The crudest curriculum vitae crows and flaps its wings in a style peculiar to the undersigner. I doubt whether you can even give your telephone number without giving something of yourself.
--Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol
Véra Nabokov neither wrote her memoirs nor considered doing so. Even at the end of her long life, she remained the world's least likely candidate to set down the confessions of a white widowed female. (She did keep a diary of one girl's fortunes, but the girl was Lolita.) When asked how she had met the man to whom she had been married for fifty-two years she begged the question, with varying degrees of geniality. "I don't remember" was the stock response, a perfectly transparent statement coming from the woman who could recite volumes of her husband's verse by heart. At another time she parried with: "Who are you, the KGB?" One of the few trusted scholars cornered her. Here is your husband's account of the events of May 8, 1923; do you care to elaborate? "No," shot back Mrs. Nabokov. In the biographer's ears rang the sound of the portcullis crashing down. For all anyone knew she had been born Mrs. Nabokov.
Which she had not. Vladimir Nabokov's version, delivered more or less consistently, was that he had met the last of his fiancées in Germany.* "I met my wife, Véra Slonim, at one of the émigré charity balls in Berlin at which it was fashionable for Russian young ladies to sell punch, books, flowers, and toys," he stated plainly. When a biographer noted as much, adding that Nabokov left shortly thereafter for the south of France, Mrs. Nabokov went to work in the margins. "All this is rot," she offered by way of corrective. Of Nabokov's 1923 trip to France another scholar observed: "While there he wrote once to a girl named Véra Slonim whom he had met at a charity ball before leaving." Coolly Mrs. Nabokov announced that this single sentence bulged with three untruths, which she made no effort to identify.
In all likelihood the ball was a "'reminiscence' . . . born many years later" on the part of Nabokov, who anointed May 8 as the day on which he had met his wife-to-be. A lavish dance was held in Berlin--one of those "organized by society ladies and attended by the German elite and numerous members of the diplomatic corps," in Véra's more glamorous description, and which both future Nabokovs were in the habit of attending--but on May 9. These balls took place with regular succession; Nabokov had met a previous fiancée at one such benefit.* Ultimately we are left to weigh his expert fumbling of dates against Véra's equally expert denial of what may in truth very well have happened; the scale tips in neither direction. Between the husband's burnishing of facts and the wife's sweeping of those facts under the carpet, much is possible. "But without these fairy tales the world would not be real," proclaimed Nabokov, who could not resist the later temptation to confide in a visiting publisher that he and Véra had met and fallen instantly in love when they were thirteen or fourteen and summering with their families in Switzerland. (He was writing Ada at the time of the confession.)
However it happened, in the beginning were two people and a mask. Véra Slonim made a dramatic entrance into the life of Vladimir Nabokov late on a spring Berlin evening, on a bridge, over a chestnut-lined canal. Either to confuse her identity or to confirm it--it is possible the two had glimpsed each other at a ball earlier in the year, or that she had taken her cue from something he had published†--she wore a black satin mask. Nabokov would have been able to discern little more than a pair of wide, sparkling blue eyes, the "tender lips" about which he was soon to write, a mane of light, wavy hair. She was thin and fine-boned, with translucent skin and an entirely regal bearing. He may not even have known her name, though it is certain that she knew his. There is some evidence that Véra had been the one to initiate the meeting, as Nabokov later told his sister had been the case. He had by 1923 come to enjoy some recognition for his poetry, which he wrote under the name V. Sirin,* and which he published regularly in Rul (The Rudder), the leading Russian paper of the emigration. He had given a public reading as recently as a month earlier. Moreover he cut a dashing figure. "He was, as a young man, extremely beautiful" was the closest Véra Nabokov came to acknowledging as much.
Russian Berlin was a small town, small enough that she may also have known the young poet's heart had been broken in January, when his fiancée had called off their engagement. Véra Nabokov rarely divulged personal details under anything less than duress. But if she had been the one to pursue Nabokov--as word in the émigré community had it later†--there was all the more reason for her silence. She did not remove the mask in the course of the initial conversation, either because she feared her looks would distract from her conversation (as has been suggested), or (as seems more consistent with female logic) because she feared they might not. There was little cause for alarm; she knew a surefire way of turning a writer's head. She recited his verse for him. Her delivery was exquisite; Nabokov always marveled over a "certain unusual refinement" in her speech. The effect was instantaneous. As important to a man who believed in remembered futures and prophetic dreams, there was something oddly familiar about Véra Slonim. Asked in his seventies if he had known instantly that this woman represented his future, he replied, "I suppose one could say so," and looked to his wife with a smile. There would have been a good deal familiar to her about him. "I know practically by heart every one of his poems from 1922 on," she asserted much later. She had attended his readings; her earliest album of Sirin clippings opens with several pieces from 1921 and 1922, clippings which show no signs of having been pasted in after the fact. The disguise--it retroconsciously became "a dear, dear mask"--was evidently still in place when the two parted that evening, on the Hohenzollernplatz in Wilmersdorf. They could not have seen each other more than a few times before Nabokov's departure for France, yet within weeks he had written her that a moth had flown into his ear, reminding him of her.
From France, where he went as a farmhand to recover from his broken engagement, Nabokov wrote two letters at the end of May. The first he dispatched on the twenty-fifth, to eighteen-year-old Svetlana Siewert, the former fiancée. He realized he should not be writing but--liberated by geography--permitted himself the luxury. He had clearly been reprimanded for his persistence before. While he had told friends he could never forgive Svetlana, he could not help himself; she would simply have to hear the tender things he had to say. He had spent months composing despondent verse, convinced that his life was over. Svetlana and her family, he claimed, were "linked in my memory to the greatest happiness I ever had or will have." He remained stubbornly in love with her, saw her everywhere he looked. He had traveled through Dresden, Strasbourg, Lyon, and Nice, and felt no differently anywhere. He planned to continue on to North Africa, "and if I find someplace on the planet where neither you, nor your shadow can be found, then I will settle there forever."
Two days later he wrote to Véra Slonim. She had already written him at least three times; he admitted that he had been coy and had awaited another letter before responding. He may have needed a little convincing: It is the only time in their correspondence he hesitates before setting pen to paper, and one of the few in which he has no need to chide her to write more often. Was he still too preoccupied with Svetlana? He does not sound so in his first letter to Véra:
I won't hide it: I am so unused to the idea of people, well, understanding me--so unused to it that in the very first minutes of our meeting it seemed to me that this was a joke, a masquerade deception. . . . There are just some things that are difficult to talk about--one brushes off their wondrous pollen by touching them with words. . . . Yes, I need you, my fairy tale. For you are the only person I can talk to--about the hue of a cloud, about the singing of a thought, and about the fact that when I went out to work today and looked each sunflower in the face, they all smiled back at me with their seeds.
* Nabokov chose the pseudonym in part so as not to be confused with his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, an eminent jurist and statesman, and a founder of the Constitutional Democratic party.
† The rumor on the street was that Véra had written Vladimir in advance, asking that he meet her, at which meeting she appeared masked. The Nabokovs' son never learned how his parents first met.
* Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov was killed by a bullet intended for a political opponent, whom he attempted to shield with his body.
† Decades later in his notes to Eugene Onegin, he wrote with feeling about "a rejected suitor's unquenchable exasperation with an unforgettable girl and her Philistine parents."
Suddenly Africa sounds less enticing. Forty-eight hours after telling Svetlana he will be changing continents, the young poet felt compelled to return to Berlin, in part for his mother's sake, in part because of a secret, one "I desperately want to let out."
How much did Véra know of Svetlana? Probably a good deal, directly or indirectly. Nabokov and Svetlana Siewert had been engaged since 1922, just after the March 28 assassination of Nabokov's father at a Berlin political meeting.* Vladimir had been in love with Svetlana, one of the acknowledged beauties of the emigration, since she was sixteen. She had agreed to the engagement only after the murder, so distraught was her friend in the weeks following his father's death: "He was a poet, and I, I was a child." She had pitied him but did not truly love him. While her parents had been concerned about his liberal politics and his ability to support their daughter, they had welcomed him as a member of the family. After his graduation from Cambridge University in 1922 Nabokov summered with the well-off Siewerts in Germany; he spent every evening with them in Berlin. Many of his first published poems were dedicated to Svetlana. These she read with great pleasure. With very different emotions she read the diary he foisted upon her, in which he had described his previous love affairs. (In the neat summary of his biographer, Brian Boyd, Nabokov's had been "a youth of energetic sexual adventure.") Svetlana was so offended by his descriptions that she threw the journal across the room. Nabokov was an ardent man, which made her nervous. She took to calling him Tiger because of his abundant energy; she was a little afraid of him, put off by his intoxicated talk of passion. With relief, on January 9, 1923--weeks after her fiancé had published a volume of verse in part dedicated to her--Svetlana broke off the engagement. She cried; he cried; everyone cried. She assured him she could not provide him with what he needed. Her parents explained they worried that he could not provide her with what she needed; he would remember them with particular emnity.† The two removed the gold rings they had worn, which were melted down and incorporated into religious icons. The results of the breakup can be read in Nabokov's poems of that winter, all of them recopied neatly into a notebook, by Véra.
She who had appeared disguised at the first meeting believed in full candor; it may have been one of her least winning characteristics. Many years later she allowed that it had taken her husband several months to get over Svetlana, although she also suggested that the matter had been settled before she entered the picture, which was not entirely true. Nabokov made no secret of his anguish in the poems he composed in mid-1923. "But sorrow not yet quite cried out / Perturbed our starry hour" qualifies as an open admission; he wondered if it was perhaps "romantic pity" that allowed her to understand his verse so well. By November he was writing transparently of renaissance, of the rebirth of his "rickety" soul. She knew precisely where she stood soon enough. On January 8, 1924, Nabokov would write Véra Slonim: "My happiness, you know tomorrow it will have been exactly one year since I left my fiancée. Do I have any regrets? No. That had to happen, so that I could meet you."
From France Nabokov mailed his summer 1923 verse back to Berlin. On June 24 Véra Slonim would have opened her copy of Rul to a poem that struck familiar chords. There could be no doubt in her mind about the identity of the person to whom "The Encounter" was addressed: "And night flowed, and silent there floated / into its satin streams / that black mask's wolf-like profile / and those tender lips of yours." Aloud Nabokov wondered if the two of them were meant for each other. "I wander and strain to hear / the movement of the stars above our encounter / And what if you are to be my fate . . ." The verse spoke for itself but its epigraph was equally forthcoming. From Alexsandr Blok's celebrated "The Stranger" Nabokov had borrowed half a line, the other half of which makes reference to an unknown woman's "dark veil," much-needed distraction to the poet, who has been left by the woman he loves. It was a discreet but all the same public seduction.
Excerpted from Vera by Stacy Schiff. Copyright © 2000 by Stacy Schiff. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.