Review: Véra by Stacy Schiff

18667133Verdict: Fascinating, incredibly well-researched picture of a brilliant and frustrating woman.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Biography

Published by Random House, 2000

Find it on Goodreads.

Hailed by critics as “monumental” (Boston Globe) and “utterly romantic” (New York magazine), Véra, the story of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time. Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, wrote his books first for himself and secondly for his wife.

Set in prewar Europe and postwar America and spanning much of the twentieth century, this telling of the Nabokov’s fifty-two-year marriage reads as vividly as a novel. Véra, both beautiful and brilliant, is its outsized heroine, a woman who loves as deeply and intelligently as did the great romantic heroines of Austen and Tolstoy. Stacy Schiff’s Véra is a triumph of the biographical form.

A biography written after its subject has died must necessarily be an approximation. This is never more true than in a case like this, where the subject wanted to be unknowable, even while alive (“I am always there. But well-hidden.”). It is this book’s greatest strength that Schiff manages to paint a vivid picture of Vera in all her wonderful contradictions regardless.

I knew nothing about Vera Nabokov when I started this book and I left it feeling like I had known her personally. The picture Schiff paints is endlessly fascinating: of a woman who was proud of her own opinions and quick to judge others who nonetheless thought her life’s work was to assist her genius husband while at the same time denying being part of his creative process in any shape or form (even if there are countless instances of her handwriting in his manuscript), of a genius polyglot who corrected translations of her husband’s works even in languages she didn’t properly speak who still felt like her English wasn’t good enough after dealing with legal affairs for decades, of a woman who well into her 80s absolutely loathed communism in an obsessive way, or a woman who obviously deeply loved her husband but seemed slightly cold towards her son with him.

The first half of the book was near perfect and incredibly well-researched, the ideal combination of literature critique and historical narrative (I learned things about the Russian emigré community in Berlin between the first and second world war that I didn’t even know I could learn about), and Vera was just the perfect combination of awful and brilliant – I do love unlikable women characters, apparently not only in fiction. I thought the second half (after Nabokov found lasting success with Lolita) was not quite as strong and started to feel repetitive. Her refusal to admit her importance for her husband’s work is fascinating – but I also got it the first three times Schiff made that point. I did, however, absolutely adore the last chapter and found the way in which Vera did not change her approach after her husband’s death incredibly interesting.

Content warning: Infidelity, Familial Death, anti-semitism (Vera was Jewish in early 20th century Europe…)

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

18369376Verdict: Absolutely wonderful.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars.

Published by Hachette, 2010.

Genre: Biography

Find it on Goodreads.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.