In response to:
‘His Joy, His Life’ from the November 19, 2015 issue
To the Editors:
Stacy Schiff begins her review of Letters to Véra [NYR, November 19, 2015]: “When he mailed the first missive to the woman who would become his wife…” She does not date that “when,” but the date tells quite a story, and a very different one from the version in Ms. Schiff’s own Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).
Nabokov mailed his “first missive” to Véra no earlier than the end of July 1923, after he had written a poem, secretly addressed to her, and published it in Rul’, a Berlin Russian émigré newspaper he knew she read voraciously. The poem describes his haunting first (and so far only) meeting with her and ends with him wondering “if you are to be my fate.” On reading that, Véra then wrote to him several times, in letters no longer extant—letters presumably written to convince him that she was indeed ready to become his fate—before he wrote this first letter to her.
In Véra, Schiff, not knowing the evidence, and guessing wrongly, dated that first letter to Véra to May 1923, two days after Nabokov’s last letter to a fiancée, Svetlana Siewert, whose parents had in January broken off her engagement with him. Schiff’s dating implies that Véra wrote to Nabokov, rather pushily, at least three times within three weeks of meeting him, and that Nabokov wrote a last loving letter to Svetlana and, rather creepily, only two days later wrote a first loving letter to Véra.
Instead the actual sequence shows: Nabokov’s farewell letter to Svetlana, three weeks after meeting Véra; his poem of probing invitation and private appeal to Véra, a week later; Véra’s several letters in response to the poem’s publication, starting seven weeks or more after they met; and then, after “all your letters,” as Nabokov writes, and about twelve weeks after they had met, his first enchanted letter directly to her. Schiff does not understand how Véra and Vladimir enticed each other into their correspondence and their life together.
In reviewing Robert Roper’s Nabokov in America in the same essay, Schiff writes: “He points out that—with the exception of The Headless Horseman—Nabokov was on his arrival in 1940 largely ignorant of non-European, non-Russian literature.” Since Russian literature is a subset of European literature, this means, logically, that Roper claims that Nabokov was largely ignorant of non-Russian literature (if Schiff had written “non-British, non-Yorkshire literature” she would mean, logically, that, according to Roper, Nabokov reportedly knew little even of British literature from outside Yorkshire). Logic seems not her strong point, for Roper, where he introduces The Headless Horseman, acknowledges Nabokov’s “considerable acquaintance with British and Irish literature.” Earlier in the same sentence, however, Roper writes: “Largely ignorant of American literature, perhaps disdainful of the very concept, Nabokov…”
Why write such things, when his very example of The Headless Horseman—which Nabokov as a boy, in his first major literary effort, translated into French alexandrines, the classical form of French verse—shows Nabokov’s early homage to American literature? When his second Russian novel, King, Queen, Knave, was such a pointed challenge to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? Why does Schiff endorse (and, in garbling, seriously exacerbate) Roper’s “largely ignorant” claim, when Nabokov often acknowledged Poe as one of the favorite writers of his youth and ensured that Poe saturated his most American novel, Lolita? Why, since she reviews Letters to Véra in the same essay, does Schiff not recall that Nabokov is surprised in the first year of their marriage that Véra cannot remember lines from Longfellow as precisely as he can, or that he buys and reads “the renowned Henry James”?
University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand
Stacy Schiff replies:
Brian Boyd has on every possible occasion doubted that I might “understand how Véra and Vladimir enticed each other into their correspondence and their life together.” The Rul’ poem of July 1923 is on page 8 of Véra, followed by a paragraph on Véra’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe, of all people. Logically enough, Professor Boyd might take up his differences with Robert Roper with Robert Roper.