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. We can work out what her letters said, when Vladimir grows testy about their irregularity, or comments on their quality — sadly, often not up to much. But almost no letters from Véra to Vladimir survive. She destroyed all the ones she could find, and the one or two that slipped through the net do indeed prove to be unremarkable. This is the Vladimir show, and we have to take the woman who inspired such love and wit on trust.
The letters are full of rapturous comment, of course, but their substance, and the reason they are so absorbing, is Nabokov’s intense interest in the world around him. He knows that when you are in love, the slightest detail of the beloved’s world and days are interesting: what he might have learnt, through writing these letters, is that the specific is always interesting for readers, too. All through those 1926 letters, he remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.
Nabokov is such a great letter writer because he wants to interest, not just pour out his emotions. These letters must have been a joy to receive. He keeps his eyes open, and concentrates on recording what he sees:
Alongside the paths coloured stripes are daubed on beech and oak trunks, and sometimes simply on the rocks, like little flags to show the way to this or that hamlet. I noticed too that peasants put red earflaps on their percherons and are cruel with their geese, of whom they have plenty: they pluck off their breast feathers when the geese are still alive, so that the poor bird walks around as if in a décolleté.
Love, and intense care for what will interest his readership of one, directed Nabokov’s writing, and shaped it for the future. The clarity of observation here about a moment of terrible animal sadness holds in it the flash of insight at the beginning of Lolita, the parable about the monkey learning to draw and producing an image of the bars of its own cage.
Nabokov cajoles, encourages, tells Véra to be more interesting, delightedly expounds on how wonderful her letters have been. But for us, his letters are enough. The ones exploring prewar literary London and its elaborately unconvincing politeness have a unique air; he is lost in this world, not quite understanding its ways. If he was under the false impression that the butler who serves him his breakfast at a rich friend’s house was in the same trade as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, other observations about English life are unexpected but reliable — I particularly relished his comments about the pansies in Kensington Gardens having ‘little Hitler faces’ and the heartfelt tribute to London that ‘the city itself is awful… but the food, for example, is magnificent’. So it probably was before war and rationing.
Most people’s love letters would not be worth reading: love leads to a narrowing of interest and focus. But Nabokov exercises his precise gaze and begins to give Véra the writer he would turn into. When a writer sits and turns what he can see into sentences of pure magic, the world comes as if led by the nose:
I looked out of the window and saw: a red-haired house painter caught a mouse in his wheelbarrow and killed it with the stroke of a brush, then he tossed it in a puddle. The puddle reflected the dark-blue sky, quick black upsilons (reflections of swallows flying high) and the knee of a squatting child, who was attentively studying the little grey round corpse. I yelled at the painter — he didn’t get what the matter was, took offence, began to swear ferociously. I changed and went to tennis.