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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting to Know the Magician's Wife




In "The Gift," Vladimir Nabokov's most clearly autobiographical novel, the writer-hero Fyodor meets a woman named Zina who will change his life, a woman who possessed "perfect understanding," absolute pitch "for everything that he himself loved."


"Not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensible, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them."


Zina is, of course, a fictionalized portrait of Nabokov's own wife, Vera, the woman he would call his "first and best reader," the woman whom friends would hail as "the St. Sebastian of wives," the "international champion in the Wife-of-Writer Competition."


As Stacy Schiff's evocative new biography Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) makes clear, Vera would serve, throughout the course of their six-decade marriage, as her husband's editor, typist, agent, secretary, chauffeur, nursemaid, go-between, buffer, researcher and butterfly-catching companion.


For the master sorcerer of words, she was the consummate magician's assistant - helping out here, there and everywhere, without once acknowledging her part in the sleight of hand. She typed and retyped all the drafts of her husband's novels, oversaw dozens of translations and negotiated tirelessly with editors and publishers on two continents.


During Nabokov's years as a college professor in the United States, she sat in on all his classes, mopping up his bons mots for posterity, while prepping herself to substitute for him when he wanted to take a day off.


She drove her willfully hapless husband - who once bragged of never having learned to type, drive, fold an umbrella or answer the phone - thousands of miles across the country during the summers so he could hunt for butterflies in the West. And in the post-"Lolita" days of fame and fortune, she would almost singlehandedly manage his voluminous correspondence with students, reporters, family, friends and fans.


"Increasingly the marriage evolved into a tale of two marriages, a port for him, a career for her," Schiff writes. "Her capability was matched only by his capacity for ignoring everything that did not concern his own work."


Although "Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)" is almost unavoidably indebted to Brian Boyd's masterful two-volume biography of Nabokov ("Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years" and "Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years"), Schiff has succeeded in creating an elegantly nuanced portrait of the artist's wife, showing us just how pivotal Nabokov's marriage was to his hermetic existence and how it indelibly shaped his work. She effortlessly conjures up the disparate worlds the couple inhabited, from the privileged world of pre-revolutionary Russia (a world in which it was possible to speak, as Nabokov later did, of "the smallest and oldest of our gardeners") to the emigr? community of Berlin, where the two met and fell in love; from the rarefied world of American academia, where Nabokov took a succession of teaching posts, to the even more rarefied world of the Swiss Alps, where the couple would spend the latter part of their lives.


The one large flaw of this book is its reluctance to grapple with Nabokov's literary achievement, depriving the lay reader of even a cursory appreciation of his books and the Nabokov fan of a serious appraisal of his work. In fact the only time Schiff discusses specific novels in detail is when she wants to point out autobiographical motifs or demonstrate the palpable consequences that a book, most notably "Lolita," had on the couple's lives.


Schiff points out the close resemblance between Vera and the heroines of "The Gift" and "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" (1941), the two novels written in the aftermath of Nabokov's one serious affair with another woman. She also notes the parallels between the Nabokovs' intense marital bond and the fierce, incestuous love delineated in "Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle" (1969).


In most cases, Schiff argues, Vera was more muse than model, presiding as adviser and judge over her husband's writing and funneling her memories and observations into his prose.


"The words were entirely his," Schiff writes, "but she was their first reader, smoothing the prose when it was 'still warm and wet.' When scholars questioned the arrangement she shrugged off any active involvement, even when the handwriting is on the page. She could only have been transcribing her husband's comments, she insisted."


Over the years, Vera's denials - concerning her husband's work, her involvement in its creation and their lives together - accelerated. She denied that her husband had worried about the effect "Lolita" might have on his academic career, and she denied that he had attempted to publish the novel under a pseudonym. She denied having said words his biographers quoted her as saying, and, Schiff writes, she even "went so far as to deny to a reporter that she was proud" of her son, Dmitri. The motive behind these denials seems to have been to protect her and her husband's privacy and to burnish the myth of his genius, to insure that Nabokov "existed not in time, only in art."


Such behavior, combined with Vera's tenacious negotiation of her husband's publishing contracts and her imperious manner with strangers, had the effect, Schiff points out, of making this "shy, overworked, morbidly private, highly principled woman" appear "prickly, humorless, aloof and intransigent." It also made her a formidable challenge for a biographer - a challenge that Schiff, with this book, has most persuasively met.


"Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). Portrait of a Marriage." By Stacy Schiff. Illustrated. Random House. 456 pages. $27.95.