Russian editor and translator Vera Nabokov (1902–1991) was married for 52 years to noted novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), and although she never discussed her role in his creative life, many have credited her as his muse. At least on the practical plain, Nabokov was of indispensable importance to her husband's literary career: she edited his works; saved his most famous novel, Lolita, from his repeated attempts to destroy it; sat in on his university classes; and handled his voluminous correspondence.
Vera Nabokov was born Vera Evseenva Slonim in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 5, 1902. Once living in the United States, she would spell her name Véra so that people would pronounce it VAY-ra. Nabokov's father, Evsei Slonim, was a successful lawyer as well as entering business as a lumber and tile merchant. Unfortunately, as Jews, the family faced discrimination both before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. During her first fifteen years, Vera was well educated, mostly at home, and exhibited a talent for writing and a fine intellect.
During the chaotic years of civil war that consumed Russia after the end of World War I, the Slonim family fled St. Petersburg, leaving their possessions behind and embarking on an arduous overland journey that included stays in Odessa, Yalta, Vienna, and Sofia, Bulgaria. In Sofia, Vera learned enough Bulgarian in four weeks to translate Bulgarian writings several years later. In 1921 the Slonim family reached Berlin, Germany, and Vera's father founded an import-export business as well as a small publishing firm to serve the city's growing Russian expatriate community.
Vera hoped to enroll in a university in Berlin, but she was told she would need additional coursework to qualify, and her family decided that her talents would be better put to use in performing paying work. She taught herself to type, did translations in several languages, and wrote a short piece that was published in the Russian expatriate journal Rul. Another young writer who contributed to the magazine sometimes signed his work with the pseudonym V. Sirin, but his real name was Vladimir Nabokov. The backgrounds of these two writers were similar: both were Russian emigrés who worked as private tutors (Vera taught English, one of the many languages she quickly mastered), and both, they would soon learn, were synesthetes, individuals who experience groups of sensations in connection with a single stimulus (for instance, seeing colors upon hearing specific musical notes). Vera is thought to have attended one of Vladimir's poetry readings.
At first the pair struggled. “We were ridiculously poor,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote (as quoted by biographer Stacy Schiff in Véra); “Her father was ruined, my widowed mother subsisted on an insufficient pension, my wife and I lived in gloomy rooms which we rented in Berlin West, in the lean bosoms of German military families.” For Vladimir to marry a Jew was unorthodox; a gentile, he had no issues with her background, but given the anti-Semitism of the day, it likely caused the couple to avoid seeking help from a wide social circle. Despite their poverty, the couple raised one son, Dmitri, who was born in 1934. At times, Vera was the family's primary breadwinner; she worked as a tourist guide, a secretary, a French shorthand specialist, a translator, and an assistant on a German-French dictionary. Her fluency in German was far greater than Vladimir's, and he was consistently unhappy in Berlin.
Despite the pressures they were under—pressures that intensified as anti-Semitism grew in the early years of Germany's fascist resgime—the couple was inseparable. Even when Vladimir showed an interest in other women, they rarely spent time apart. “Most people never saw him without her,” noted Schiff. “Not only were they inseparable but their sentences fused, on the page and in person. They shared a datebook. Their handwritings invade each other's notebooks; he would begin from one end, she from the other. Three years into the marriage Vladimir apologized to his mother for writing her in pencil; Véra was in the next room correcting proofs, with what was presumably the couple's only pen.”
The Nabokovs’ situation worsened as Nazism took hold in Germany, and Vera lost a secretarial job because she was Jewish. The following year, they left Germany for France, where they lived in Paris, traveled to several other cities, and went through a difficult passport application process as they observed the increasingly tense political situation in Europe. When German troops overran France they fled again, traveling by ship and arriving in New York City on May 27, 1940. Dmitri Nabokov recalled later that he had only once in his life seen his mother lose her composure: at the customs office in New York City, when she mislaid the key to the family's steamer trunk.
Vladimir found life in the United States to his liking. He soon settled in, volunteering in the butterfly collection at New York City's American Museum of Natural History and, in 1941, landing a job as a lecturer at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He moved from there to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he taught from 1948 to 1959 (and where among his students was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Vera Nabokov kept track of her husband's class schedule and lecture notes, and in his popular classes he often introduced her as his assistant. The pair took annual trips to the American West, where they indulged in their shared passion for butterfly collecting. Vera drove the car because her husband never learned to drive. On one of these trips, she purchased a gun, partly because she had been frightened by a rattlesnake the couple encountered and partly because she feared that her husband might be assassinated by Soviet Russian agents.
On these annual trips, Vladimir Nabokov worked on Lolita, a novel about a literature professor named Humbert Humbert who becomes sexually involved with 12-year-old Dolores, nicknamed Lolita. Mindful of the book's controversial subject matter, he discussed destroying the manuscript and several times attempted to carry out his plan. Each time he was dissuaded or blocked by Vera, who on several occasions pulled pages of the manuscript out of a burning fire. Lolita was finished in 1953, published in France in 1955, and finally released in the United States in 1958, where it quickly became a best seller.
After Vladimir Nabokov underwent the quick transition from obscure academic to celebrity, Vera remained a major presence in his life and career, often serving as a de facto literary agent. The couple's new life was stressful, however, particularly due to Vladimir's rumored extramarital affairs with pretty female university students. Now financially secure, the Nabokovs decided to leave the United States and return to Europe. They settled in Switzerland, living at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux for the rest of Vladimir's life.
Despite her prominent role, Vera Nabokov was a private person, self-effacing in regard to her husband's career and reticent about their life together. As Vladimir's status as one of the 20th century's greatest writers became established in the 1960s, a large flood of biographical and scholarly studies of his life and work began to appear. She generally resisted becoming a source of information (she usually denied the story of how she saved Lolita from the flames, although at least one instance of this was witnessed) and she destroyed her own correspondence in order to protect the couple's privacy. “If you've ever taken a cat to a vet in a carrying case, and extracted the animal in a blur of claw and hackles and muscle, you know what it is to write about Mrs. Nabokov,” Schiff said in a speech reported on by the Cornell Chronicle.
After Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, Vera remained active as executor of his estate and supervisor of his legacy and continued to prepare his manuscripts for new or revised publication. In later years, Nabokov suffered from a variety of health problems, including Parkinson's disease and a hunchback deformity resulting from a time when she attempted to save her husband from a fall. She died in Vevey, Switzerland, on April 7, 1991, at the age of 89.
Schiff, Stacy, Véra, Random House, 1999.
Guardian (London, England), April 12, 1991, p. 37.
International Herald Tribune, April 8, 1999, p. 22.
New Yorker, November 16, 2015.
New York Times, April 11, 1991.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), October 26, 2014, p. 32.
“Vladimir and Vera Nabokov Had ‘Mystifying’ Relationship, Schiff Says,”Cornell Chronicle, http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/science-tech-medicine (November 12, 2016).❑