Magazine article The Spectator

'Letters to Véra', by Vladimir Nabokov, Translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Letters to Véra', by Vladimir Nabokov, Translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd - Review

Article excerpt

Vladimir Nabokov was happily married for over 50 years and rarely apart from his wife. More's the pity, discovers Philip Hensher

Letters to Véra Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd

Penguin Classics, pp.864, £30, ISBN: 9780141192239

After the publication of The Original of Laura , Nabokov's last and most disappointing novel in a very sketchy draft, you might have been forgiven for thinking there wasn't much left to discover in the great novelist's writings. If the posthumous fiction has been mostly fairly thin, this extraordinary and wonderful collection of letters to his wife restores him to us as the virtuoso of prose. They are some of the most rapturous love letters anyone has ever written, love letters from the length of a lifelong marriage; beautiful performances for Véra, Nabokov's wife, and incidentally for us. The publishers have immediately issued this volume as a Penguin Classic. I don't think we will quibble with that.

Vladimir and Véra met at a charity ball in Berlin in 1923, a pair of Russian émigrés fleeing from the storm of the revolution. He was already making a name for himself as a poet and translator -- his translation of Alice in Wonderland would be published that year. It was a marriage of minds: within six months they were engaged. In 1925, Vladimir published his first novel, Mary , and a remarkable body of Russian-language fiction followed. As the 1930s darkened, he strove to move, first to England where there was the possibility of a job teaching at Leeds or Sheffield universities -- there's a bizarre thought -- and then to New York and a teaching job at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Nabokov made the drastic decision to start writing in a different language -- there can't be many novelists who occupy a position of greatness in two languages, one after the other. In 1961, after the immense success of Lolita , the Nabokovs moved to Switzerland, where they lived until they died, Vladimir in 1977, Véra in 1991.

The letters, like most letters within a marriage, were produced under unusual circumstances. Since the Nabokovs were hardly ever apart, and lived in close domestic harmony, the only times Vladimir would write to Véra were when they were separated by professional duty or for reasons of ill-health. For the most part they were together, and deeply happy, with no reason to write to each other. Between 1945 and 1965, there are all of six letters to Véra, mostly very insubstantial.

This volume, then, has an unusual rhythm. On the rare occasions Vladimir was apart from Véra, he wrote to her with great diligence, usually every day, and she seems to have kept all his letters, little wonder. These periods were not necessarily very extended, but a stretch between 2 June and 19 July 1926, when Véra was in a sanatorium to recover her mental health and to restore her physical health, produces over 50 letters, detailed and absorbing, 100 pages in this collection.

A rare tense period between them occurred in 1937 -- Vladimir was away, having an affair, and writing daily about his struggles to get a visa to leave Europe and fascism. In 1939 Nabokov went to London, and in between plotting to get that job teaching in Leeds or Sheffield, led a very busy social life, reporting back to Véra on his times with H.G. Wells and Moura Budberg, as well as his thoughts on Arnold Bennett's books. (I don't know why it's ludicrous to think of Nabokov enjoying Arnold Bennett, but it's quite hard to imagine him in Sheffield, too.) In 1942 he went on a lecture tour of America, which produced some of his funniest letters during three months away. After that, there is hardly anything. They were simply together all the time.

There is, too, a very marked and curious lacuna. These are letters to Véra, and not an exchange at all. She remains a silent presence, adored and the target of Vladimir's most energetic attempts to entertain and interest. …

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