Всегда вместе: Vera and Vladimir, An Unusual Literary Love Story (Borscht Report #4)

 

It was a love story centuries in the making. While Russian authors have written some of the greatest, and most beloved, love stories ever told, their personal lives tend to be far from any romantic ideal. Tolstoy tortured his wife of 48 years, forcing her to read of his numerous affairs and hatred for her in his diary, Mikhail Bulgakov was thrice wed, and Ivan Bunin invited another woman to live with himself and his second wife while in French exile. Hardly a track record that inspires confidence. 

The Nabokovs, though, were different. And a most improbable couple. Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, born in April of 1899, could trace his family lineage back to the 14th century, when Tartar prince Nabok Muzra entered the service of the Tsars. On the other side was a seemingly unending line of Baltic German nobility. In both cases, it was a background filled with composers, writers, politicians, philosophers, and important businessmen. His grandfather was the Minister of Justice under Alexander II, and his father a prominent politician and professor of criminology at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. 

Vera Yevseyevna Slonim was from much humbler stock. She was born in Petersburg in 1902, her father a lawyer who worked as a merchant exporting Smolensk timber to Europe, and her mother a housewife. Educated at the grammar school of Princess Obolenskaya and the Odessa Gymnasium, she was by all reports a charming and fiercely intelligent young woman with an unquenchable love for literature and poetry. There was a problem, though. Vera was Jewish. 

Today, this does not seem like an obstacle to much, but in early 20th century Russia, being of Jewish origin, practicing or not, was an experience rife with persecution and uncertainty. Indeed, antisemitism was so extreme in Russia that many observers, before and after WWII, predicted, or said that they had once expected, a genocide on the scale of the Holocaust in the Tsarist empire rather than Germany. Even for a girl so solidly upper-middle-class as Vera, marriage to a man of aristocratic, Orthodox blood was unthinkable. 

Unless that man came from the семья Набоковых. The Nabokov family had a very strange tradition: they were advocates of Jewish rights and against antisemitism. Vladimir’s grandfather, Dmitri, had successfully opposed the passage of antisemitic laws in the state Duma of his day, and his father Vladimir, who sat in the First Duma as a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party, was known as the most outspoken defender of Jewish rights in the whole empire. 

Both families fled Russia in the wake of the October Revolution in 1917 and traveled through the greater part of Eastern Europe, and even the Ottoman Empire, in search of refuge. The Nabokovs settled in England, and Vladimir was enrolled in Cambridge, while Vera’s father Yevsey chose to stay in Berlin and open a publishing firm, which his daughter was very active in helping to run. Vladimir’s father was mistakenly assassinated in Berlin in 1920, but even so, he decided to move there permanently in 1922 and became a favorite poet of the emigree society. Such an occupation didn’t pay too well, though, and he supplemented his income teaching languages, tennis, and boxing. 

Early in 1923, Svetlana Siewert broke off her engagement to the writer, afraid that he could never provide a stable life or salary. In May of the same year, during a charity ball, Vera and Vladimir briefly met. A few weeks later, on a bridge over a chestnut-tree-lined canal, Vladimir spotted a pair of naggingly familiar bright blue eyes behind a black satin mask. She refused to remove the mask over the course of their chance meeting but charmed the man she had already begun to admire from afar by reciting with crisp intonation and perfectly placed stresses fragments of his verse. 

He departed for France only a few days later but quickly was confirmed in the identity of his masked companion when she began to write to him. After three letters, he wrote back: 

“I won’t hide it: I am so unused to the idea of people, well, understanding me—so unused to it that in the very first minutes of our meeting it seemed to me that this was a joke, a masquerade deception…. There are just some things that are difficult to talk about—one brushes off their wondrous pollen by touching them with words…. Yes, I need you, my fairy tale. For you are the only person I can talk to—about the hue of a cloud, about the singing of a thought, and about the fact that when I went out to work today and looked each sunflower in the face, they all smiled back at me with their seeds.”

In Rul, the preeminent literary journal of the Russian ex-pat community, he published poems with allusions to her, and asked that they be placed as near as possible to her translations of authors like Edgar Allen Poe. They were married two years later, on the 15th of April, 1925. The succeeding years in Europe were somewhat less sunny than their courtship, though. Although both delighted in the birth of their only child, son Dmitri, in 1934, the specter of Hitler, and Vladimir’s affair with a notorious Russian emigree woman in Paris, loomed large. As the months dragged on, he in France for work and she in Berlin, supporting them as a translator, he began to realize just how precarious the family’s situation was. Vera was a Jewish woman alone in Nazi Berlin, looking after her half-Jewish son; the next year he bid his wife to join him, and they made a final tour through Prague and the south of France before boarding the SS Champlain for America in May of 1940. 

Vladimir was welcomed warmly into American academia, and took up a variety of positions at Cornell, Wessley, Harvard, and Ithaca; in some places he acted as a one-man Russian department, offering courses on the language and its literature that were bursting with students because of his style and wit. Vera followed, acting as “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy.” During his annual summer trips to the West to catch butterflies, she drove and helped with capturing specimens, and on lecture tours she carried a gun for her husband’s protection, ever sitting at stage left. 

In return for her unflagging devotion, he showered her with pet names, little animations, and praise. “‘Sparrowling,” “Pussykins,” “Mousie,” “Mymousch” (after the Russian for “monkey”), “Mothling,” “Roosterkin,” “Long bird of paradise with the precious tail” (in a letter that closes with “Goodbye, my heavenly, my long one, with the dazzling tail and the little dachshund paws”), “Fire-Beastie,” and the especially wonderful “Pupuss,” which Nabokov parenthetically explains as “a little cross between a puppy and a kitten.’” He despaired when they were separated, and begged her to write more often, though now all of her letters are long destroyed. For anniversaries, birthdays, and sometimes just as a proof of his unwaning devotion, whatever mistakes he had made in the past, he drew delicate, brilliantly colored butterflies on the inside cover of the books he gifted her. Every book he published was dedicated to her. 

The couple returned to Europe in 1960 and took up residence at the luxurious Montreux Palace Hotel the next year. They remained there for the rest of Vladimir’s life, and, after her husband’s death in 1977, Vera became the head of his literary estate. She translated Pale Fire into Russian and, in a final act of defiance against his wishes to preserve his work, as she had ages before saved Lolita, she did not destroy The Original Laura, and set it up for publication. On April 7, 1991, she died in Switzerland. 

Her name, Вера, is the Russian language’s word for faith.

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  1. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Percival (View Comment):
    Dayton

    I think I’ve found your problem.

    • #31
  2. SParker Member
    SParker
    @SParker

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Question, am I ever going to read Lolita or is it something I should avoid?

    Come on.  Do make the attempt.  I bought copy in a used bookstore in the 70s, moved with it several times, and eventually finally read it after hearing, half asleep, Jeremy Irons read the opening on NPR.  Anyone who can write:  “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…” is worth reading.  I mourn the time it spent on my shelf unread.  Best novel ever.

    It’s unpretentiously* poetic and musical, sly and artful.  It profits the careful reader.  And listener.  Augment with the Jeremy Irons audio book (if you can stand it–it’s lugubrious, it’s Jeremy Irons) or acquire the fine art of moving your lips when you read.  (I think of the Irons film as a very nice picture book to accompany the novel.  That it doesn’t really need.)

    *it will however improve anyone’s vocabulary.  I think it was Edmund Wilson who said you have to remember that Nabokov learned to speak English out of the OED.  He didn’t.  English governess.  Trilingual household.  But sort of like William F. Buckley (Spanish first language).

    • #32
  3. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    SParker (View Comment):
    Come on. Do make the attempt. I bought copy in a used bookstore in the 70s, moved with it several times, and eventually finally read it after hearing, half asleep, Jeremy Irons read the opening on NPR. Anyone who can write: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…” is worth reading. I mourn the time it spent on my shelf unread. Best novel ever.

    I’ve got a great number of books that I need to read that I’ve already got sitting around. Just because a book is worthwhile is no longer sufficient reason for me to pick it up.

    • #33
  4. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    SParker (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Question, am I ever going to read Lolita or is it something I should avoid?

    Come on. Do make the attempt. I bought copy in a used bookstore in the 70s, moved with it several times, and eventually finally read it after hearing, half asleep, Jeremy Irons read the opening on NPR. Anyone who can write: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…” is worth reading. I mourn the time it spent on my shelf unread. Best novel ever.

    It’s unpretentiously* poetic and musical, sly and artful. It profits the careful reader. And listener. Augment with the Jeremy Irons audio book (if you can stand it–it’s lugubrious, it’s Jeremy Irons) or acquire the fine art of moving your lips when you read. (I think of the Irons film as a very nice picture book to accompany the novel. That it doesn’t really need.)

    *it will however improve anyone’s vocabulary. I think it was Edmund Wilson who said you have to remember that Nabokov learned to speak English out of the OED. He didn’t. English governess. Trilingual household. But sort of like William F. Buckley (Spanish first language).

    I started reading him freshman year of high school, when I only knew a bit of Spanish, and now that I’m fluent or advanced in his tripos of languages (English, French, and Russian), I’m excited to do some re-reading and see what I missed. 

    • #34
  5. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    Now that I’m thinking about it, I live a block off of Birch street. That street has five names as it crosses the city. (In order, River Prairie Drive is what the highway sign reads, then Birch, then Germania for a short stint where Balzer had his old apartment, then Madison as it’s in front of the hospital, and finally Cameron when it gets to the main road on the other side.)

    We have Pine Log Road, which is an East-West road split in two by 3000 feet of Silver Bluff Road, a North-South road.  What’s even more confusing is East Pine Log is route 302, while West Pine Log is Route 87.  To make things totally confusing, going west on East Pine Log, the street turns into Hitchcock Parkway, or Route 118.

     

    • #35
  6. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    “Wait … who the hell is Alyoshechka? Is he even in this book? Oh, it’s another of the fifty nicknames for Alyosha. Would have been a lot simpler if Fyodor had just referred to him as ‘Chuck’ or something.”

    Sure, until he meets an old frat brother, then he’s the Chaz-meister.

    Yeah, but it is distracting in what at one level is a murder mystery for one character to change names every time he walks through a door.

    Reading English history you have the same basic problem, only with titles.

    In 1222 the Duke of Gloucester rebelled, and was joined by the Earl of Pembroke..

    3 chapters later

    In 1230 the Scrivener of Derbyshire was cleaning the lavatories of the Thain of Muldoon…..

    And we’re talking about the same 2 people! Nothing has changed, but the books keep calling them by their current titles even as those shift about. Not until you check the footnotes do you realize that we’re talking about Richard Smith and Marvin Weaver.

    When we consider this excellent example of natural workings of the British mind, it is easy to see why they came up with the Imperial system of weights and measures, and the nomenclature of golfing irons. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in some remote districts of Dumfriesshire, 3 niblick equals 7-and-a-quarter stone.

    • #36
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