Letters by Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra

Donald Rayfield in the Literary Review:

Rayfield_09_14What seems to emerge is a portrait of a marriage of which most male writers can only dream: a wife who devotes all her talents, energy and steely character to nurturing her husband's genius and promoting his fame. (Véra's biographer, Stacy Schiff, simply called her a 'shrewish, controlling dragon-lady' and compared extracting information from her with extracting an angry cat from its box at the vet's.) In his foreword to this book, Brian Boyd presents a condensed version of his extensive and canonical biography of Nabokov. His very first sentence – 'No marriage of a major twentieth-century writer lasted longer than Vladimir Nabokov's' – is his only wrong call: Anthony Powell's sixty-five years of marriage to Lady Violet Pakenham is the obvious record-holder. Field in his biography, frustrated by the Nabokovs' manipulation, relied too much on gossip, speculation and psychoanalysis; Boyd, who won the family's total trust and who stuck to what was corroborated by documents or respectable sources, has superseded him. Nevertheless, he lets his love of Nabokov downplay, even ignore, uncomfortable facts.

One such fact is Nabokov's 1937 love affair in Paris with the young blonde Russian émigrée Irina Guadanini. It is clear (from other sources) that Véra, stuck in Prague with her mother-in-law and infant son, was told in an anonymous letter of the affair. The content of her letters to Nabokov that spring and summer can only be guessed at; the nervous tone that enters Nabokov's mixtures of cloying affection with irritable self-justification belies the sincerity of his declarations during the previous fourteen years: 'I can imagine how exhausted you are, my darling, and how overstrung, but believe me, you will get much better over summer.' Boyd dismisses Irina as a 'part-time poet who supported herself as a dog-groomer', which is about as fair as calling Catherine Walston, Graham Greene's great love, a part-time ballroom dancer who enjoyed herself as a Scrabble player.

More here.