- Letters to Véra by Vladimir Nabokov, edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd
Penguin, 798 pp, £30.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 119223 9
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.
First of all, we can’t help but look for something of the scarcely mentioned historical context, and the notes and chronology of this admirable edition of the letters – the first in any language – supply this material discreetly and clearly. Here is a young Russian, 24 years old when he meets a woman, also Russian, just under three years younger than he is, in Berlin. His father, a liberal politician in exile, has been murdered by right-wing extremists. She is Jewish, and the Germany around them is growing more and more rabid about race. By 1937, when one of his father’s killers becomes deputy director of Russian émigré affairs in Germany, things don’t look too good for Nabokov either. He is a gifted writer, beginning to make a name for himself, and she and her sisters are, as Véra’s biographer Stacy Schiff nicely says, ‘perfectly normal quadrilingual children’. The two are privileged in all kinds of ways, but they’re broke. When they marry, in 1925, they’re effectively homeless for many years. Page after page in the letters is filled first with mentions of the young man’s odd jobs in Berlin, and then, in great detail, with accounts of his quest for something steadier, for what he repeatedly calls his ‘fate’, in France or in England: full-time fiction writing, literary journalism, an academic post, even flickeringly a place in the British secret service. None of this materialises. With their son, born 1934, the couple moves to Paris in 1937, and then to America in 1940.
Meanwhile the letters quietly show a poet turning into a short story writer who turns into a novelist – these identities aren’t exclusive, but the last is the one that feels like a found vocation. He publishes in Russian, German and French (one book in English), and becomes a leading literary figure of the emigration. Mary appears in 1926, King, Queen, Knave in 1928, The Defence in 1929, The Eye in 1930, Glory in 1931, Laughter in the Dark in 1932, Despair in 1934, Invitation to a Beheading in 1935, most of The Gift in 1937.
He doesn’t get a job in Paris or London, but he does lots of readings, gives lectures and makes a bit of money. He writes The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in English, practising for the future he doesn’t know he’ll have. Once in America, he gives lectures, writes articles, stories and a novel (Bend Sinister), and teaches Russian at Wellesley, before becoming, in 1948, a professor of Russian literature at Cornell. While there he publishes Speak, Memory as well as Lolita and Pnin. The huge success of Lolita allows him to give up teaching and in 1961 he and Véra move to the Palace Hotel in Montreux, where they live happily for a longish time after. The later novels are Pale Fire (1962), Ada (1969), Transparent Things (1972), Look at the Harlequins! (1974). Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977. Véra Nabokov died in 1991. Their son, Dmitri, died in 2012.
The letters themselves don’t tell much of this story, except for the hard work in job hunting, but the story haunts the letters all the same. Death, exile, loss, discrimination: Nabokov is writing to Véra not about these things but against them. They are the natural enemies of happiness, and happiness is earned not granted, a matter not of denial or evasion of difficulty but of concentrating on whatever forms of grace and light are available. ‘You came into my life,’ Nabokov writes in his second letter to Véra, ‘not as one comes to visit … but as one comes into a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads for your steps.’ The kingdom, he says a little later, is that of ‘a very boring and unpleasant man, drowned in literature’. He knew Véra wasn’t going to believe this, and neither of them would drown, but the kingdom was real: it consisted of all the books he would write, and she felt this from the start. She became part of who he is, and when someone said he understood how much she helped him, he thought this was a lamentable piece of miscomprehension. ‘We will rewrite Despair,’ he says at one point. But even this is slightly misleading. Véra was not a co-author, she was what made authorship possible. As Boyd says, ‘she dedicated herself to serve Nabokov, but on her own terms.’ Or as Schiff puts it, she is like her name on the dedication page in all of Nabokov’s books from 1951 onwards, ‘plain as day, front and centre, hidden in full view’. Even better, perhaps, is Schiff’s suggestion that ‘it would be difficult to say that she had come into her own since Vladimir’s death; she had never really left herself.’ Véra added the acute accent when they moved to America, not wishing to be Veera.
There are no letters from Véra in this book. There are none extant: she got rid of them all. And she didn’t write that many anyway. Nabokov’s recurring complaints on this score range from comic to plaintive to desperate: ‘I’m already used to the thought that I won’t get a single letter more from you’; ‘Don’t you find our correspondence somewhat … one-sided?’; ‘Why do you write so seldom, my sweet?’; ‘My love, what is this, why don’t you write?’ The book is also structured, necessarily, by timing and travels. Even Nabokov didn’t correspond with his wife when they were both at home. And since they were rarely apart after they moved to America, there are very few letters from their later lives. As Boyd says, only 5 per cent of them belong to the period 1950 to 1977. We could refine this statistic a little more. There are more than a hundred pages of letters from 1926, and more than a hundred from 1937 – no other year has more than 62 and some have only a page or so. What happened in those two years?
In the first, Véra was in a sanatorium in the Black Forest for seven weeks. She was with her mother, and Schiff simply says Véra’s ‘health was also fragile at the time’. Voronina and Boyd offer Véra’s own ‘depression, anxiety, weight loss’ as the reason for her spell away from home. These are worrying symptoms for someone who has been married for only just over a year, and our sense of Nabokov’s letters is likely to vary with our greater or lesser attention to this situation. Boyd says Nabokov ‘laboured … to entertain and amuse’ Véra, and ‘the effect is sometimes laboured indeed,’ and this seems just right. But there is worry and energy and self-parody in the labour too. Nabokov rarely mentions Véra’s condition, or asks about it. He tells her how much he loves her, wishes she would write more, and insistently describes the clothes he has on, as if he were a model or a disguise artist: ‘I am wearing my new dove-grey trousers today and the Norfolk jacket’; ‘I’m in new trousers today’; ‘I’m in the old grey suit today.’ He tells her what he has to eat in his pension, presumably to encourage her to compete in putting on a little weight: ‘Dinner consisted of an egg and the usual cold cuts’; ‘I had lunch (veal cutlet, cherry compote).’ He also has ‘meatballs and rhubarb for lunch’, ‘incomprehensible meat and a tart with wild strawberries’, ‘fish and red currants’, ‘thick-skinned sausage and apple puree’, ‘meatballs and a nameless jelly’, ‘veal (I think) and apple mousse’. He sends her riddles and crosswords, invites her to all kinds of wordplay. Once in a while he allows himself a touch of open solicitude (‘I beg you, shrug off all that gloom’; ‘My darling, you needn’t cry’; ‘don’t mope too much, keep adding your little pounds’; ‘the longer you stay, the better off you will be’), but mainly these letters are full of antics. The plan is not to seem worried, and Nabokov, throughout his life, was good at not seeming all kinds of things. Véra would not have misread him, though, and neither do we if we think about these letters in their moment: worry and tenderness are everywhere in them.
The story of 1937 is very different. From January to May, Nabokov is in Paris and London trying to organise his financial fate; Véra is in Berlin with Dmitri. Nabokov is also having an affair with a young woman called Irina Guadanini, who lives in Paris with her mother, and is one of his great admirers. Her name, explicitly and implicitly connected to her mother’s, flickers strangely through Nabokov’s letters, as if he were engaged in some complicated double game of advertisement and concealment. He has dinner or sees a play with ‘the Kokoshkins’, meets up with ‘the Kokoshkin-Guadaninis’. He remembers a moment ‘with Irina G’, gives ‘English lessons to Irina G’, says ‘both my Irinas are also very nice,’ and finally responds to Véra’s articulation of her (justified) suspicions: ‘My dear love, all the Irinas in the world are powerless.’ Véra must have persisted in her concern, because a month later he writes to her denying the ‘vile rumours’ she has heard. The whole thing finally blew up in July, when Véra and Dmitri had joined Nabokov in Cannes. Nabokov admitted the affair, and cancelled it. Rather admirably, and against plenty of solid epistolary evidence in the Russian community, Véra denied there had been any real fuss. There were clearly terrible scenes, but she didn’t see why anyone else had to know about them. The letters show that even the steadiest happiness can be lost – and found again if you care enough about it. In this case both had to care enough, and did.
The letters are often funny – Nabokov reads The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and says two would have been enough – and there is plenty of talk of writing in them. Not much memorable writing, though, unless you’re fond of the purpler shades of Nabokov. What there is, eloquently if scarcely, is a series of adumbrations of Nabokov’s care for neglected things, people and places. Like a half-built house that creates the impression of a ruin, abandoned by the life that has not yet arrived; or ‘a marvellous sunset, addressed to God knows who and by and large utterly lost’; or ‘the material melancholy’ of the custom house in Dunkirk; or ‘the gaiety of the shadows’ in South Carolina. He even has a theory about such care, developed in relation to his poem ‘The Room’, which started out as a story. The story is about, among other things, ‘how we unfairly insult things with our inattentiveness, about how touching are the moulded ceiling ornaments, which we never look at, which we never notice’.
Nabokov also has a wonderful sentence about Finnegans Wake, which he elsewhere treats only with lordly scorn. In a later interview, he said it was ‘a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac’. In a 1936 letter to Véra he says, after producing a little parody (‘creaming at the pot of his Joyce’), ‘wit sets behind reason, and while it is setting, the sky is marvellous, but then it’s night.’ The critical question would be how long wit takes to set and what goes on in the night – far more interesting than the cheap abuse of the interview.
There is also an amazing cri de coeur about the Russian language, which Nabokov abjured (for fiction) in America, but sometimes desperately missed. He was giving a series of lectures in the Midwest – the year was 1942 – and suddenly felt ‘a passionate desire to write – and to write in Russian’.
And yet I can’t. I don’t think anyone who has never experienced this feeling can really understand its torment, its tragedy. In this sense the English language is an illusion … In my usual condition, i.e. busy with butterflies, translations or academic writing, I myself don’t fully register the whole grief and bitterness of my situation.
He can say this knowing that Véra will register the whole grief and bitterness and much more. He had struck a similar note when he returned to Cambridge in 1937, and found nothing in reality to match his undergraduate memories. He called this ‘the lesson of the return’. ‘We also need not expect life, heat, a wild awakening of the past – from our other return – to Russia. As a toy sold with a key, everything is already wrapped up in memory – and without it nothing moves.’ This is one of the last moments when he even thinks of a return to Russia, and by the time of Speak, Memory he has arrived at his magnificent (untrue but courageous) claim that ‘nothing had been lost.’ Almost everything was lost, there was no going back, but this was true only in reality, as Kafka might say. Memory is another place once its independence has been declared.
One of the last letters in the volume, from 1975, consists entirely of a short poem addressed to ‘Vérochka’:
And do you recall the thunderstorms of our childhood?
Frightful thunder over the verandah – and at once
The most azure aftermath
and on everything – diamonds?
The aftermath doesn’t redeem or eclipse the fear. The thunder is the loudest thing in the poem, the diamonds are decorative rather than consoling. But the invitation to an act of memory covers all eventualities, proposes a mental journey to the place where only the rememberers know what they know, and all happinesses, or terrors for that matter, are quite different from each other.