A review of ‘Letters to Vera’, by Vladimir Nabokov. 27 September 2014

Letters to Véra Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd

Penguin Classics, pp.864, £30, ISBN: 9780141192239

"After the publication of The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s last and most disappointing novel in a very sketchy draft, you might have been forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much left to discover in the great novelist’s writings. If the posthumous fiction has been mostly fairly thin, this extraordinary and wonderful collection of letters to his wife restores him to us as the virtuoso of prose. They are some of the most rapturous love letters anyone has ever written, love letters from the length of a lifelong marriage; beautiful performances for Véra, Nabokov’s wife, and incidentally for us. The publishers have immediately issued this volume as a Penguin Classic. I don’t think we will quibble with that." [  ] “Nabokov is such a great letter writer because he wants to interest, not just pour out his emotions. These letters must have been a joy to receive. He keeps his eyes open, and concentrates on recording what he sees: Alongside the paths coloured stripes are daubed on beech and oak trunks, and sometimes simply on the rocks, like little flags to show the way to this or that hamlet. I noticed too that peasants put red earflaps on their percherons and are cruel with their geese, of whom they have plenty: they pluck off their breast feathers when the geese are still alive, so that the poor bird walks around as if in a décolleté. Love, and intense care for what will interest his readership of one, directed Nabokov’s writing, and shaped it for the future. [  ]  Most people’s love letters would not be worth reading: love leads to a narrowing of interest and focus. But Nabokov exercises his precise gaze and begins to give Véra the writer he would turn into. When a writer sits and turns what he can see into sentences of pure magic, the world comes as if led by the nose:I looked out of the window and saw: a red-haired house painter caught a mouse in his wheelbarrow and killed it with the stroke of a brush, then he tossed it in a puddle. The puddle reflected the dark-blue sky, quick black upsilons (reflections of swallows flying high) and the knee of a squatting child, who was attentively studying the little grey round corpse. I yelled at the painter — he didn’t get what the matter was, took offence, began to swear ferociously. I changed and went to tennis. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24, Tel: 08430 600033 This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 September 2014


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