“My Dear Eyes”: Nabokov’s Letters to Véra
It is notoriously difficult to talk about the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin because he is both the novel’s omniscient author and a character in his own story, neither one of which is Nabokov himself in propria persona. Here is a fairly typical example of his manner, as he introduces Pnin’s ex-wife, the heartless Liza:
There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark. Whatever eyes Liza Pnin, now Wind, had, they seemed to reveal their essence, their precious-stone water, only when you evoked them in thought, and then a blank, blind, moist, aquamarine blaze shivered and stared as if a spatter of sun and sea had got between your own eyelids. Actually her eyes were of a light transparent blue with contrasting black lashes and bright pink canthus, and they slightly stretched up templeward, where a set of feline little lines fanned out from each. She had a sweep of dark brown hair above a lustrous forehead, and a snow-and-rose complexion, and she used a very light red lipstick, and save for a certain thickness of ankle and wrist, there was hardly a flaw to her full-blown, animated, elemental, not particularly well-groomed beauty.
That Pnin still hopelessly loves Liza, despite all her cruelty and selfishness, is clear from this. She has only to reappear in his life and “the magic agony” comes back, linked to the moment of “shy perception” when he first beheld her eyes. What the narrator feels about her is another matter, and here the plot thickens. He gives us first a series of purely subjective impressions, of a sort that only an omniscient author can provide if we are to have access to Pnin’s innermost feelings. Or else—better still, perhaps—these images come from another man, a character who has also felt the stunning beauty of Liza’s eyes. The “us” in the first sentence, then the “you” and “your” in the second, hint at the presence of this first-person consciousness. Then too his poetic language (“lenses and lamps,” “aquamarine blaze,” “precious-stone water”) is, of course, far beyond Pnin’s stumbling English. Looked at this way, the passage must be written by one whose deepest feelings are also stirred by Liza’s remembered eyes, perhaps even more profoundly. But that tone changes quickly with “Actually . . .” in the next sentence, where we get a more factual, finely-detailed scrutiny of Liza’s whole face. Rapture subsides to a clear-eyed precision, and even detachment, about all the details: the bright pink canthus, feline little lines, lustrous forehead, light red lipstick. And then, without warning, detachment slides into bodily revulsion (thick wrists and ankles), sexual disgust (“full-blown,” “elemental”), and even misogyny—she is “animated” (a chattering female) and not “well-groomed” (a careless, messy one too). In short, the whole paragraph reads like a brief affair that begins ecstatically and ends badly, and that indeed is what happened. In a few pages we discover the narrator has indeed had a fling with Liza, which ended (he admits, heartlessly) in her “pharmacopoeial” attempt at suicide.
I dwell on this moment in Chapter Two of Pnin (1957) for a very particular reason. It has another dimension, which contains a very different love story, one that began long before the novel was written, but it’s nearly impossible to see it fully unless you have read Nabokov’s recently published Letters to Véra. Odd as it may seem, Véra Evseyevna Nabokov, née Slonim—the love of the author’s life from 1923 until his death in 1977—lies behind the portrait of Liza. Véra had those luminous light blue eyes, those fine feline lines when she smiled, that snow-and-rose complexion, but not Liza’s brown hair or thick ankles, and not a trace of her vulgarity. Study the many photographs and verbal depictions of Véra in the biographies—Andrew Field’s VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov in 1986, Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years in 1990 and The American Years in 1991, Stacy Schiff’s Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) in 1999—and you will see, and read about, a very slim, pale, elegant woman with exceptionally expressive blue eyes. Recall that the Pnin passage begins by evoking the power we all might recognize of certain “beloved women”—Véra being the only possible beloved for this writer. He dedicated all his books since 1940, including novels, story collections, and translations, “To Véra.” The name may suggest “Truth” to Latinists, but in Russian it means “Faith.” It became an article of faith to him that their love, from its inception and through more than 50 years of marriage, was “cloudless.”
But did she or some simulacrum of her appear in any of his books? According to Stacy Schiff, Véra declared flatly that “no trace of her likeness was to be found anywhere in her husband’s pages.” But any reader of Nabokov’s most transparently autobiographical novel, The Gift, knows that Zina so closely resembles Véra in looks, temperament, and moral sense that it’s difficult to disentangle the two; Schiff even wonders if Véra in life came to resemble Zina as much as Zina reflected Véra in the fiction. Similarly, traces of the young Véra appear in “Sounds,” one of Nabokov’s earliest stories (1923), published soon after they met. She is identified only as “you”—just as the unnamed “you” in Speak, Memory was always Véra—and she has “elongated, pale hands with bluish veins,” thin wrists, and “hair that would melt as it merged with the sunlit air.” But her eyes are someone else’s, “pale, dusty looking,” not Véra’s or Liza’s, and she smokes feverishly. Vladimir viewed the question of his wife’s fictive appearances differently. He told an interviewer in 1971, “Most of my works have been dedicated to my wife, and her picture has often been reproduced by some mysterious means of reflected color in the inner mirrors of my books.” “Often” suggests a deliberate effort to include but disguise such reflections. It is no accident, then, that the Letters to Véra—since they are so unguardedly personal and intended only for her—provide a number of fresh clues that help us locate some of these “reflected colors” and “inner mirrors” in his fiction. One of the most interesting of these appears in a letter from Paris, on October 24, 1932, after a visit to the apartment of Ilya and Amalia Fondaminsky:
My darling, what a cat they have! Something perfectly stupendous. Siamese, in colour dark beige, or taupe, with chocolate paws and the tail the same. Moreover, his tail is comparatively short, so his croup has something of a little dog or, rather, a kangaroo, and that’s its colour, too. And that special silkiness of short fur, and some very tender white tints on its folds, and wonderful clear-blue eyes, turning transparently green towards evening, and a pensive tenderness of its walk, a sort of heavenly circumspection of movement. An amazing, sacred animal, and so quiet—it’s unclear what he is looking at with those eyes filled to the brim with sapphire water.
Everything about the creature brings out Nabokov’s awe and urges him to poetry (mind you, this is translated from the Russian): its eyes changing from clear blue “transparently” to green as the light dims, the elusive “tender white tints” of its fur, its “sacred” air of serene quiet, the “pensive tenderness” of its gait, and the “heavenly circumspection”—what stunning images these are!—of its movement. Ultimately it’s the eyes that make the deepest impression: their blue-to-green transformation occurs so transparently, and their liquidity is so brimful of sapphire-water. Clearly, the “aquamarine blaze” and “precious-stone water” of Liza’s eyes arrived in Nabokov’s imagination long before she did.
Véra’s eyes are not mentioned with any frequency in Vladimir’s early letters to her. He addresses her with a great array of affectionate diminutives, most of them cute animal names: “poochums,” “tufty,” “kitty-cat,” “kidlet,” “monkeykins,” “mousikins,” “mothling,” “pussums,” “skunky,” “sparrowling,” “tigercubkin,” “roosterkin,” “goosikins,” and so on. He also leans heavily on the possessives all love-letter writers use, his favorites being “my love,” “my darling,” “my life,” “my light,” “my happiness,” “my music,” and “my joy.” Both editors of this volume and many of its reviewers seem embarrassed by this language, especially since it’s used so lavishly. One called it “treacly,” with some justification. But Olga Veronina, who did most of the translation, came to the very sensible conclusion that “readers simply have to accept it as a given that Nabokov did not use his tenderness sparingly.” In her prefatory essay, she suggests a parallel with the opening of Lolita. While Nabokov wrote (July 3, 1926), “I love you, my Pussums, my life, my flight, my flow, darling pooch . . . ,” Humbert Humbert wrote, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Not a very persuasive parallel, methinks. Umber and black Humberland is worlds apart from the sun-drenched-and-rainbow hued happiness of the young Nabokov in love. Still, Veronina is onto something. A year before they were married he wrote, “Lord, how I wish to see you . . . My dear eyes.” And in January of 1936, he used that phrase again, among the old endearments: “My love and happiness, my dear eyes, my life!” What can that mean except that Véra was, to him, a way of seeing? Or that their vision was shared? If her eyes were beautiful to him, it was because of what she saw and the way she saw it—not merely because they were pretty. In one of his earliest letters to his fiancée (March 1, 1923), he wrote, “Have you ever thought how strangely, how easily our lives have come together? . . . I love this marvellous quickness in you, as if in your soul there’s a place prepared in advance for my every thought.” Indeed, she seemed a psyche to him. Veronina tells us in her translator’s preface that Nabokov “prefers to call his wife dushen’ka, a diminutive of the Russian word dusha (“soul,” “psyche”), but Veronina has chosen “darling” for the English equivalent, losing the deeper visionary implications. Lolita was to Humbert, in spite of all his depravity, the vision of her eyes in his soul, and her origins were visionary—in Poe’s Annabel, and Psyche, and Ligeia. Hence he tells us that her given name, Dolores Haze, “only rhymes with” her real one. Close readers will know that the words dolorous gaze lurk here (the Russian g in English is h), the sad-eyed vision of a love he could never realize in life, never see in anyone’s eyes but his own. Likewise, mutatis mutandis, Nabokov felt that his own vision originated in, and depended on, Véra’s.
He quotes to her a very revealing exchange (in a letter of October 24, 1932) with his writer-friend, Mark Aldanov, “who does not always understand when I joke and when I’m serious.” Nabokov: “I would not have written a single novel without my wife.” Aldanov: “Yes, we’ve already heard how she helps you.” Poor Aldanov, who doesn’t realize how profoundly he has missed the point! But Vladimir knew that Véra would not.
The early letters are replete with declarations of love, and the following might serve to sum them up. It comes in part as a response to the fact that Véra did not write to him very frequently, nor were her letters (apparently, since none survive) nearly as long or as richly detailed as his:
My sweetheart, my love, my love, my love—do you know what—all of the happiness of the world, the riches, power and adventures, all the promises of religions, all the enchantment of nature and even human fame are not worth your two letters. It was a night of horror, terrible anguish, when I imagined that your undelivered letter, stuck in some unknown post office, was being destroyed like a sick little stray dog . . . But today it arrived—and now it seems to me that in the mailbox where it was lying, in the sack where it was shaking, all the other letters absorbed, just by touching it, your unique charm and that that day all Germans received strange wonderful letters—letters that had gone mad because they had touched your handwriting. The thought that you exist is so divinely blissful in itself that it is ridiculous to talk about the everyday sadness of separation—a week’s, ten days’—what does it matter? since my whole life belongs to you.
Brian Boyd, in his lengthy and informative prefatory essay (“Envelopes for The Letters to Véra”), quotes some of this passage, and others like it, in order to argue that Nabokov was “often exasperated by [Véra’s epistolary] silence” yet remained “remarkably tolerant,” being an “assiduous and even an uxorious letter-writer” himself. Boyd sees this “imbalance” as a source of “recurrent disappointment,” yet Vladimir “could also be extravagant in his delight at some of the letters he did receive.” Alas, Boyd is another Aldanov. Every one of his terms conveys discomfort with—what else can it be?—Nabokov’s love. Exasperated? But the letter speaks of his “horror” and “anguish” and the anxiety of a helplessly lost letter without a whisper of irritation or any flicker of annoyance, let alone exasperation. Remarkably tolerant? Only if you think Véra is in the wrong and needs forgiveness. Uxorious? That means that he was excessively meek, servile, abject, pushed around by her; for some reason Boyd sees the self-surrender of love as uxorious—clearly his problem, not Nabokov’s. Disappointment? Nobody would think so from any of these letters, especially the one above. Extravagant? Here is perhaps the most revealing of all Boyd’s mistakes. He thinks Nabokov has just gone too far in praising Véra’s two little letters, forgivably perhaps, but still way-over-the-top excessively. He does not see that the praise is not about Véra’s letters at all, but about the overwhelming value of her and about how much she means to him. It is a tremendous love letter.
Not only did Nabokov believe, from the very beginning, that their souls communicated, and that they saw through the same eyes, but every time he called her “my dushen’ka” he was identifying her as his Psyche, which in Greek is the word for “soul,” “butterfly,” or “moth.” Calling her “mothling” is not so treacly or childish as it might seem. He taught her the techniques of lepidoptery, beginning with an expedition to the Eastern Pyrenees near Boulon, France, in February of 1929, and she quickly came to share his zeal. After hunting butterflies by day, Boyd tells us, they caught moths at night outside the hotel. He sent her a post-card on April 18, announcing a triumphant capture in huge block letters: “CAUGHT A THAIS!” Boyd’s expert footnote on this tells us about the genus and species (Thais rumina, now Zerynthia rumina) and quotes at length from Nabokov’s 1931 essay in The Entomologist describing the capture but of course says nothing about the delight Vladimir shared with Véra at the time. Two years later when Nabokov was in Prague visiting his mother, he wrote to announce another discovery, a passage from a poem by Kipling that he copied out “for you”:
Do you know the pile-built village where the sago-dealers trade?—Do you know the reek of fish and wet bamboo?—Do you know the steaming stillness of the orchid-scented glade when the blazoned, bird-winged butterflies flap through?—It is there that I am going with my camphor, net, and boxes,—to a gentle, yellow pirate that I know . . .
Nabokov interrupts to comment, “The flap is especially good.” Then he quotes another Kipling trouvaille, prefacing it with the words “And here about us”:
She was the Queen of Sabaena—and he was Asia’s Lord—But they both of ’em talked to butterflies When they took their walks abroad.
Talking to butterflies conveys perfectly the quality of what Véra and her husband shared.
It is customary to give Nabokov all the credit for his lepidoptery—his boyhood love, his aesthetic inspiration (as detailed in chapter 6 of Speak, Memory), his quest to fulfill his father’s butterfly-hunting dreams (as detailed in The Gift), his discoveries of new species in the American West, his groundbreaking research at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. The story not usually told is how often and how significantly Véra was at his side in their expeditions. In June of 1941, the Nabokovs hunted butterflies on their way from New York to Stanford, where he had a temporary teaching appointment. Stopping at the Grand Canyon, Vladimir caught two “undocumented Neonympha,” a triumph he would celebrate in his 1943 poem “A Discovery.” Meanwhile, as Stacy Schiff tells it, Véra, back at the car, caught two males of the same species—it was cold, they were sluggish—without a net. That part isn’t recorded in the species labels at the MCZ. “I’ve had wonderful luck,” Véra told some Cornell friends in 1953. “I’ve gotten many things he didn’t get.” She wasn’t gleeful about it, or competitive. As in so many other things, she was content to let her part of the shared experience remain private.
Nabokov respected that serene reticence of hers, partly a dignified desire for privacy. His letters to her frequently praise that quality. “You are voiceless, like all that’s beautiful,” he wrote in 1924. When admiring Zen Zin the cat in 1932 he might have been speaking of Véra in calling him “amazing, sacred . . . and so quiet.” Hence in Nabokov’s public writings he was constantly looking for covert ways to evoke her presence or convey his sense of their intertwined identity. It was only discovered by an interviewer in 1968 that Nabokov had repeated and linked their initials in the title he chose for the first American edition of his autobiography, Conclusive Evidence. The -ve ending of “Conclusive” is mirrored in the Ev- beginning of “Evidence,” designating her initials (VE=Véra Evseyevna) twice and his own (VV=Vladimir Vladimirovich) once. That was a private acknowledgement indeed, exactly as she would prefer.
Yet the “cloudless” love and marriage that most of these letters celebrate was not entirely cloudless. All three of Nabokov’s biographers tell the painful story of his affair with Irina Guadanini in 1937. She was a would-be poet, a slim pale Russian émigré from St. Petersburg who came to his readings in Paris, memorized his poems, and eked out a slender existence as a dog groomer. Like Véra, she loved animals. One expects the letters of this unhappy time—Véra back in Berlin with their four-year-old son Dmitri, threatened by Hitler’s anti-Semitic scourges, Vladimir in Paris, very much in the public eye and fearful of both German and Soviet threats to his citizenship and his life (by this time most Russians in Berlin had fled to Paris or Prague)—to reflect more anguish than they do. Boyd thinks that Nabokov’s emotional turmoil in the adultery is reflected in the case of severe psoriasis he had that spring, reporting to Véra months of agonizing pain, and unbearably itchy, bleeding skin. Eric Naiman in The Times Literary Supplement (Oct. 31, 2014) suspects that these reports were probably exaggerated to gain Véra’s sympathy, since he knew she had heard rumors of the affair. Stacy Schiff in The New York Review of Books (November 19, 2015) says only that Nabokov flatly denied the affair and kept telling Véra how intensely he loved her, even though he was writing nearly identical love letters to Irina. For the reader not privy to all the scandalous facts, the letters of 1937 tell us almost nothing. When Vladimir ended the affair and joined Véra and Dmitri in new (if temporary) quarters in the South of France, the separation—and the need for letters—simply ends. When Nabokov’s Selected Letters: 1940–1977 appeared in 1989, Véra chose to include just four letters that her husband had sent her in 1937, all of them conveying the utmost happiness between them. Now that we have the “missing” letters, does it really make any difference? Frankly, I detect more anguish about adultery reflected in Nabokov’s 1937 translation into English of his novel, Camera Obscura (1932) than I do in any of the new letters. He called it Laughter in the Dark, its theme is a sordid adultery, and its tone is unsparingly savage and contemptuous, especially for the cruel arch-manipulator Alex Rex—a nightmare distortion of Nabokov himself.
None of Véra’s letters to her husband survive, and Boyd is not alone among the biographers and reviewers in lamenting that loss. Shouldn’t an important correspondence like this be two-sided? Véra destroyed most of her letters to Vladimir, except for one cache of them kept in a locked storeroom in Montreux. But when Boyd got permission to search for them, shortly before Véra’s death, no trace could be found. In telling this story Boyd’s scholarly frustration is palpable—shades of The Aspern Papers! But how great a loss is that, really? Surely her presence in his letters can be felt—strongly, I think—both in the way he conveys a constant awareness of her as he writes and in the subjects he chooses because he knows she will appreciate them. Here, for example, is a passage in a letter from Prague on May 12, 1930:
My family have read “The Eye” as if the hero died in the first chapter and his soul then transmigrated to Smurov. Apropos of the soul—I miss you very much, my darling. Boxikins [the family dachshund] looks at me with cloudy eyes and continues not to recognize me.
Call it the art of mindful interruption. News about visiting his mother and sisters is interrupted—his thought jumps to her, his soul—and then reverts again to Boxikins and other prosaic matters. Another example, from Paris in 1937:
Kirill [his youngest brother], alas, entirely conforms to the impression we already had of him (my darling, I already miss you insanely—and the little boyo [Dmitri]—I am kissing you, my happiness), he is very thin and morose, completely lacking in his former vivacity.
What better proof of where his mind really is, ever mindful of her and Dmitri? Here is a more extended example, in a letter (January 27, 1936) that could have been egotistical, describing a successful reading performance he gave in Brussels:
The reading went well, because they listened marvellously . . . and “everything got to them.” I went through the poetry first, then “Lips to Lips” . . . think he must be asleep now—my little sweetheart!—or is purposefully throwing the ballast overboard—and the pillow’s already lying on the floor, with the pacifier nearby, while he’s standing upright and mumbling something . . . anyway, they laughed a lot in the right places ; [and] in the second half I read the last three chapters of . . .
Note how well the interruption erases any taint of egotism or self-congratulation. He feels driven to imagine their two-year-old son and lingers on the details. The technique may be artful, and it is used sometimes in his fiction, but that does not prevent its being genuine. Early on he told Véra that her “simply wonderful” letters were “almost touches, and that is the greatest thing you can say about a letter.”
Commenting on the recurring themes of the letters, Boyd rightly emphasizes (among other topics to look for) Nabokov’s love of animals. He puts it well: “But writing to Véra, a lover of animals (they donated to the Anti-Vivisection Society), his own tenderness to animals, and his sense of their enchantment, emerges again and again.” Boyd’s short list of examples includes, I am happy to say, the enchanting description of Zen Zin. Similarly, Eric Naiman’s excellent review in TLS singles out “the importance of noticing things” for Nabokov, particularly his way of seeing animals:
Nabokov is delighted by animals: “a charming borzoi” with “ash blue specks on her forehead (like yesterday’s evening sky)” plays with a russet dachshund,” their “two long tender snouts prodding each other.”
One feels the joy and enchantment in these passages and marvels at Nabokov’s language. But consider the other half of the equation. In great measure he chose to write about these creatures because he knew they would delight Véra. In an important sense, all these depictions of animals were made for her, not for himself. Like the excerpts from Kipling, they are gifts. Read any one of them and you know what Véra will like and how she will see it. Read, for a final example, the following passage written after a visit to the Berlin zoo in June 1926. Think how its every detail was a gift for Véra, chosen because he knew that was what she loved:
Oh, what a white peacock they have! He was standing there, his tail spread out like a fan, and his tail was like shimmering hoarfrost on star-shaped branches—or like a snowflake magnified a million times—and this wonderful tail sticking out like a puffed-out fan (puffed out from behind, like a hoop skirt inflated by the wind)—cracked from time to time all of its frosty spokes.
I read it as another tremendous love letter.
 The Fondaminskys named their cat Zen Zin, since it was Vladimir Zenzinov who gave it to them. Ilya Fondaminsky was a leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and editor (with Zenzinov and Vadim Rudnev) of Sovremennye zapiski (Contemporary Annals), the chief Russian émigré journal in Paris of the 1930s. Fondaminsky promoted Nabokov’s career by sponsoring his public readings and publishing his work. The generous Fondaminskys also provided Nabokov with a place to stay whenever he was in Paris. Zenzinov was an equally close friend and helpful patron of Nabokov’s, also Jewish; he is sometimes designated in the letters as Zinzin. Zen Zin makes two more appearances in the letters, both brief.