Their first meeting in 1923 was the stuff of legend: She wore a black satin mask on a bridge in Berlin and recited his own poetry to him. From that moment, the young writer Vladimir Nabokov felt that Vera Slonim was destined to share his life. In one of the passionate letters of their courtship, he wrote, “It’s as if in your soul there is a preprepared spot for every one of my thoughts.” For the next fifty-four years, he was nearly inseparable from the brilliant, elegant, and self-effacing woman who became Mrs. Nabokov.
Born in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg to upper-class Jewish parents, the teenaged Vera and her family fled to Germany in 1921. There, she learned to shoot an automatic weapon and was allegedly involved in an assassination plot against a Soviet leader. Fearless and intelligent as she was, she bypassed an intended degree in architectural engineering, instead teaching herself to type and working as a writer and translator—and eventually finding her life’s true purpose in her husband.
She believed adamantly in Vladimir’s genius and felt it an honor to devote her life to nurturing his art and securing his reputation as the literary giant of his time. With her sharp mind, aesthetic sensitivity, staggering memory, and multilingualism, she was perfectly suited for the role. She and Vladimir shared the unusual neurological condition synesthesia, which enabled both of them to perceive letters and words as colored. People who knew them described the uncommon intimacy of their marriage; some remarked on the nearly psychic connection they seemed to share.
Among her many roles, Vera was amanuensis, translator, chief correspondent, teaching assistant, literary agent, chauffeur, Scrabble partner, and butterfly-catching companion.
She was the first reader of all her husband’s works, as well as critic, editor, and inspiration. Many suspected she had a hand in the writing itself; some believed Vera was the true author. As he worked, she typed and retyped his manuscripts and organized the thousands of index cards on which he famously took notes. By managing such practicalities, she freed her husband to exercise his creativity unencumbered.
As lifelong designated driver, Vera piloted the couple’s many excursions across the United States in pursuit of Vladimir’s butterfly specimens. During one such expedition in Arizona, she was so shaken by an encounter with a rattlesnake that she subsequently acquired a pistol—adding the role of bodyguard to her repertoire. It was rumored that she carried the gun in her purse to social gatherings and the lecture hall to protect her husband against assassination. She guarded his writing no less fervently, against bad contracts, poor translators, and sometimes the author himself. She saved the novel Lolita from destruction more than once, literally pulling pages from the flames when he tried to set the draft afire.
When, near the end of his life, her husband began to fall, Vera attempted to catch him, injuring her spine in the process—so that she grew humpbacked and, eventually, completely bent. As the great author’s obituary proclaimed, “Their dedication to each other was total.” Appropriately, the dedication page of every Nabokov novel reads, “To Vera.”
Written by LAUREN ACAMPORA