He wrote her:
“Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.”
“And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words — and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone… in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision… You can be bruised by an ugly diminutive — because you are so absolutely resonant — like seawater, my lovely.”
Vladimir and Véra met at a charity ball in Berlin in 1923, a pair of Russian émigrés fleeing from the storm of the revolution. He was already making a name for himself as a poet and translator — his translation of Alice in Wonderland would be published that year. It was a marriage of minds: within six months they were engaged. In 1925, Vladimir published his first novel, Mary, and a remarkable body of Russian-language fiction followed. As the 1930s darkened, he strove to move, first to England where there was the possibility of a job teaching at Leeds or Sheffield universities — there’s a bizarre thought — and then to New York and a teaching job at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Nabokov made the drastic decision to start writing in a different language — there can’t be many novelists who occupy a position of greatness in two languages, one after the other. In 1961, after the immense success of Lolita, the Nabokovs moved to Switzerland, where they lived until they died, Vladimir in 1977, Véra in 1991.
The letters, like most letters within a marriage, were produced under unusual circumstances. Since the Nabokovs were hardly ever apart, and lived in close domestic harmony, the only times Vladimir would write to Véra were when they were separated by professional duty or for reasons of ill-health. For the most part they were together, and deeply happy, with no reason to write to each other. Between 1945 and 1965, there are all of six letters to Véra, mostly very insubstantial.
This volume, then, has an unusual rhythm. On the rare occasions Vladimir was apart from Véra, he wrote to her with great diligence, usually every day, and she seems to have kept all his letters, little wonder. These periods were not necessarily very extended, but a stretch between 2 June and 19 July 1926, when Véra was in a sanatorium to recover her mental health and to restore her physical health, produces over 50 letters, detailed and absorbing, 100 pages in this collection.
“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… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely… – V. Nabokov”
Little known lepidopterist Nabokov knew that Vera treasured nature, art, and life’s other intangibles more highly than material possessions, and Vladimir presented her with delicate hand drawn butterflies for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays on the covers of the books he gave her.
This one is a Vanessa Verae. I was named after a butterfly and a hurricane. But I will tell you all about that another time. (source https://vanessaglenda.wordpress.com)
“From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.” This he declares in his autobiography Speak, Memory. “I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.”
“How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it — and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret — so sharp! — that we haven’t lived through it together — whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible — or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road — you see what I mean, my happiness?
And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words — and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone… in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision… You can be bruised by an ugly diminutive — because you are so absolutely resonant — like seawater, my lovely.
I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.”
“I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you…
I love you, I want you, I need you unbearably… Your eyes — which shine so wonder-struck when, with your head thrown back, you tell something funny — your eyes, your voice, lips, your shoulders — so light, sunny…
You came into my life — not as one comes to visit … but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.”