03 DECEMBER, 2014
By: Maria Popova
“You are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought…”
Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also one of creative history’s greatest sidekicks by acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.
So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)
In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:
I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…
Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.
See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.
By November, his love has only intensified:
How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it — and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret — so sharp! — that we haven’t lived through it together — whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible — or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road — you see what I mean, my happiness?
And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words — and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone… in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision… You can be bruised by an ugly diminutive — because you are so absolutely resonant — like seawater, my lovely.
I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.
Vladimir's letter to Véra from November 8, 1923
After a charming aside professing that he had begun writing a poem for her on the page but a “very inconvenient little tail got left” and he had no other paper on which to start over, he continues in his characteristic spirit of earnest lyricism with a sprinkle of disarming irreverence:
Most of all I want you to be happy, and it seems to me that I could give you that happiness — a sunny, simple happiness — and not an altogether common one…
I am ready to give you all of my blood, if I had to — it’s hard to explain — sounds flat — but that’s how it is. here, I’ll tell you — with my love I could have filled ten centuries of fire, songs, and valor — ten whole centuries, enormous and winged, — full of knights riding up blazing hills — and legends about giants — and fierce Troys — and orange sails — and pirates — and poets. And this is not literature since if you reread carefully you will see that the knights have turned out to be fat.
But Nabokov makes clear that his feelings supersede the playful and expand into the profound:
I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you…
I love you, I want you, I need you unbearably… Your eyes — which shine so wonder-struck when, with your head thrown back, you tell something funny — your eyes, your voice, lips, your shoulders — so light, sunny…
You came into my life — not as one comes to visit … but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.
Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.
In a letter from December 30 reminiscent of Lolita’s famous opening line, he writes:
I love you very much. Love you in a bad way (don’t be angry, my happiness). Love you in a good way. Love your teeth…
I love you, my sun, my life, I love your eyes — closed — all the little tails of your thoughts, your stretchy vowels, your whole soul from head to heels.
On the one hand, the half-century span of Vladimir’s love letters to Véra do follow the neurobiological progression of love, moving from the passionate attraction that defines the beginning of a romance to the deep, calmer attachment of longtime love. On the other, however, they suggest that the very act of writing love letters can help sustain the excitement and passion of a long-term relationship, countering what Stendhal called the “crystallization” that leads to disenchantment.
In fact, in 1926 — three years into the relationship — Nabokov, a lifelong lover of wordplay, enlists an especially endearing strategy in infusing their correspondence with passionate sparkle. While Véra is at a Swiss sanatorium to regain weight she had lost due to anxiety and depression, Nabokov begins addressing her by an increasingly amusing series of nicknames — no doubt in part to amuse and cheer her up, in part to live up to his earlier assertion that she “can be bruised by an ugly diminutive,” but also possibly as a language-lover’s creative exercise for himself, a playful daily assignment of sorts. The traditional terms of endearment opening his earlier letters — “my happiness,” “my love and joy,” “my dear life” — give way to a loving bestiary of nicknames, inspired by Vladimir and Véra’s shared love of animals.
Among his addresses to her that summer are “Sparrowling,” “Pussykins,” “Mousie,” “Mymousch” (after the Russian for “monkey”), “Mothling,” “Roosterkin,” “Long bird of paradise with the precious tail” (in a letter that closes with “Goodbye, my heavenly, my long one, with the dazzling tail and the little dachshund paws”), “Fire-Beastie,” and the especially wonderful “Pupuss,” which Nabokov parenthetically explains as “a little cross between a puppy and a kitten.”
In one letter from June of 1926, he opens by addressing Véra as “Mosquittle” and, after reporting on how his work is going, gushes:
My tender Mosquittle, I love you. I love you, my superlative Mosquittle… My sweet creature… I love you. I am going to bed, Mosquittle… Good night, my darling, my tenderness, my happiness.
In one letter that would no doubt have embarrassed the very private Véra (who destroyed all of her own letters to Vladimir), he addresses her by “Skunky” — a nickname itself far from offensive in the context of his already established warmth of adoration and its menagerous manifestations, but one that may have mortified Véra by the venereal basis for it that Nabokov’s naughty closing lines imply:
Well, Skunky, good night. You will never guess (I am kissing you) what exactly I am kissing.
But jest aside, it’s worth noting here what a true masterwork of linguistic craftsmanship — in the true Virginia Woolfian sense — these letters are for translator Olga Voronina. As if it weren’t daunting enough to translate the man who reserved rather ungenerous words for translators, Nabokov’s love of wordplay and his penchant for untranslatable words render his quirky animal-inspired endearments especially challenging. But even his favorite standard endearment lacks for an English equivalent. Voronina writes in the preface:
Most often, he prefers to call his wife dushen’ka, literally a diminutive of the Russian word dusha (“soul,” “psyche”). It would have been possible to translate this word as “darling” (our choice), “sweetheart” or “dearest” (options from a discarded pile), had the writer not bedecked it with other tender adjectives: dorogaya (“dear”), lyubimaya (“beloved”), milaya (“lovely,” “sweet”), and bestsennaya (“priceless”). We used “dear darling” a few times in spite of its sounding too alliterative, resorted to “beloved darling” rarely, tried “sweet darling” once or twice, and once (April 15, 1939) had to go along with “My beloved and precious darling.” Unfortunately, even that baroque phrase does not fully convey the fretful and persistent affection of the Russian “dushen’ka moya lyubimaya i dragotsennaya,” with its one and a half times as many syllables and with the adjectives coming cajolingly after the noun.
In some cases, readers simply have to accept it as a given that Nabokov did not use his tenderness sparingly.
And that’s precisely the point — the true gift of these letters is how they immerse the reader in a soul-warming bath of Nabokov’s tender and exuberant love, not only for his wife but for literature and for life itself. What John Updike once wrote on the jacket of Nabokov’s Selected Letters, 1940–1977 — “Dip in anywhere, and delight follows. What a writer! And, really, what a basically reasonable and decent man.” — is even more vibrantly true in Letters to Véra.
Complement with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, the necessary qualities of a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.
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