Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov
More Than Lolita’s Secretary
Say the name “Vladimir Nabokov” and readers can be forgiven for immediately thinking “Lolita”–the novel for whom the author is best known. While Lolita is instantly recognizable, MRS. Nabokov was not. Yet what an extraordinary woman she was! I have delayed writing this review because the book just overwhelmed me with feelings.
“If you can’t be one, marry one?”
Today these are fighting words, but until very recently this was the choice for many women. Powerful men needed well-educated, well-organized women to attend to the “rest” of their lives. Until the post-World War II era most successful men could hire servants to keep the house, attend to the cooking and raise the children. The wife then was the networker, the protege, the junior partner, the one who did the grunt work. Yes, I understand this isn’t easy to read today, but it’s true. My grandmother ran a cocktail party like today’s networking events! The “cleaning lady” did the dirty work, while my grandmother schmoozed for my grandfather and helped connect the right people.
Vera brought her own considerable talents as translator, writer, and poet to the aid of her beloved husband. She was his editor, his muse, his agent, his advocate, his sounding board, his driver, his classroom substitute. She made his career possible by keeping him focused on his writing and on his other profession as a lepidopterist. Let’s not forget that Vera coped alone with their son when the war started as well! SuperWoman! Ironically, she was just as capable of achieving great success with her pen as her husband.
I read this book on Kindle and it has more highlighted passages than any other book I’ve read in that format. I loved the book–it brought a very real and lasting love affair, not to mention both Naboko’s fabulous careers to light. It reads like the very best romantic fiction combined with a very well-told biography. That’s a win-win for me.
Would the world have the works of Nabokov had he married someone else? Possibly, but not the same brilliant masterpieces that we know today. It took Vera’s love and skill to birth them, market them, litigate on their behalf, liase with agents and sustain their author.
Sidebar: Interesting, isn’t it that two more different writers than Vladimir Nabokov and Gene Stratton Porter, both of the 20th century, had identical dual-vocations, albeit with Porter specializing in moths!
The Wife: A Novel
Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife mirrors the life of the Nabokovs in many ways. A wife decides on a flight to collect the husband’s prestigious literary award that she’s done with him. The story goes on to tell their story–from a student/professor affair through to the current day. Like Vera, Joan Castleman makes her husband’s work possible…and then some….
I chose the quotes at the top of this post to show the way the books were the same, but different. For one the marriage was the profession, for the other….[no spoilers, only hints!]
I loved this book! It kept me returning again and again to Vera. I love it when a book that is not a fictionalized account of real persons life does that! I am anxious now to see the movie.