When he mailed the first missive to the woman who would become his wife, Vladimir Nabokov was a penurious, Berlin-based poet known to the émigré community as “V. Sirin,” a name that felt more familiar to him than his own. He dreamed still of Russia. When he mailed his last letter, he was a wealthy American novelist living in Switzerland, self-conscious about the quality of his Russian. In between came a shelf of literature, three wrenching changes of country, and nearly fifty years of marriage. It was the longest-running, most intimate correspondence of Nabokov’s life, in part because his wife quickly came to handle most others. Her husband had, she explained to William Maxwell when he phoned in 1964 on New Yorker business, a “communicatory neurosis.”
She molted too, from the fictional Mme Bertran, a code name she assumed in Berlin to disguise herself from Nabokov’s family, to the marble, monumental Véra Nabokov of Montreux. Both had been “perfectly normal trilingual children” in St. Petersburg, where their paths crossed but never intersected. When finally they met, in their early twenties, in Germany, Nabokov believed destiny had arranged the encounter. Their union felt to him preordained, a point he made by summoning an image from The Count of Monte Cristo. He mangled it a bit; he generally felt himself beyond language, illiterate, clumsy on the page when it came to Véra Evseevna Slonim. “I can’t tell you anything in words,” wailed the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century. He knew a fairy tale when he saw one. He was a man deeply in love.
Enchanted by Véra’s lightness, laugh, and “unique charm,” her “stretchy vowels,” “sweet long legs,” and “little dachshund paws”—he did not mention the pages of his verse that she had committed to memory—he poured out his heart. He needed her desperately. He could not write a word without hearing it in her pronunciation. He could not wait for her to read his pages. She understood his every comma. “All the happiness of the world, the riches, power and adventures, all the promises of religions, all the enchantment of nature and even human fame” could not equal, he swore in 1925, two of her letters.
Very quickly she began to color his writing. A pleasure of any extended collection of correspondence lies in the savory anticipations; we read for the shimmer of the future, to which we alone are privy. Vladimir and Véra had known each other for seven months when he invited her to move to America with him. He could offer “a sunny, simple happiness—and not an altogether common one,” a promise on which he largely delivered. “Your father,” he informed her in 1926, a year after their marriage, “finds that I ‘specialize in risqué subjects.’” All would happen precisely as the couple envisioned, if not remotely on schedule.
And Nabokov found the means to express the “cirrus-cumulus sensations” that would produce what he always referred to, needed to think of as, a cloudless marriage. Within months of their 1923 meeting, Véra was his joy, his life, his music, his love. She was also his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet—since he was not keeping a list he feared he might be repeating himself (he was); he worried he would run out of critters (he did not)—his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.