Photo: Jeffrey Westbrook/Studio D
1. Schiff describes the Russia of Véra Slonim's childhood as one in which Jewish families obligatorily engaged in "what must have seemed like a colossal, rigged game of Simon Says" (page 20). Do you think this tells you anything about the woman who would become Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov? How did Véra Slonim's father shape the person she would become? Do you think it mattered that her mother was to a large extent invisible in her own childhood?
2. Do you think the Nabokovs' joint gift for synesthesia—"the ability to transfer the observations of one sense into the vocabulary of another" (page 38)—had any impact on their relationship?
3. To what do you attribute Véra Nabokov's secretiveness? Relatedly, how do you explain the couple's unwillingness to answer the question of how they first met?
4. Do you see Véra Nabokov as a victim? Does your view of her change—once, or incrementally, or not at all—in the course of the biography? Does she strike you as an appealing character?
5. In your opinion, was the Nabokovs' a happy marriage? Do you think Nabokov's passionate affair of 1937 left a lasting mark on the marriage? Did that affair come as a surprise to you, or did you sense it coming?
6. At Véra Nabokov's first encounter with a new Goethe scholar at Cornell, she immediately informed him, "I consider Faust one of the shallowest plays ever written" (page 187). To what do you attribute her statement?
7. How do you reconcile Véra Nabokov's claim that her English was not strong enough to permit her to write something about her husband with the masses of letters she did compose?
8. Why do you think the author lists the reasons the Cornell students provided for Véra Nabokov's presence in her husband's classroom (pages 175-6)?
9. What did Véra Nabokov think of Lolita? Are her feelings toward the novel consistent? To your mind, was she happy to see it published?
10. The relationship between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson is one of the great vexed literary friendships of our time. Would the friendship have played itself out differently had Véra not been part of the picture?
11. "Generally she held people—herself especially—to the standards of her husband's literature, standards to which few of us, and even fewer publishers, rise," writes Schiff (page 305). Is it your impression that Mrs. Nabokov was reasonable and the world less so, or vice versa?
12. Why do you think the author included the 1961 interlude with Filippa Rolf, the Swedish poet? When do you first become aware of her in the biography?
13. Can you explain the force of Véra Nabokov's disdain for Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago (pages 242-3)? Are you sympathetic with her sentiments?
14. What kind of childhood would you say Dmitri Nabokov had? On page 209, his mother sends him instructions for the Lermontov translation his parents secure for him, assuring him that he can count on assistance at their end. What do you make of his having been groomed as family translator?
15. Where is Véra Nabokov reflected in her husband's work? And what does her life tell you about the creative process, and about the climate in which an artist creates?
16. What do you make of Nabokov's insistence on having his wife at his side at all times? Why did he want her there for interviews?
17. Schiff has chosen an old Russian proverb ("He likes like an eyewitness") as her epigraph to the last chapter. What is this quotation meant to signal to the reader?
18. By today's standards Véra Nabokov was hardly a woman of great accomplishments. Nor did she grow up in a household in which women played visible professional roles. Do you think of her as having had a career? Or is she something of a disappointment, from a feminist point of view?
19. What do you learn about Nabokov the man from reading about his wife? Has your opinion of him changed?
20. Are you aware as you read of an overall shape of Véra Nabokov's life, and of recurrent or overall themes in that life? Do you think all lives have themes?
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From the May 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!