May 1999

Portrait of a marriage

By Stacy Schiff
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Anyone who has read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita has probably wondered what Mrs. Nabokov thought about her husband’s literary preoccupation with pedophilia. Stacy Schiff writes that Vera Nabokov was actually responsible for Lolita, in one respect at least: she saved the manuscript from the fire into which Nabokov was determined to throw it. Schiff writes that Lolita‘s survival "is testimony to Vera’s ability to — as her husband had it — keep grim common sense from the door, shoot it dead when it approached. She feared that the memory of the unfinished work would haunt him forever."

This episode characterizes the Nabokovs’ marriage, which Schiff explores and explicates in Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). Their lives were entwined to the point that even Nabokov’s authorship was not entirely his own. Schiff’s biography follows this inextricability even in its subtitle: "Portrait of a Marriage." Thickly footnoted, illustrated with a wide variety of photographs, and written with an eye toward Nabokov’s writing as well as his wife, Schiff’s book paints a comprehensive picture of one of literature’s more complex couples. She employs interviews with their son, grocery lists, diaries, and correspondence in her work to illustrate the extent of the Nabokovs’ impact on one another. Their inseparability was not merely romantic; as Schiff writes, "The man who spoke so often of his own isolation was one of the most accompanied loners of all time." Schiff notes that the Nabokovs’ unique marriage did provide some confusion: "It was no wonder that Vera appeared to have some trouble discerning where she ended and her husband began . . . ‘I ask you to bear in mind that we have a poor mind for legal expressions,’ she contended." Ultimately, however, Schiff’s depiction reveals an unrivaled intertwining of personalities. As she writes of Nabokov, "For many years he had been a national treasure in search of a nation; Vera was a little bit the country in which he lived."

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