Stacy Schiff describes her latest biography, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, as “the story of a woman, a man, and a marriage.” More accurately, it is the story of Vladimir Nabokov’s married life. It joins five other, less covert, biographical studies of the Russian-born author of Lolita (1955): Andrew Field’s trilogy Nabokov: His Life in Art, a Critical Narrative (1967), Nabokov: His Life in Part (1977), and VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (1986); Brian Boyd’s more scholarly Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (1990); and Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (1991). Schiff’s ostensible focus on Véra allows her to probe previously unexplored nooks and crannies of the novelist’s life and show his utter dependence on his wife, who seems to have had “some trouble discerning where she ended and her husband began.” Vladimir Nabokov, alias Sirin, alias “VN,” became Véra’s life and career; the reader is told that she elevated “the role of wife to a high art.” She was his agent, his muse, his classroom assistant, his typist, his learned corrector, his best reader, and his biggest fan. According to one much repeated anecdote, Véra even saved Lolita from the incinerator (actually, a flaming trash barrel in the Nabokovs’ backyard). The story of her devotion and sacrifice seems to be the story of Vladimir Nabokov’s success.
Though it has ten chapters, Schiff’s biography divides itself more effectively into four major sections, corresponding roughly to the stages or temporary residences in the Nabokovs’ lifelong migration: Berlin; Paris; Ithaca, New York; and Montreux, Switzerland. Véra and Vladimir both managed to escape Russia moments before the Old World permanently collapsed. They met and married in Berlin, and it was there that their son, Dmitri, was born. A decade later, the couple was again on the move, this time fleeing Berlin for France just as the Nazis were intensifying their campaign against Jews. Véra was Jewish but escaped the tragic fate of some of her Jewish friends and neighbors. Nabokov’s brother, Sergei, was a homosexual and would later die in a concentration camp. Paris was less inviting to Véra than to Vladimir, who was able to hobnob with the French intelligentsia; he quickly began to earn an international name for himself. Shortly before Paris fell to the Nazis, the Nabokovs set sail for America, where Vladimir eventually found a permanent teaching position at Cornell but still made time, at Véra’s expense, to write some of his most important English-language works. After the publication of Lolita, which catapulted Vladimir to celebrity status, the Nabokovs made one more major move in their lives, this time to Switzerland, where they took up permanent residence at a hotel in Montreux.
The first chapter of Schiff’s biography does not begin with Véra’s birth and childhood, as one might expect, but unchronologically with the meeting and early courtship of the future Nabokovs in Berlin. Mask imagery runs through this section of the chapter, because Véra was supposedly wearing a mask at their first appointed meeting. She seems to have been the aggressor in this case, he the alluring poet fighting off women. In a sense the mask becomes a metaphor for their relationship. Vladimir’s love poetry to Véra abounds with references to masks and masking. His pseudonym, V. Sirin, functioned as a “little silk mask.” After their marriage, he began to publish under his real name. Schiff writes, “So disassociated was Vladimir from his family name after his years as Sirin that when first he saw Nabokov in print he read it as Nobody.’” Similarly, Véra transformed herself when she assumed her married name, which functioned “almost as a stage name.” These masks stayed with them for life, even as others were created. Vladimir would use “VN” in later years; one of Véra’s later epistolary pseudonyms was J. G. Smith. According to Schiff, Véra’s “whole being was to constitute a mask” for her husband, allowing him to speak through her and allowing her to hide in “full view.”
The title of Schiff’s biography seems to promise an unmasking: “Véra” followed by “Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov” in parentheses. This is an inversion of Véra’s practice in the 1950’s of signing business letters as “Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov” and then typing “Véra Nabokov” in parentheses above her married name. The book’s subtitle, Portrait of a Marriage, however, immediately...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)