Verdict: Fascinating, incredibly well-researched picture of a brilliant and frustrating woman.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Published by Random House, 2000
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…)