The Book Club

V,ra and Vladimir

Dear James,

You were right, early on, to call Nabokov “the last living embodiment of Valéry-fed, fin de siècle aestheticism.” Mary McCarthy, in her review of Pale Fire, called him the last dandy novelist (that was before the new crop), although she went on to belabor him for telling not showing. An equally stringent, equally 19th-century scientific empiricism might be added to the mix. It is ironic that an aging Russian would bring such Yellow-Bookishness to American best-seller lists, 60 years after art for art’s sake had its heyday. Nabokov’s implicit contention that prose should be as artful as poetry seems to me far more problematic than Pound’s actual declaration that poetry should be as well-written as prose. Nabokov himself practiced a sort of serial ekphrasis, and the fact that we affect what we observe does not produce enough cause and effect to power a novel in most hands. He is irresistable, though. He has the mysterious charisma he called “shamanstvo.” The result is the contagion you have alluded to, and perhaps that’s what I was really writing yesterday, a hasty fable on the–avoided–subject of contagion.

You ended neatly with Véra, and I think we are in agreement that Stacy Schiff’s biography of her was very good. It is good, moreover, in the face of two rather high hurdles. First, a subject with an almost Nixonian attitude toward self-revelation, and second, one who seems to have considered her life well-spent. Most books of this ilk–wife of the great man or the related daughter of a constraining family–have as their topic the frustration of the situation. The first notable biography of that sort was probably Nancy Milford’s Zelda, of 1971, and it presented an image of a damaged talent muted by a more celebrated mate. Schiff has no such tale to tell. Véra “was the international champion in the Wife-of-Writer competition, adding intelligence to the usual equation,” Schiff quotes a Nabokov friend as saying. Another, in a more complicated characterization, called her “the St. Sebastian of wives.” In any case, Véra Nabokov did not desire to be a writer herself, and happily tackled typing, wage-earning, substitute teaching, and general boosterism for her husband, not to mention serving as family “chauffeuse,” to use one of his habitual neologisms.

Mrs. Nabokov’s life can hardly be separated from her day-to-day existence with Mr. Nabokov, and here Véra is the portrait of an odd, close, but straightforwardly happy marriage with a bumpy spot. Inevitably the bumpy spot is vivid. Thus we get a picture of Nabokov downplayed by his painstaking biographer, Brian Boyd, who discouraged Schiff from writing her book, then helped her. Schiff loyally provides much less attractive photographs than Boyd of Vladimir’s main pre-Véra fiancée and his chief marital indiscretion. The latter was also a Russian émigré. Her name was Irina Guadanini, of glamorous appearance, by trade a poodle groomer. Less loyally, Schiff reveals that there were others: at least several during the ‘30s, none of them nearly as serious. “Berlin is fine right now, thanks to the spring, which is particularly juicy this year, and I, like a dog, am driven wild by all sorts of interesting scents,” the novelist wrote to a friend.

Schiff’s Véra, while sometimes sketchy, is clearly incised: a formidable, graceful, stoic, shy, loyal, somewhat reactionary woman–perhaps driven to Toryism by the follies of the left, as Orwell accused Swift of being–with a mind almost as agile as her husband’s. Schiff retails the claim that if given a line from any one of Vladimir’s novels, she could quote the next paragraph from memory. Her childhood circumstances were strikingly similar to those of Isaiah Berlin, children both of successful Jewish lumber merchants resident, as was then difficult for Jews, in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. She met Vladimir in Berlin in 1923 and shielded him as he made his arrogant, brilliant, bewildered way through life there and in Paris, New York City, and Ithaca, New York, where he taught at Cornell. After the success of Lolita, they spent almost two comfortable, shared decades at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, Véra, Schiff records, on April 6, 1991.

I admired your closing comments on Nabokov’s lovely, embattled “self-elegy.” Indeed, “a game of high beauty,” as so much in him is. In common with a lot of Nabokov, that jeu d’esprit manages to be beautiful and sad and very funny at the same time. A story, like Gogol’s, about a man whose nose leaves him is not necessarily funny in broad concept. What is funny is the horrifying, mundane, human bewilderment of the noseless man recognizing that lost organ at a party and not being able to claim it because the nose has become a privy councilor and outranks him. Nabokov repeatedly manages this wry and wonderful trick, maybe because he had himself lost his beloved Russian nose and, as history trumps the individual, he could not have it back. His nose outranked him.

I hope that game of high beauty came through clearly in our exchange. Exasperation aside, Nabokov is, I think, the best writer of the century who can be read for sheer pleasure: Lolita, Pale Fire, but also The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, and maybe Bend Sinister, the first book he wrote after coming to the United States–among other things for its irresistible tyranny-comes-to-Ruritania feel.

This has been fun.

Richard Lamb