Triumph of the Quill

We had a pleasant little party the other day, what can I say: tra-la-la, Aldanov in tails, Bunin in the vilest dinner-jacket, Khmara with a guitar and Kedrova, Ilyusha in such narrow trousers that his legs were like two black sausages, old, sweet Teffi—and all this in a revoltingly luxurious mansion . . . as we listened to the blind-drunk Khmara’s rather boorish ballads she kept saying: but my life is over! while Kedrova (a very sharp-eyed little actress whom Aldanov thinks a new Komissarzhevskaya) shamelessly begged me for a part. Why, of course, the most banal singing of “charochka,” a lonely vase with chocolates, the hostess’s wail (about me): “oh, he’s eating all the chocolates,” a view from the picture window onto the skeleton of the growing exhibition and the moon. C’était a vomir. Bunin kept impersonating my “arrogance” and then hissed: “you will die alone and in horrible agony.”—Vladimir Nabokov, Letters to Véra

In life as in death: If there was a superhero called Most Loved Yet Most Hated Dead White Male Writer, Vladimir Nabokov could’ve been buried in the suit. Bring him up in interested company and the reaction may range from snooty, ululating adoration to irrational, pinch-mouthed hatred. For the haters V.N. is an elitist of the worst kind, a contemptuous aristocrat, a probable pedophile, cruel, immoral, even stupid—an emotionally empty yet freakishly gifted technician with nothing to say. For the ululators (not all of whom are snoots, I’m just acknowledging the royalist fusspots on the far end of the spectrum), V.N. is beyond reproach, a moral and intellectual saint who, among other flawless feats, wrote an erotic masterpiece about pedophiliac love purely in order to “exploit . . . the aesthetic possibilities of the material” or, as the superb scholar Brian Boyd has written with a straight face, to express his “concern for children.” Between these two poles there is such a stupefying gap, already so filled with so much brainiac noise, that when I find myself in such conversations, I become . . . stupefied. “Nabokov is cold,” coldly comments an academic of my acquaintance. “He’s not cold,” I answer, “he’s hot.” “It’s finally the same thing,” he replies. “There’s no warmth.” “But he’s sometimes even a bit sentimental,” I say. “Exactly,” is the inexorable reply. “It’s false feeling.”

In view of all this, I read Letters to Véra, a collection of V.N.’s letters to his wife, in part with the hopeless hope that finally the hater’s angrily squeezed eyes could be made to open. That hope is of course irrelevant to the book, which is (to anyone but a confirmed hater) a gorgeous and heartening record of the intimate life of a genius. It is a delightful encyclopedia of pet names (my joy, floridithy, owlthy, lovethy, my love; my sweet and multicolored Roosterkin), literary gossip, family stories, lists of boardinghouse meals (cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball), drawings of animals, insects, and toys, puzzles, opinions on everything from news stories to James Joyce (Ultimately: wit sets behind reason, and while it is setting, the sky is marvellous, but then it’s night), and intense aesthetic appreciations of, among other things, street corners, dachshunds, and oil on a puddle (that is, a huge dullish opal). Miserly points for the haters: There are moments of very petty bitchiness, even toward his admiring friends (the “pink little isthmus” between Nina Berberova’s two front teeth is made much of), and unpleasant vanity (he seems pleased to scornfully describe an old girlfriend who repeatedly shows up at his readings). When he writes to his wife to indignantly deny an affair, he shows himself to be an accomplished liar. However, the overwhelming quality of his letters (which he wrote nearly every day they were apart) is generous, buoyant, sincere, and warm, most of all to Véra and their son, Dmitri (He still walks all over my soul as if it was his own bed, my darling, my little bunny), but also to friends, family, animals of all kinds (the big bad elitist was a great rescuer of mice!), children, and, yes, even colleagues:

After tea and still there for dinner (our supper) were Aldanov, Vishnyak (he is very likeable, funny and round), the invariable Kerensky, who also keeps cracking jokes with a remarkable Jewish intonation, and in general, has mannerisms a little like the old man Kaplan’s . . . and Mother Maria—a nun, fat, pink, very likeable, the former wife of Kuzmin-Karavaev. And when I, not knowing this, told how Hitlerites had beaten him up, she said with feeling: “Serves him right!”

And then:

At the meeting, Struve spoke, as well as Kirill Zaytsev, Kartashev (he speaks wonderfully, with tight-shut eyes, with amazing force and imagery), Florovsky and Fondaminsky (who was terribly agitated: they had got at Novyi grad), with great spirit.

This tone of warm, appreciative engagement with others suffuses the letters; even the snotty passages have an effervescent spirit—for example, the one I chose to lead with. And actually the way I quoted that passage is somewhat misleading, because I omitted the lead-in to the scene:

I’m really starting to feel oppressed, the enervating charm of Paris, the divine sunsets (on the Arc de Triomphe, a fragment of the frieze suddenly comes to life—a pigeon taking off), the charm and the idleness, the outlines of time are wobbly, I can’t write, I’m desperate for solitude with you.

V.N.’s exasperation at the party didn’t spring primarily from his dislike of the company; it seems he much preferred the intimate connection with his wife. He preferred love, which he, in a letter, whimsically described in terms of temperature:

I have just returned from the Karpoviches’, where it was as agreeable as always, but also cosy in a new way—a very bright and light house, which has not yet managed (although it’s starting to, in some corners) to blossom. The water in their tub was, as I told Tatyana, more like (warm) friendship than (hot) love.

The letters create the impression that V.N. temperamentally preferred the heat of love to the warmth of friendship. The need to escape the social nonsense to be with Véra comes up repeatedly and even incongruously; while V.N. was carrying on an affair with an émigré poet named Irina Guadanini, he was literally begging his wife to leave Germany and join him in Paris. This “begging” could have been purely for show, but it does not read that way to me. It suggests instead that V.N., far from cold and calculating, was in this instance not fully in control of himself. His pleas to his wife to come to Paris read almost as if he wanted her to save him.

Vladimir, Véra, and Dmitri Nabokov, Berlin, summer 1935. © The Estate of Vladimir Nabokov

And she did. Someone told Véra what was going on and she confronted her husband, essentially saying, “Her or me.” He broke off the affair, but continued to exchange letters with his mistress for a couple months. Guadanini asked to see V.N. one last time. He said no; he had by then reunited with his family in Cannes. She came to see him anyway. She approached him on the beach while he was with his three-year-old son. (She may have come to tell him she was pregnant; it seems that afterward, she gave birth to a boy she put up for adoption.) He told her that he still loved her but asked her to leave. He also asked that she return his letters, but she refused. She died—alone and in poverty—in possession of the letters he had written her and a collection of reviews about him.

This affair might be seen as an example of what my academic friend was getting at when he said that very hot can be, in its effects, “the same thing” as very cold—for it seems that the very heat of the affair required a cauterized ending. Otherwise, it might have been impossible to end it at all. Guadanini did not simply leave when she was dismissed. She sat down on the beach some distance from V.N. and Dmitri, and continued to sit there when Véra joined them; she was still there when the family left for lunch.

Few people would want such drama. V.N. truly could not afford it. Like everyone else in the unmoored émigré community, he and Véra, who was Jewish, and often alone with her young child in Germany, were vulnerable and struggling mightily. V.N. was apart from his wife for long periods because he was in Paris and London frantically hustling his work, hand-delivering copies of novels and stories (typewritten and posted by Véra from Berlin) to whoever he thought might help him get published, angling for teaching appointments, networking like a fiend. The insecurity of such a life would be hard even in a stable world, and prewar Europe was brutally unstable. In 1922, V.N.’s father had been murdered by Russian monarchists (they were gunning for someone else when Nabokov senior interfered); in 1939, his impoverished mother would die in Czechoslovakia; later, his brother Sergey would die in a concentration camp.

Sergey’s story is a particularly painful one; it’s also a story that, again, casts V.N. in a less than ideal light. In his memoir Speak, Memory, V.N. describes his relationship to his brother as “inordinately hard to speak about.” Blatantly favored by his parents from birth, V.N. describes himself as “the coddled one” and Sergey as the “witness of the coddling.” V.N. was a boisterous and dominant child; Sergey was mild and timid. (A picture of the two boys in 1909 says it all: Ten-year-old V.N. is standing with his legs wide apart and his hands on his hips, as if inviting the world to adore him on its knees; Sergey, nine, has one leg shyly turned in and his arms crossed over his chest, one finger pensively placed on his cheek.) By his own remorseful account, V.N. was something of a bully, although in general he simply wasn’t very interested in his brother. He was, however, interested enough (at the age of sixteen) to read Sergey’s journals in enough depth to discover that the boy was gay; he was also interested enough to show the journals to their tutor, who showed them to their father.

Sergey is mentioned sparingly in the Letters; these mentions are heartrending. In the most striking of them, V.N. quotes at length from a letter his brother wrote to their mother telling her that he had converted to Catholicism because it is “stricter, more demanding than the Orthodox,” and because as a Catholic he would be able to “take communion every day” and thereby “kill the sin in [him],” to “make way for something new and not sinful.” After quoting this letter, V.N. follows with a non sequitur that is unintentionally comic: “I had lunch (veal cutlet, cherry compote), then sailed off (in the chocolate mackintosh).” He goes on about his pleasant day for about half a page before breezily commenting, “It is true—Catholicism is a feminine, arrow-arched faith. . . . Probably, Sergey’s carried away by this, but in a deep, good way, that will help him a lot.”

The response is blithe to the point of—I almost put “brutality,” but I think the truer word is “incomprehension.” V.N. probably had no idea what it was to feel such anguish and self-hatred, and given that he was trying to create a safe world for his family amid one that was crumbling around his ears, it is hard to blame him for not trying to understand right then. He chose, it seems to me, the survival tactic he was constitutionally best equipped for, which was to focus on the abiding beauty of the world, in the form of such things as a random cat (that special silkiness of short fur, and some very tender white tints on its folds), or the sea (very lightly touched up with blue and throwing itself at everything) or any and everything about his wife (how I love your handwriting, that running shadow of your voice). This is a man who, at eighteen, wrote romantic poetry while machine guns were being fired on the streets outside his St. Petersburg home. The focus on such small beauties in situations of crushing seriousness could seem merely silly and self-involved; if I’d known him at the time, it’s possible I would have found him maddening. But possible personal feelings don’t count; given V.N.’s commitment to art in the face of extreme adversity, I consider his determined choice of focus heroic.

It is a questionable project to analyze a writer’s personality based on the fiction he has written, or to cross-examine his fiction based on information about his life. But letters are much more naturally revealing. Letters to Véra presents neither an elitist prick nor a sainted artist; written with easy grace and sometimes ardent haste, they display rather a complex but morally ordinary human being whose gifts and flaws were both thrown into high relief by his transcendently expressive genius. They also show a man of unstoppable energy and joy. There are comparatively few letters written after the family arrived in America, where V.N. brought his gifts to fantastic fruition. The tone of the American letters is remarkably consistent with that of earlier ones written in much darker circumstances; his character seems to have been extraordinarily independent of external forces.

Letters winds to its end with charming anecdotes about reading tours at small colleges, ridiculous mishaps at train stations, oddball characters, and the segregated South. My favorite, though, is about V.N.’s hospitalization for appendicitis in 1944:

The nurses constantly tried to pull open the curtains of my coop and got angry saying that since all the other curtains were pulled, my poor tabernacle was spoiling the general look of the ward. By the end of my stay I was in such a state of exasperation, that when on Saturday morning I saw from the gallery (where I had gone out for a smoke) T.N., who’d come for me, I jumped out through the fire-escape as I was, in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, rushed to the car—and we were already moving off, when the absolutely enraged nurses ran out—but they couldn’t stop me.

They still can’t.

Mary Gaitskill’s novel The Mare was published by Pantheon in November.