Stacy Schiff on Nabokovian frottage

From: StephenP
Category: Amis's Contemporaries
Date: 7/5/99
Time: 8:53:59 AM
Remote Name:


Hello everybody.

The following is from yesterday's Sunday Times. In amongst the spurious ('With tears streaming down his face'. Arse.), unhelpful and surely far from new speculation about Vlad the Impaler and pubescent girls there are some fairly interesting biographical insights of Nabbers himself and Marty's mate Mrs Nabs and all (43 pieces of luggage, poor mite).

I've knocked off Lolita, have profoundly experienced Despair and am now about to devour Pale Fire. This latter looks like a ineffable trip up Vlad's rear end. Tie a plank to my arse, I'm going in...

BTW, Marty is often accused of over-literary obfuscation, as we've discussed. But it seems to me that Amis uses almost no vokab that's obscure or contrived compared with Nabs (and Self, for that matter, though with Vlad I bother to reach for the dictionary). Nabokov really is, sometimes, 'too many notes'. But what can you do, I can't wait for Marty's new one for ever.

(I tried to put the html in here, but for some reason it didn't work. It's worth a visit to see how much Nabs looks like Marty. If you're sad like me, that is...)

For 40 years, people have wondered what inspired the shocking story of Lolita. Stacy Schiff believes she has at last found the surprising answer

The Birth of Lolita

One day in October 1956, a group of editors from The Anchor Review, an American literary magazine, sat down with a college professor called Vladimir Nabokov in an apartment in New York to discuss their plan to carry a long excerpt from his latest novel, Lolita. Nabokov was asked how he happened to know so much about little girls. The book, which had been rejected by a series of publishers, was about a middle-aged man's paedophiliac love for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Nabokov's wife, Vera, answered the question. He had, she said, sat on buses and listened carefully. He had also haunted playgrounds until his doing so had become awkward. There were otherwise no little girls in his life.

This was true, but not the whole truth. Vladimir Nabokov was by no means Humbert Humbert, the paedophile protagonist of Lolita, but he was the author of a fair number of works in which middle-aged men fall under the spells cast by underaged girls.

By the time Lolita appeared, his relationship with Vera had survived not just a serious affair and several dalliances but also a near-adulterous relationship with a teenage girl he was teaching. He had also undertaken extensive research into teenage sexual maturity.

Vera Nabokov participated in her husband's work to an unprecedented degree. Before her death in 1991, biographers wrote around her role. Now, based on a wealth of unpublished material, it is possible to tell the whole story of Lolita's creation - and of the influence Vera and other women had over Vladimir.

Vera had enjoyed an affluent childhood in St Petersburg and endured a nightmare escape with her family (and 43 pieces of luggage) from the Bolsheviks before she first met Vladimir in Berlin in 1923. He was also a member of the "Russian emigration" and was struggling to make a living as a writer. Aged 24, he was lithe and aristocratic looking and women flocked to him. He drew up a list of nearly 30 past conquests for Vera in the early days of their courtship.

The romance with Vera was soon physically consummated and they married in 1925. They were ardently and uncomplicatedly in love. By the mid-1930s - with a baby son - they were exploring the chances of resettling in France to escape Nazism (Vera was Jewish). But it was not until 1937 that they fled. Vladimir left first on a literary tour that took him to Brussels, London and Paris.

A week after she joined him, Vladimir confessed to Vera that he was in the midst of a delirious love affair with a Paris-based Russian called Irina Yurievna Guadanini. He was still very much in the delicious daze of adultery. He could not shake off his infatuation and thought he would have to leave Vera.

Three years younger than Vera, Irina was a vivacious and highly emotional blonde, briefly married, now divorced. Her laugh was musical; she had a lively sense of humour; she took great joy in playing with words. Vladimir had told her of previous affairs - with a German girl met by chance in the Grunewald; a French girl for four nights in 1933; a tragic woman with exquisite eyes; a former student who had propositioned him; and three or four other meaningless encounters. Yet Irina worshipped the imprint his head left on her pillow, his abandoned cigarette butt in the ashtray.

With tears streaming down his face, Vladimir professed his inability to live without Irina. The longing for her was unlike anything he had ever known - but at the same time his years with Vera had been utterly "cloudless". Never had he sounded so much like one of his characters, brought down by his passion, unable to escape his own private abyss, heartrendingly separated from his own self-image.

He wrote letters to Irina that sound painfully like those he had written his wife 14 years earlier. He wrote of preordained compatibility; he marvelled over the commonality of their impressions. His confession in no way put an end to the love letters. If anything, he yearned for Irina even more desperately. Nothing slaked his desire.

Vera's response to the affair was to blame herself. She felt she had neglected her husband and he reported to Irina that she was doing all she could to make up for her inattention. "Her smile kills me," he declared miserably. When Vera discovered that her husband was still writing to his lover, however, storms broke out on the home front. Vladimir described such tempests that he feared he would end in the madhouse.

Irina countered by offering to go away somewhere, anywhere, with Vladimir. He replied that Vera had forced him to end the affair. He would not be writing again. This put Irina on the first train to Cannes, where the Nabokovs were staying. On the morning of her arrival she headed directly to the Nabokovs' apartment and waited outside until she was able to intercept Vladimir on his way to the beach with his son, Dmitri. He made a date to meet her later in the day.

As they strolled toward the port that afternoon, he explained that he loved her but could not bring himself to slam the door on the rest of his life. He begged her to be patient but remained noncommittal. Irina left the following day for Italy, brokenhearted, near-suicidal, convinced that Vera had somehow hoodwinked Vladimir back into the marriage. She attended a reading he gave in Paris at the end of the following year, but never saw him again.

Nabokov remained the great love of her life and more than 20 years later, on reading the first half of Lolita, she reported that it was all about herself and America.

Nabokov's response to his affair with Irina was to work on The Gift, a novel that has been described as his ode to fidelity. The story of an artist as a young man, the book reads like a hymn of gratitude to a woman who in nearly every imaginable way resembles Vera. Towards the end, a young girl who rouses in the hero a familiar brand of "hopeless desire" makes a fleeting appearance. By the end of 1939 he had also written a novella called The Enchanter. Word of its unusual subject spread quickly - stories of 40-year-old seducers of pre-pubescent girls not being in great supply at the time.

Vera liked to believe that Vladimir's willpower was as great as her own, which it was not; his last dalliance was not that with Irina Guadanini.

When France fell to the Germans, the Nabokovs fled to New York, where they were adopted by a literary set centred on Edmund Wilson, the critic, and Mary McCarthy, the writer. Vladimir found teaching work at Wellesley, the women's college in Massachusetts. He was asked to serve in a "generally inspirational capacity". That he did, but not entirely as the administration had intended.

"I spent my time studying French, Russian and Mr Nabokov," remembered one student.

"I know I always used to put on mascara when I went to his class," recalled a second.

"We were all madly in love with him," a third alumna reported.

For many of the girls he was their first European; he tallied perfectly with the romantic conception of the continental, bohemian artist. Best of all, he seemed fragile, in dire need of being taken care of. If the girls were not yet entirely aware of his heterodox opinions, they recognised immediately that there was something unorthodox about his person. "He was the only man I'd seen in my life who wore pastel shirts, pink shirts," observed a student. Merrily he informed an attractive blonde that he intended to use her in a book one day.

Everything about him spoke of another world, a distant realm of Old World sophistication and erudition -- far from the seas of Peter Pan collars and saddle shoes and bobby sox. Few of the girls believed his heart to be in the rudiments of Russian grammar. A few knew better where it was.

A great number of his students watched him adoringly; nearly as many noticed that his attention was reserved for the best-looking girls in the class. If he was not outright flirtatious he was uncommonly attentive. "Ah, Miss Rogers, I see something new has been added," he commented when the mascara-wearer, a perceived favourite, returned from the spring vacation with an engagement ring on her finger.

"He definitely flirted, but always with the dumbbells," remembered one alumna, who was as aware as others of the eyes sliding past her. Inevitably overtures were made.

"I took a course in Russian and I got sidetracked on a course on Vladimir Nabokov," recalled Katherine Reese Peebles, a junior who interviewed the new professor for the college newspaper in 1943. "He did like young girls. Just not little girls."

That autumn the two began taking long walks across the campus together, hand in hand, exchanging kisses. A Memphis-born belle with an exuberant mind and an irreverent streak, Peebles was well versed in the art of flirtation; the inherent beauty of a wartime blackout was not lost on her. "I was a perceptive young woman and men were my study. I liked this one because I couldn't read him," she recalls of the mutual seduction.

Nabokov quickly discovered that his student knew Alice in Wonderland; the two began reciting passages to each other as they traipsed around campus, "stumbling and bumbling" through the winter dark, travelling the longest possible distance between cups of coffee at the student union and in town. Nabokov wrapped his long, padded overcoat around the two of them.

The relationship entailed a fair amount of kissing and fondling. Campus affairs were at the time as difficult to consummate spatially as they would have been socially. There was no question that Nabokov was eager to make more of this one, which Peebles happily encouraged, to her friends' consternation.

Those who knew him commented that Nabokov poked around campus like an "avid eavesdropping anthropologist"; Peebles caught him seizing on her American slang, snapping up the unfamiliar terms. (She saw shadows of the winter of 1943 in his later fiction.)

Matters came to a conclusion late in the winter, when Nabokov's avidity began to make Peebles skittish. After class one day she commented on the half-heartedness with which her professor erased the blackboard. At least one layer of Cyrillic always shone through the next. "Then can you read this?" Nabokov asked, scrawling three words on the board and just as quickly erasing them. He had written "I love you" in Russian. Peebles dropped the course and the professor.

Later overtures met with less enthusiastic responses, although not for any lack of persistence on Nabokov's part. A student who sculpted a bust of him and at whom he made a number of passes deflected his attentions with news of her boyfriend. At the same time she felt great affection for him, charmed by his apparent helplessness. Nabokov remained playful and was not angry to have been rebuffed. Others found him highly flirtatious but in their innocence made little of his attentions.

Once he suggested to a student that they sit close together on a narrow couch to study a set of murals commemorating "America the Beautiful". "Do you realise how wonderful this is?" Nabokov rhapsodised. ostensibly over the art. The enthusiasm seemed genuine at the time, a transparent ploy in retrospect.

Only a few of the girls knew their professor to be married. Those who had set eyes on Vera thought her stunning, "with long, thick, glossy white hair falling almost to her shoulders and very smooth, radiant pink-white skin".

Vera must have noticed the general swooning; but nothing in her behaviour indicated that she knew anything further. Nabokov had been vocal in his admiration for Katherine Peebles's lithe, long-legged body and had informed her: "I like small-breasted women." Years later, Vera denied he could have said this. "No, never!" she remonstrated. "Impossible for a Russian."

In 1947, Vladimir began work on a "short novel about a man who liked little girls". He also found a new job, as assistant professor of Russian literature at Cornell University, New York. By 1951 he and Vera were in a precarious monetary state. Vladimir's books had flopped, and he was in debt to friends for several thousand dollars.

Nothing could have looked less like the answer to their difficulties than this new novel which, he said, "deals with the problems of a very moral middle-aged gentleman who falls very immorally in love with his stepdaughter, a girl of 13". The truly level-headed wife of a man might have counselled him to turn his attention to something more saleable. These were staid times in a provincial place. But all bets were off where art was concerned, or at least where Vladimir's art was concerned.

Nabokov's women: Vera, left, blamed herself for the author's affair with Irina but when it continued she was enraged Vera typed drafts of Lolita while her husband charted sexual maturation and studied sexual perversion, withdrawing The Subnormal Adolescent Girl from the library, flipping through The Best in Teen Tales, The American Girl, Calling All Girls, taking notes on Clearasil and Tampax. By the autumn of 1953, Vladimir was devoting 16-hour days to the manuscript.

Lolita owed her birth to Vladimir but her life to Vera. She was several times nearly incinerated. As early as 1948, Vera stepped outside to find her husband had set a fire in a galvanized can next to the back steps and was beginning to feed pages into it. Appalled, she fished the few sheets she could from the flames.

Her husband began to protest. "Get away from there!" Vera commanded, an order Vladimir obeyed as she stamped on the pages she had retrieved. "We are keeping this," she announced. On at least one other occasion, she was observed filing away pages her husband had deemed deficient. Nabokov remembered Vera's stopping him several times in 1950 and 1951 when, "beset with technical difficulties and doubts", he had attempted to incinerate Lolita.

Vera was alone in the knowledge that her husband was at work on a "time bomb", a work so inflammatory that he blacked out the research notes - on sexual deviation, on marriage with minors - in his diary. Plenty of manuscripts have beenburnt, among them first drafts of Jekyll and Hyde and Dead Souls. That Lolita did not meet the same fate, in the context and climate in which Nabokov was composing in the early 1950s, is testimony to Vera's ability to, as her husband had it, keep grim common sense from the door.

She was by no means complaisant about all his plans. When Vladimir announced to colleagues that he was going to write a novel about the love life of a pair of Siamese twins, Vera put her foot down. "No, you're not!" she exhorted.

In December 1953, Vera requested a personal meeting with Katharine White of The New Yorker for reasons she preferred not to commit to paper. She carried the manuscript to White's East 48th Street doorstep. The bundle bore no return address. Vladimir had hesitated to use the post - it was a crime to distribute obscenity by mail. Vera explained that the author's name would not be attached to the manuscript, which her husband intended to publish under a pseudonym, soon divulged to be "Humbert Humbert". After reading the manuscript, White told Vladimir that she had five granddaughters: she would be lying if she did not say she had been disturbed by the book. Furthermore, she did not have a thing for psychopaths.

Vera had no such qualms. This did not mean that she was unaware of the dangers of her husband's publishing - and of the public's misreading - the sexually explicit confessions of a middle-aged European's obsessive pursuit of a prepubescent girl. Cursing the public's naive inability to distinguish author from protagonist, she acknowledged that this could result in some "unpleasantness".

She told her sister-in-law, Elena: "Don't judge it until you've read it all the way through. It's not pornography at all but an incredible, most subtle probe to the depths of a horrible maniac and explores the tragic fate of a defenceless young girl." She understood very well what the book represented to 1950s America. Elena was not to leave it lying around: "Hide it from your son." It was not a book for children.

Pat Covici, the first publisher to read the novel, did not think Lolita was even a book for adults. At least, not for adults unwilling to serve jail sentences. Wallace Brockway, of Simon & Schuster, said after reading it that his colleagues could see the book only as sheer pornography.

James Laughlin, of the New Directions publishing house, also rejected it. He said publication would be an act of self-destruction for both author and publisher. Roger Straus, at Farrar, Straus & Young, concluded that the work could not be introduced to America without a court battle which he did not believe could be won.

Vladimir discussed the manuscript with friends. Mary McCarthy and her husband Bowden Broadwater thought "the poor darling had clearly flipped".

"I thought it was so repulsive that it rather put me off him," said Edmund Wilson, who had a very young daughter. Harry and Elena Levin, another literary couple, found the novel admirable and hugely erotic. They also came to understand Vladimir's earlier interest in their prepubescent daughter, whom he had taken to interviewing exhaustively.

After Jason Epstein read and rejected Lolita for Doubleday, Vera wrote to Doussia Ergaz, the resourceful Russian literary agent who had long handled Nabokov's work in France. "My husband has written a novel of extreme originality which - because of straightlaced morality - could not be published here. What possibility is there for publication (in English) in Europe?"

Ergaz read and loved Lolita. She shared it with Maurice Girodias, the colourful owner of Olympia Press and publisher of The Whip Angels, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and a host of other classics, who took to Lolita immediately. Girodias's only condition was that Vladimir attach his name to the work. "If the publisher were to propose very favourable terms, I would be tempted to permit the book to be published under my name," the author conceded.

An advance of Fr400,000, or about $1,000, was agreed in the summer of 1955 but neither author nor publisher considered the novel had any commercial value.

Having signed the deal, Vladimir shared the good news with Morris Bishop, his only close friend at Cornell, who confided to his wife, Alison: "It is about a man who loves little girls . . . He says there is not an indecent word in it, and it is really a tragic and terrible story. Well, I hope it doesn't make a real scandal."

Bishop's admonitions were not what either of the Nabokovs wanted to hear. At Cornell one could be dismissed for "moral turpitude". Alison Bishop found Vera beside herself with worry. Her husband was 56 years old. How would he find another job?

After publication in Paris in the autumn, the novel's early days were quiet, but Graham Greene delivered the Nabokovs a Christmas present in London. Asked by The Sunday Times to name the three best books of 1955, the novelist included one that nobody had heard of, available neither in America nor in Great Britain, but that could be purchased, in a two-volume, light-green edition, in Paris. It was Lolita.

Having been named by one newspaper as best book of 1955, Lolita was denounced in another as one of the filthiest. John Gordon, The Sunday Express's editor-in-chief, called it "sheer unrestrained pornography . . . Anyone who published or sold it here would certainly go to prison."

When news of this row reached America, Vera received an immediate volley of publishers' queries. Gently she assured the editors at Indiana University Press that it was not a book for them. For every friend who weighed in with misgivings about Lolita, there was a publisher who wrote to express interest.

In the end, Walter Minton, of Putnam's, secured publishing rights, but only in the strangest of circumstances. Minton had heard of Lolita but read the novel only when he ran into a Copacabana showgirl named Rosemary Ridgewell at a party. Ridgewell had a copy of the book and, as Minton remembered it, "sat with me one night in her apartment on East 67th Street while I read it".

The situation became even more baroque when Time magazine ran a picture of the striking book scout along with a description of her as a "slithery-blithery onetime Latin Quarter showgirl who wears a gold swizzle stick around her neck and a bubbly smile on her face". Two weeks later, Minton's wife told Vera over dinner that she had learnt of her husband's involvement with Ridgewell only from reading Time. From Minton himself the same evening, Vera learnt that he was involved as well with the reporter who had written the Time piece, who had done her best to portray her rival as a drunken call girl.

Fortunately, Vera did not know the half of the tale, which ended in Paris in a lesbian nightclub when Ridgewell bludgeoned Minton with a whisky bottle, while Girodias looked on. Ridgewell's scouting efforts probably netted her about $20,000, assuming the commission was paid.

As publication approached, Vera and Vladimir understood that everything about their lives was to change. They spent the early summer of 1958 in the Rockies, returning to New York to attend what Vera alternately billed as Lolita's and Vladimir's coming-out party, a press cocktail at the Harvard Club where friendly journalists admitted that they had not exactly expected the author to show up with his distinguished-looking wife. "Yes," Vera replied, smiling, unflappable. "It's the main reason why I'm here." Her husband chuckled that he had been tempted to hire a child escort for the occasion.

It was important to photograph the author, but especially crucial to include Vera in the frame, the flesh-and-blood - and mercifully middle-aged - woman behind the man behind the man who liked the girls. Next day, the New York Post took pains to observe that Vera was "a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita".

Vera's existence kept the fiction in its place, reassured readers who felt anxious about Lolita's subject that Nabokov's perversities were of a different kind. It was doubtless fortunate that the public had not yet read the largely untranslated oeuvre that preceded Lolita, full of her prototypes.

Publication day - August 18 - found Lolita's author "serenely indifferent", as Vera described him. There were 300 reorders in the morning, 1,000 by mid-afternoon, 1,400 by the time Minton dispatched a telegram of congratulations, 2,600 more the following day. By early September, 80,000 copies of the novel were in print. As the Nabokovs were only too aware, this amounted to all of Vladimir's previous print runs in Russian and English combined. At the end of the month, the book was number one on The New York Times list.

Film rights were sold to the directing-producing team of Stanley Kubrick and James Harris for $150,000, or about 17 times Vladimir's Cornell salary. Both Nabokovs were clearly embarrassed to be perceived as recipients of a staggering sum of money. To many on the Cornell campus, even Lolita's $5 cover price was prohibitive.

Reporters arrived and, after the first gaggle of interviewers had flown off, Vera began to notice familiar themes in their questions: "They all hope to find some scandalous angle."

Her one gripe with Lolita's reception was something a New York Post critic had noted early on: "Lolita was attacked as a fearsome moppet, a little monster, a shallow, corrupt, libidinous and singularly unattractive brat."

Where reviewers inclined towards pitying Humbert, Vera fixed instead on Lolita's vulnerability, emphasising that she had been left alone without a single close relative in the world.

"Lolita discussed by the papers from every possible point of view except one: that of its beauty and pathos," she noted in her diary. "Critics prefer to look for moral symbols, justification, condemnation, or explanation of HH's predicament . . . I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child's helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage . . ."

When the book was published in London, every reporter in Britain wanted to interview Vladimir. He had no illusions as to why, telling one journalist that he knew the search was on for the diaries that would prove Lolita to be a work of non-fiction.

The truth is that both Nabokovs were complicit in Lolita. They came and went as a couple. Not only were they inseparable but their sentences fused, on the page and in person. Their handwritings invade each others' notebooks; he would begin from one end, she from the other.

Vera was a full creative partner in everything her husband did. She had a need to do something great with her life. And as he made clear from the start, Vladimir had a great need of her. He thought he would be remembered for two works - his translation of Eugene Onegin, which Vera had suggested, and Lolita, which she had salvaged.

The two projects that meant the most to him in the later years were a Russian translation of Lolita and the revised edition of Speak, Memory, his autobiography. Vera collaborated on the first and contributed to the second.

The Nabokovs struck many as one of the great love stories. Lawyers, publishers, relatives, colleagues and friends agreed on one point: "He would have been nowhere without her."

© Stacy Schiff 1999 Extracted from Vera: Mrs Vladimir Nabokov by Stacy Schiff to be published by Macmillan on Friday at £25. Copies can be ordered from The Sunday Times bookclub for £22 on 0870 165 8585