already said ‘you and I’ once and ‘you and our child’ on another page, but the index gives the whole of the last chapter to Véra), he says: ‘The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.’ And: ‘We shall never forget, you and I, we shall forever defend, on this or some other battleground, the bridges on which we spent hours waiting with our little son (aged anything from two to six) for a train to pass below.’ No two bridges or trains are the same; no minute of waiting is like another. We might also adduce one of Nabokov’s favourite quotations from Pushkin, which appears in a letter of 1926: ‘They say that misfortune is a good school. Yes, true. But happiness is the best university.’ Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd offer a fuller version of the aphorism in a note.

This attractive argument is severely tested by Letters to Véra, at least on an initial reading. How many instances can we take of someone else’s endearments (‘my happiness’, ‘my love’, ‘my life’, ‘my sunny rainbow’, ‘my sweetheart’, ‘my kitty’, ‘my darling’, ‘poochums’, ‘my lovely’, ‘my song’ – and this only gets us through the first two years of the correspondents’ acquaintance)? How long will it be before we start drafting our unsympathetic version of the French Tolstoy: all happinesses are alike when they are not ours; all unhappinesses are interesting, including ours perhaps? Isn’t unhappiness a distinct form of life, and where is it in these letters? Of course there is separation, psoriasis, indigestion, appendicitis. There are difficult decisions to make, moments when tempers get ruffled. But mainly it’s bliss, and we are tempted to sit back and admire the couple’s grace and luck and long years together. Well, we do admire these things, it would be foolish and unkind not to. But uninterrupted admiration can’t be good for anyone, and fortunately the letters invite other responses too.

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