||Shade, Sybil, N’S Wife, Passim
by Dana Dragunoiu
Stacy Schiff has taken on a very difficult task: to write the story of a woman who deliberately sought to make her life impervious to the biographer’s gaze. Although Véra Nabokov (neé Slonim) recognized the need for a biography of her husband (and this in spite of her claim that he wished to exist solely in his literary work), she did not extend that necessity to herself. She defined her own involvement in her husband’s life and fiction as a paradoxical presence-within-absence, and Schiff aptly quotes her insistence to Nabokov’s biographer: “The more you leave me out, Mr. Boyd, the closer to the truth you will be”; and later in the same conversation, “I am always there, but well hidden.” Schiff correctly suggests: “The biographical account she would have found most acceptable would doubtless have resembled Mrs. Shade’s entry in the Pale Fire index: ‘Shade, Sybil, S’s wife, passim.’ She would have shuddered at Véra Evseevna Nabokov’s lengthy entry in Boyd’s second volume, which begins with ‘advises N not to burn Lolita,’ and ends with ‘as writer of N’s letters.’” What Schiff does not add, but which she knows that no reader will miss, is that Véra’s shudder would have become extreme agony at the prospect of being a biographer’s subject.
Nevertheless, a subject’s unwillingness to participate in the construction of a biography has never stopped the chroniclers of life stories, nor should it; and the instinctive self-effacement that led Véra to burn her letters to her husband, while preserving his letters to her as important artefacts of a literary genius, points to just one of the obstacles faced by Schiff. Although Schiff assumes these difficulties, she does not transcend them, and the most significant drawback of the biography is that it is not so much about Véra, as about Mrs. Nabokov and the marriage that sustained the writer and his extraordinary literary output. Schiff’s decision to focus on “the story of a woman, a man, and a marriage, a threesome that adds up any number of ways”, has its advantages, for the greater part of Véra’s life was inextricably intertwined with Nabokov’s. What is regrettable is that this emphasis on the couple detracts from the thirty-five years Véra spent without her husband, a time period covered by a mere thirty-three pages in a 456-page book.
This disproportionate treatment is particularly disappointing because it is precisely this part of Véra’s life that has been least documented. It also represents the most intriguing part of Schiff’s book. It is here that Schiff is at her most informative, describing Véra’s education as a complicated balancing act: reconciling her father’s demand for intellectual excellence and the restrictive anti-Semitic laws of turn-of-the-century Russia, which were, ironically, counter-balanced by a Russian culture that encouraged the education of women, including Jewish women. The resourcefulness and intrepidity with which Evsei Lazarevich Slonim circumvented the myriad racial restrictions, as well as his gallantry and visionary idealism, are shown to be the source of Véra’s rationality, determination, pride, and willingness to face adversity. The legacy that Véra inherited from her father provides a way of interpreting the combination of profound similarity and difference that united the Nabokovs: while they shared a single-minded dedication to the life of the imagination, Véra’s more pessimistic disposition and her mastery of practical matters contrast sharply with Nabokov’s general optimism and inability to tame the logistical aspects of daily life.
It is certainly thrilling to read Schiff’s account of seventeen-year-old Véra’s heroics when she and her mother and sisters fled from the Bolsheviks on a train they shared with the troops of the notorious pogromist, Simon Petliura. After Véra rebuked a soldier for threatening to throw a Jewish passenger from the train, the soldier was so taken aback by the young woman’s intervention that he and his ruffian colleagues quickly became the polite defenders of the Slonims for the remainder of the journey. These events are particularly enlightening, and it is unclear why Schiff fails to give a fuller account of Véra’s formative years. Why does she not mention the fact that Véra wrote poetry from early childhood until after the Revolution? Why is there nothing of her friendships, her affairs of the heart, her political leanings during that vital period of her life before she met the man she would later marry? Why is there nothing more of Véra’s involvement in an assassination plot (focused on Trotsky or the Soviet ambassador to Germany) than one tantalizing paragraph? Schiff seems often to forget that she is writing Véra’s, and not Vladimir’s, biography. The question of whether or not Nabokov spoke German when living in Berlin occupies as much space as Véra’s involvement in the assassination plot or her two rumoured miscarriages.
Equally frustrating is Schiff’s cavalier treatment of Nabokov’s fiction, where she often chooses the shocking over the accurate. Particularly misleading is her claim that the Nabokovs were fortunate that the readership which sent Lolita flying to the top of the best-seller list was not familiar with Nabokov’s earlier work, which is full of Lolita’s prototypes: “Vladimir was by no means Humbert, but he was the author of a fair number of works in which middle-aged men fidget under the spells cast by underaged girls.” This preference for the dramatic over the truthful has a distorting effect on her presentation of Nabokov, whom she describes as “a man of titanic self-absorption.” Although Nabokov may have been absent-minded in practical matters and may have scorned the second-rate with an uncommon disregard for public opinion, he never stopped analyzing the world outside his own so-called “titanic” ego, marvelling at the miracle of selfless love, and denouncing cruelty and solipsism in all their guises. Schiff seems as unaware of the significance of Nabokov’s fiction and profoundly moral character as the reviewers chastised by Véra for ignoring Lolita’s pain and suffering: “She cries every night, and the critics are deaf to her sobs.”
What Schiff does best is to show the side of Véra that has remained unremarked by Nabokov scholarship. Anyone familiar with Nabokov’s life knows about Véra’s staunch devotion to her husband, her unwavering support, her lionization of his literary work, her role as enabler in his variegated achievements. By quoting amply from her letters to friends, Schiff also brings to light Véra’s countless financial worries, her frustrations with her husband’s absent-mindedness in practical affairs (especially when their fate was solely dependent on his logistical acumen), her subtle precautions against a second straying from the marriage. Schiff gives a perceptive analysis of the difference between Véra’s first emigration to Berlin, where she continued to feel on familiar territory in spite of the virulent racism surrounding her, and her second emigration to America, where she felt painfully dislocated in spite of the general welcome.
It is on American soil, where Véra felt her foreignness most acutely, that Schiff (whose Russian research was regrettably mediated by a translator) feels most at home. Her account of Véra’s attempts to become politically involved in America––her frustrations at not being able to vote because of their nomadic life, her letter to the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun defending the indictment against Professor Owen Lattimore, who was charged by McCarthy as a top Soviet agent—add to our understanding of Véra, and Schiff’s analysis of Véra’s instinctive anti-communism is sensitive and intelligent. Schiff does not shy away from declaring the Nabokovs’ defence of American policy, particularly of McCarthy’s purges against real and imagined communist sympathizers and America’s later involvement in Vietnam, as wrong-headed; but she also points out that this was an understandable reaction of two people who had been banished from their homeland by a communist revolution, and who had no illusions about the atrocities taking place in the Soviet Union.
The extended treatment of Véra’s participation in Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell is delightful, as Schiff recounts with great detail and humour the extravagant and unprecedented antics enacted by the flamboyant professor and his mysterious “assistant” in the classroom of a staid American campus. It is also here that Schiff shows us the touchingly human side of Véra, such as her spontaneous affection for those students who praised her husband (and who, sensing this weakness, often tried to use it as currency for better grades), her carelessness toward her landlady’s crockery but complete devotion to her cat, and her new-found gaiety and enjoyment of the adulation bestowed upon Nabokov after the publication of Lolita. It is also here that Schiff offers a perceptive portrayal of the seemingly contradictory aspects of Véra’s personality: her simultaneous vanity and self-effacement; her readiness to enter the legal fray whenever her husband’s publishers treated his books with less respect than they deserved, and her regal indifference to any libellous charges directed against herself; her constant correction of her husband’s hyperbolic statements, tall tales, and false memories and her own biographical mystifications and emphatic denials of statements she had actually made previously.
The final pages of Véra are particularly poignant, as Schiff recounts Véra’s years as a widow—a period characterized, on the one hand, by her unwillingness to lead a social life, and, on the other, by her understated gratefulness for not being forgotten. It was during these final years that Véra translated Pale Fire into Russian (a literary achievement treated too cursorily by Schiff), sat a lonely vigil over Dmitri, who spent forty-two weeks in intensive care and rehabilitation after suffering third-degree burns in a car accident, and supervised her husband’s enormous literary legacy. And precisely because these fifteen years of life without Nabokov were so productive and emotionally charged, it is regrettable that a mere thirteen pages are devoted to them.
As a chronicler of events, dramatic moments, and domestic and professional anecdotes, Schiff is masterful. She is particularly good at portraying Véra’s character through her actions; but when actions fail to speak for themselves, Schiff’s psychological deductions are often superficial, inconclusive, and sometimes even incoherent. For example, she suggests that Véra may have abandoned her own literary aspirations in deference to Nabokov’s prejudices against women writers, a theory which seems strikingly erroneous after reading Schiff’s account of Véra’s own strong opinions and her indomitable faith in her own judgment.
In spite of its faults, Véra is an important document, a valuable contribution to Nabokov biography. Schiff set for herself an extraordinary challenge, and although she did not overcome it, she has met it half-way. She has added a number of important details to the existing portraits of the Nabokovs, even though the overall picture remains largely unchanged “Surrounded by a deep and comfortable sea of blank space,” writes Schiff in reference to Nabokov’s dedications of his books to Véra, “she is right there––one end of a luminous brain-bridge––plain as day, front and centre, hidden in full view”. Schiff’s biography places Véra centre stage, but Véra succeeds in remaining elusive in spite of the lights focused on her. •
Dana Dragunoiu is a senior doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto. She is writing her dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov and his philosophy.