Raise a glass to the woman who drove Vladimir into the woods to catch butterflies.
WHO IS SHE?
The wife, editor, translator (and more) of Vladimir Nabokov. Talk about the work-life balance.
WHAT’S HER STORY?
Before there was Mrs. Nabokov, there was Véra Slonim, the pale vixen who purportedly caught Vladimir’s eye when he spotted her in a black satin mask one night from across a bridge. As the story goes, our lady Véra knew her beauty would so distract the budding young poet—publishing at that time under the name V. Sirin—that he’d be unable to focus on her words. Hence, the mask remained on as she recited some of his own verse to him, and was supposedly still in place as the evening came to a close.
Her appeal to his vanity worked like a charm. It mattered not that Vladimir had just had his heart tossed in an early 20th-century European gutter by his ex-fiancée, and had spent the past few months composing sombre, moody stanzas. Within weeks of meeting Véra, he was dropping lines like these in exultant paeans to her charms, written from his post-breakup stint as a French farmhand:
Yes, I need you, my fairy tale. For you are the only person I can talk to—about the hue of a cloud, about the singing of a thought, and about the fact that when I went out to work today and looked each sunflower in the face, they all smiled back at me with their seeds.
While evidence suggests that it was Vera who made the first few moves, it’s clear from his writing that Vladimir was soon fully on her level. The couple married in 1925, and in 1934 Véra gave birth to their only son, Dmitri. She spent the remainder of her days by Vladimir’s side, traveling with him to the US and later back to Europe as he wrote the books that would make him one of the most famous authors of the 20th century.
WhAT MAKES HER Toast-Worthy?
Not only did she abandon her own writing career for Vladimir’s, she acted as his muse, agent, editor, translator, and chauffeur in turn. She was there to transcribe Lolita, there again to save it from burning (several times), and there with the car when Vladimir needed someone to drive him to the woods to catch butterflies.
Even after her husband’s death, she continued to champion his work, refusing to destroy his unfinished manuscript and creating a now-published collection of his poetry for bibliographer Matthew J. Bruccoli.
As Lorrie Moore has more plainly stated:
There are some men I know who are teaching and writing who are single fathers. But not many. Most of them have these great, devoted wives, some version of Véra Nabokov. Writers all need Véra.
WHAT ARE WE DRINKING?
I wanted to choose something butterfly-inspired for this toast, but unfortunately all I could find on that front was this strange beverage by Mariah Carey. Since I have elected not to support Mariah’s turn towards lepidoptery, I am instead going to toast Véra with a Black Velvet, which is traditionally comprised of stout beer and champagne or other sparkling white. The name of the drink is a subtle homage to the mask she wore to meet Vladimir, while the combination of beer and champagne represents the pairing of her hardworking spirit with her elegant demeanor.
Cheers to you, Véra. A lady of many layers indeed.
- Martin Ames, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov
- Koa Beck via The Atlantic, The Legend of Véra Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse
- Stacy Schiff, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)