June 29, 2015

Vladimir Nabokov's letters to Véra at AWF15

                    Auckland Writers Festival

Fascinating, but another time, please spare us the actor!

I've never seen it on the list of ways that little New Zealand punches above its weight, but it should be there, that the foremost Nabokov scholar in the world is our own Brian Boyd, graduate of the University of Canterbury, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland. Prof. Boyd has written two award-winning biographies of the man (The Russian Years and The American Years), a book on Ada, a book on Pale Fire, edited Nabokov's collected works for the Library of America, and for another publisher Nabokov's unpublished and uncollected writings, written the introduction to the centennial edition of Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory, published a collection of essays and personal reflections on Nabokov (Stalking Nabokov), just off the top of my head, and was now here before us as co-editor of Letters to Véraa collection of Nabokov's correspondence to his wife, from 1923 when they met until his death in 1977.

He's also the person who taught me to say Na-bo'-kov instead of  Na'-bo-kov. It promised well! And on top of that, we were going to have Michael Hurst on hand reading excerpts from the letters!

We crowded in to the Upper NZI Room, and out filed Prof. Boyd, Jan Cronin, his colleague in the English Dept. at the University of Auckland who was chairing the session, and... surprise! not Michael Hurst! He had not been able to make it, and was being replaced by another actor, Stephen L.

The first question was a surprise as well.

"Tell us about his love life? Was it different from our assumptions?"

"Our assumptions"? I looked around. Did we have assumptions about the love life of Vladimir Nabokov? Such as? Puzzling? Irreverent? Cerebral?

As it turns out, Nabokov's love life was, once he met her, really all about Véra. During their more than fifty years together, she was his first reader, his typist, his editor, his researcher, his confidante, and his love for her, as expressed in the letters which make up this book, was tender and rapturous.

Nabokov met Véra in 1923 in Berlin, where his family, in exile from Bolshevik Russia, had ended up, in the large Russian émigré community which had formed there. He was 24, and beginning to make a name for himself as a poet and translator, under the pseudonym V. Sirin.

Their paths first crossed at a charity ball, but the encounter which would change both their lives came later. Out walking one evening, Nabokov was approached by a woman wearing a black satin carnival-type mask. That woman was Véra, who had decided that Nabokov was the greatest hope of Russian Literature, and was playing the "high class stalker",  according to Boyd, "high-class" in that she never took her mask off during their conversation, apparently because she did not want him to be influenced by her beauty as she recited verses of the poetry of V. Sirin to him. And that was how the two met, both in some way disguised. Nabokov readers will recognise a favourite theme.

He wrote a poem asking "Are you my fate?" and yes, she was. He did, however, have a trip to France already planned, and it was from there that he wrote his first letter to her.

Stephen L got to his feet, and read.

“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, a masquerade trick… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about – you rub off their marvellous pollen with the touch of a word…”

How exquisite is that, "You rub off their marvellous pollen"? Unfortunately Stephen L. had decided to play it as he would a pompous provincial in a Chekhov play. As I listened unbelievingly, he puffed out his chest and thundered,

"I will be in Berlin (beat) on the 10th (beat, beat), or the 11th!"

Gulp, and back to Prof. Boyd's narrative. "He and she always believed that fate was trying to push them together... They had a very romantic sense of their relationship, all the way through."

There were difficult times, too. When in France in 1937, looking for a job, for a way to get his family out of Nazi Berlin (all the more important as Véra was Jewish), Nabokov fell into an affair with an aspiring young Italian poet, Irina Guadanini. Véra apparently hears rumours. We hear from Stephen.

"Not a word from you yet my love!" trumpets Stephen, all in one breath. A long pause, and he resumes in a low, disconsolate register. "Maybe tomorrow."

Then we're back to the trumpet charge. "Can't write more today!" A long pause, and again, the sad, descending tone. "They're coming to take me out. I have to go to a party."

We moved on to the story of Boyd's relationship with Véra Nabokov, which started after she saw his PhD thesis and invited him to visit her in Montreux, where the Nabokovs had made their home after the publication of Lolita. The first suggestion was that he catalogue her husband's archives, but eventually the idea of a biography came up. He got a fellowship and went back to Montreux, spending 18 months with Véra, at that point in her eighties. He saw her every day. She never stopped calling him Mr Boyd.

He knew she had Nabokov's letters to her, though she had destroyed hers to him, and seeing them was one of the enticements which had led him to accept her invitation to work on a biography. But Véra would never let him see them or hold them, she would only read them into his tape recorder as he sat near by, leaving some personal parts, some endearments, out.

Dmitri Nabokov, their son and translator of many of his father's works, tried to help. "He was in a wheel chair [not from breaking his neck in one of his Ferraris, he had recovered from that, but from complications from diabetes]. He was a big man, he had been an opera singer, a mountaineer. He said, Search! You can search anywhere in the apartment! So I did. I found lots of things, but I couldn't find the letters!" He had to go back to using the transcripts of the readings Véra had done. Only after her death did he get to see the letters.

Time for a reading. This one ends with a hail-fellow-well-met "Hugs!" followed by a long pause, and finally a throaty, prayer-like "and adoration, V." If you know me and you ran into me at the Festival, you probably heard me imitate this. A lot of people did!

Nabokov wrote Véra every day he was away from her, during the whole time of their marriage. And, according to Boyd, "She wrote back about one in five times".

Too, says Boyd, the letters show some new sides of the great author. "He is enchanted by animals and children... Here, just let me read a couple of parts of his letters where he talks about animals."

And it's a fine reading! We can actually hear Nabokov's voice. Was this a Nabokovian ploy on Prof. Boyd's part, to present it as but a whim of the moment?

Alas, we had to return to Stephen L., for a final reading not devoid of irony.

“I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it,” Nabokov wrote, and Stephen L. read.

I'm on the request list for the book. The lyricism and wit of the letters may have been hard to catch at the session, but I've since read some excerpts online, including ten splendid ones posted by the Thought Catalog site under the title "Love letters that will make you swoon". Maria Popova compares them to Frida Kahlo's letters to Diego Rivera, or the letters between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis.

What is next for the doyen of Nabokov studies? "I want to do a book on Lolita, because I don't think any of us understand Lolita as Nabokov intended us to understand it." I'll be on the request list for that one, too.

My favourite of the stories Brian Boyd told us was the one about how Véra, aged 85 while she and he were working on the letters, was so deaf as to render some conversations difficult, especially if you add on the New Zealand accent, which she apparently had great difficulty understanding. At one point, he was talking about butterflies -- as he pointed out, surely not an uncommon word for a conversation about her noted lepidopterist husband.

"She kept understanding me to be saying 'paradise'. After two or three rounds of 'Butterflies,' 'Paradise?', 'No, butterflies!', 'Paradise?', Dmitri finally rolled his wheelchair over and boomed at her "BUT-TA-FLIES!"


-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:59


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