Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025998, Sat, 7 Feb 2015 08:51:20 -0500

Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife were full of love and longing ...


Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife were full of love and longing
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Nabokov and Vera married in 1925 and found it hard to make ends meet. Source: Supplied< PrevNext >
THE art of letter writing is dying, if not dead. Phones, email and texts are now our primary means of correspondence, which is a shame because letters are a much more intimate way of communication. There was the drama of waiting for the expected letter, the sudden heart leap on hearing the postman’s whistle, the delight of recognising the handwriting on the envelope, the satisfying sound of ripping it open, and the pleasure of holding the physical evidence of the beloved.

It’s a natural form for many writers but its disappearance is reflected in the dwindling publication of letters of famous authors. Of those from the 20th century, Joyce’s and Proust’s have been completed and Beckett’s are near conclusion. It was thought that all of Vladimir Nabokov’s important letters had been published, but now comes his letters to his wife, Vera. Some will be familiar to fans of Nabokov but in this comprehensive and excellently translated and annotated volume we see a man far removed from the cliche of the cruel, cold hearted storyteller some critics accuse him of being.

Most of these letters were written in the 1920s and 30s when Nabokov was on the road trying to make a living from reading his works. He and Vera lived in Berlin, a city filled with 400,000 Russian refugees who had fled the horrors of Lenin and Stalin.

Vera was Jewish, intelligent and spoke several languages. Nabokov and his family had lost their fortune and Nabokov’s beloved father had been assassinated. The couple married in 1925 and immediately found it hard to make ends meet. They translated and tutored in Eng­lish, while Nabokov also taught tennis and chess. They were part of an emigre community that was equally impecunious and if an author sold 300 copies of his novel then it was considered a success. An added burden for Nabokov was that he had to help his poor mother financially.

The early letters are an entertaining historical trove detailing the life of a young writer living in the small incestuous enclave of emigre writers and artists. There are the cheap digs with thin walls, the basic food, petty jealousies, bitter rivalries and dingy halls where Nabokov read his from his works in progress.

He was an up-and-coming author who many of his contemporaries admired, although some disliked him with an uncommon virulence for his apolitical stance, his disturbing talent and supposed arrogance. The first Russian to win a Nobel Prize for literature, Ivan Bunin, was envious of the young whippersnapper (“The kid has snatched a gun and done with the whole older generation, myself included”) and at one drunken literary dinner hissed at him, “You will die alone in horrible agony.”

But these letters are really one gigantic love letter to Vera. They reveal a personal, vulnerable Nabokov, always in love with her, desperately so. We have no letters from Vera to her husband because she destroyed them all. Not that there would have been many. From the beginning he writes to her more than she does to him. After a time he calculates that for every 10 letters he sends her she sends one. There are many times he begs her to write to him, asking her, “Don’t you find our correspondence somewhat … one sided?”

Sometimes he’s sick with longing, other times sick with distress, hoping she hasn’t forgotten him. Because of her near silence Nabokov has only one way of keeping her close to him: winning her over with words. What follows are his brilliant letters describing the world around him during his travels where he gave readings and networked tirelessly. He sends her his fey poems, sketches of butterflies and obtruse riddles, but it’s his exquisite eye for details that transforms what he sees into something special.

When he’s in Prague visiting his mother he is a garrulous guide, taking Vera through the beautiful cathedrals, and walking her across the wooden hills that smell of mushrooms and pine. When he’s wandering around Berlin Zoo he sees a white peacock, its “tail was shimmering hoarfrost on star-shaped branches”. Even the mundane is given a metaphorical spit and polish: “I did not shave today — so my face crackles beneath my palm.”

He observed everything with fascination, whether it be characters, clothes, cities (“In the metro it stinks like between the toes”). What also emerges strongly is his love of children and animals and how closely he studied them: “The puppy dived head-down in my side pocket when he got stuck, having burped a little blue milk.” He was appalled by the way French peasants plucked off the feathers from geese while they were still alive, “so that the poor bird walks around as if in a decollete”.

Over two decades we witness his literary career get off to a bumpy start but by the end of the 30s he has written masterful works such as The Defence and The Gift. He is not shy in confiding to Vera his pleasure in receiving praise or even patting himself on the back after a successful book reading.

An interesting thread through the correspondence is the importance of his family to him: mother, two brothers and two sisters. It’s his brother Sergey who causes the most discomfort. His younger brother was gay and not shy about his sexuality or his love of cocaine. On one awkward occasion he has lunch with Sergey and his boyfriend, whom Nabokov is relieved to notice “is absolutely not the pederast type”. For Nabokov homosexuality was a disconcerting mystery, not helped by the fact his severest critic was “a bum-buddy”.

As for Nabokov’s notorious put-downs of other writers and thinkers, they are there from the beginning: Gide is “terrible nonsense”, Dostovesky gets whacked over the knuckles and Freud is shirt-fronted. This is because literature meant everything to him and authors found wanting were to be cast aside. Literature was like an intoxicating religion with fiction and poems as the sacred texts.

The most intriguing aspect of these letters is how they enrich our understanding of the relationship between husband and wife. For Nabokov Vera is happiness personified. Without her there would be no joy. When she writes a rare letter, he goes overboard with extravagant praise (“Your wonderful stellar letter!”).

It was a tremendous pressure on Vera to compete with his all-consuming love, which she seemed unable to do. For a time she was in sanatoriums for depression and anxiety. This was something he didn’t understand. He was a naturally optimistic and buoyant character while she was inclined to sink into gloom or be hypercritical of him. But, as the years pass, we see she proved herself a steely soul, fiercely protective of a husband who, from the first time she met him at a masked ball, she thought an extraordinary talent.

If anything was to disturb their marriage it was in 1937 when he had an affair while on a reading tour in France. Irina Guadanini was a dog groomer and poet. Even while having the fling Nabokov wrote loving letters to Vera imploring her to come and join him. She heard about Guadanini, and a guilty and chastened Nabokov returned to his wife. Her angry letters have vanished but the apologetic tone of his correspondence is obvious and for a long time he had to constantly reassure her of his love.

This was a trying period not only for their marriage: they had to find a way of escaping Nazi Germany. The League of Nations had equipped emigres who had lost their Russian citizenship with so-called Nansen passports, and Nabokov and others like him had to go through a hideous bureaucratic ordeal every time they wished to travel from one country to another. Nabokov had to cajole Vera from a distance to conquer her fear of going into exile (he was frightened for her because she was Jewish). Her moods were mercurial and, unable to afford telegrams or phone calls, he had only letters to convince her, which he eventually did. They fled France for New York in 1940.

Because he was to hold a permanent position as a teacher at Cornell University, before returning to Europe in 1959 after the success of Lolita, he seldom travelled away from Vera for long but when he did he marvelled at the kindness and affluence of Americans. Throughout his correspondence it is clear he loathes racial hatred and social prejudices. Even though he admired Americans he couldn’t stand the way blacks were called ‘‘darkies’’; it reminded him of how the Russians called Jews Yids. The treatment of black servants particularly upset him.

These letters are a wonderful evocation of a different, more fraught era and a world where literature meant so much more than today. They also give a more nuanced picture of a famous marriage and provide a revealing self- portrait of a generous and loving man.

Louis Nowra is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

Letters to Vera

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited and translated by Olga Veronina and Brian Boyd

Penguin Classics, 864pp, $49.99 (HB)

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