Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been sitting on my shelves for the better part of a decade now. I picked up a battered used copy ages ago, dipped into a few pages, loved it…and then put it aside because life. Now, having finally returned to it, it’s been one of the bookish highlights of my summer.
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship is legendary. Though Vladimir had dalliances with other women and was undoubtedly a difficult person to live with, the two seemed destined to be together: both were intellectual giants — Véra supposedly read War and Peace at age 3; Vladimir at age 6 — were multilingual and worldly, and were even born with the same neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. Vladimir was poised for greatness early on, and Véra understood and accepted that her role was to do everything to make that happen.
What emerges in Schiff’s biography is the portrait of an elegant and intensely private woman. Vladimir was notoriously “helpless” at almost everything but writing. On his own, he wasn’t a great professor, wage earner, or public speaker. It was Véra who went out to work so that her husband could write; it was she who answered his correspondences with VN (conveniently, they shared the same initials). To get to Vladimir, one would first have to get through his wife. It was even she who wrote her husband’s class lectures and stepped in to substitute when Vladimir was away. She managed all aspects of his life — an exhausting feat as his fame and notoriety intensified — and was his first reader and strongest supporter. Their lives were so deeply intertwined that it is impossible to imagine one without the other.
The fact that Schiff was able to write such a detailed account of Véra’s life is astonishing. Véra hated to be the focus of attention and would either brush off or give false information to even the most common of questions, such as “how did you and Vladimir meet?” She was so private that few people even knew she was pregnant until after she had given birth! She could be warm to a small circle of friends and acquaintances, but would instantly become cold if anyone crossed any lines of propriety or privacy (or, worse yet, if any anti-Semitic statements were uttered in her presence; she was Jewish).
Throughout the book, I remained in awe of how entirely she devoted her life to her husband; there were plenty of times when I became upset over Vladimir’s supposed helplessness on her behalf. Véra could easily have made a career for herself as a translator or scholar; instead, to almost everyone, she was the enigma in Vladimir’s backdrop. I don’t think she would have liked this book — far too much is revealed about her — but I loved the book and am grateful hat Schiff was able to pull it off so beautifully.
Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) was released in 1999 by Random House. It won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.