What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

November 16, 2015 Issue

Judith Thurman’s "Silent Partner," in this week’s issue, is the fourth review of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra that I’ve read. The others are Michael Wood’s "Dear Poochums" (London Review of Books, October 23, 2014), Martin Amis’s "In 'Letters to Véra,' Vladimir Nabokov Writes to His Wife" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, November 10, 2015), and Stacy Schiff’s " 'His Joy, His Life' " (The New York Review of Books, November 19, 2015). Of course, I want to compare them. Amis’s piece is the most adoring. It focuses on Nabokov’s prose:

It is the prose itself that provides the lasting affirmation. The unresting responsiveness; the exquisite evocations of animals and of children (wholly unsinister, though the prototype of “Lolita,” “The Enchanter,” dates from 1939); the way that everyone he comes across is minutely ­individualized (a butler, a bureaucrat, a conductor on the Metro); the detailed visualizations of soirees and street scenes; the raw-nerved susceptibility to weather (he is the supreme poet of the skyscape); and underlying it all the lavishness, the freely offered gift, of his divine energy.

Schiff concurs: “He sounds unmistakably like himself, if without the polish, the mandarin disdain, the stage-managing. The jewels skitter helter-skelter across the page, from an émigré’s “stoop-shouldered speech” to a 3:00 AM encounter with a “very hungry, very lonely, very professional mosquito,” to a “waiter sweating hailstones.” Wood dissents: “Not much memorable writing though, unless you’re fond of the purpler shades of Nabokov.” Thurman’s opinion is mixed. She says, “The earliest letters, intoxicated with language and desire, are intoxicating to read.” But later in her piece, she writes, “Boyd and Schiff both drew upon these letters for their biographies, so they contain few surprises, except for the revelation—a disconcerting one, for a lover of Nabokov’s fiction—that he could be a bore.”

Of the four reviewers, only Thurman considers what it might’ve been like to actually live with Nabokov. She says,

There is little doubt that Mrs. Nabokov took a keen interest in her husband’s every triumph, toothache, and fried egg. But it is also possible to imagine that, in bleak moments, she tired of his endearments (“my little sunshine”), bridled at his pet names (“lumpikin”), and resented the ostentation of a love that can be hard to distinguish from self-infatuation (“It’s as if in your soul there is a prepared spot for every one of my thoughts”).

Wood, Schiff, and Thurman all note the one-sidedness of the correspondence; Amis seems oblivious to it. Wood writes, “There are no letters from Véra in this book. There are none extant: she got rid of them all.” Schiff says,

In the end all of the correspondence would be his. Somewhere along the line, Véra’s letters disappeared. Dmitri Nabokov maintained that his mother—pathologically private, and well aware who the writer in the household was—destroyed them, although there is no evidence that she did so. It is just as likely that their recipient misplaced them; he was a man in whose hands telephone numbers evaporated, who could lose a book of matches in a tiny room, who might entrust his return ticket to the train conductor. We are left to reconstruct the object of Nabokov’s affection entirely from his side of the correspondence.

Wood and Schiff appear to accept the one-sidedness without question. But Thurman takes a different view. She writes,

At the end of this volume, you have to wonder what Véra’s qualms were as she disposed of her letters. She must have had some. The truth of her past would never be complete without them. Was it the act of a morbidly private woman refusing to expose herself—and thus, consciously or not, enshrining her mystique? Or an auto-da-fé that destroyed the evidence of wifely heresy? These questions reverberate in the echo chamber of “Letters to Véra.” “You are my mask,” Nabokov told her.

I find Thurman’s skepticism refreshing. All four reviews are absorbing. They raise the old question about what bearing, if any, our knowledge of a writer’s private life should have on our appreciation of his or her work. In Nabokov’s case, the answer appears to be that without Véra, he may not have been the writer he was. As Thurman says, “Each of them found a lodestar in the other.”

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