Mrs. Nabokov could have been anything she wanted to be. All she wanted to be was Mrs. Nabokov.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published April 20, 1999 12:59PM (EDT)

Life as a famous author's wife is rarely an endless honeymoon of poetry and passion. The rigors of cohabiting with brilliance can take a toll on the soul, and the annals of literary matrimony are littered with such tragic wrecks as Isabella Thackeray and Zelda Fitzgerald. What a surprise, then, to read a chronicle of a bookish marriage that was an endless honeymoon, a harmonious romance of artist and partner. And what an even greater surprise to find such tender ardor and respect budding in the ashes of the Russian Revolution, blossoming through the rise of Nazism and World War II and maturing just as half of the duo was earning infamy as the most notorious dirty old man in the world.

Stacy Schiff's "Vira" is the first portrait of Vladimir Nabokov and his works as seen through the eyes of his bride, and the result is a book that's as much a love story as it is a straightforward biography. This being the Nabokovs we're talking about, though, it's also a tale of soul mates who defy conventional expectations and explanations.

Schiff, to her endless credit, resists any impulse to turn Mrs. N. into something she was not, however nice a story doing that might have made. Vira Nabokov was a gifted linguist, a voracious reader, an organizational dynamo and a breathtaking creature to boot. She was not, however, a writer or a frustrated writer (though she cheerfully penned her spouse's mundane correspondence); nor was she a suffocated spirit who yearned for release from the genius she shared a bed with. She was, as Schiff puts it plainly and firmly in her introduction, a wife. The woman who inspired Nabokov to write the words "You and I are entirely special; such wonders as we know, no one else knows, and nobody loves the way we love" was the same person he introduced to his Cornell students as "my assistant." For him, Vira could fulfill both roles with no incongruity.

As the author follows the couple through their lengthy vagabond marriage, she reveals two people fraught with contradictions -- as witty and affectionate as they were severe and guarded, as drawn to romping around chasing butterflies as they were to sitting at home and studying them. Schiff details grudges, infidelities and weaknesses, but she never loses sight of the sincerity and beauty of the couple's love. And she does such a thorough job of exposing both the mundane and the dramatic aspects of the duo's relationship that the intensely private Mrs. N. would no doubt be mortified by the book -- high praise indeed.

That a woman of uncommon intelligence and depth would choose to devote her life to the staggering duties and petty tribulations of being a helpmate appears at first to be a thorny mystery. Could a remarkable individual be truly happy playing such a seemingly diminished part? The answer, Schiff resoundingly affirms, is yes: "Hers was not a visible role but a vast one." Being Vladimir Nabokov's wife was what Vira was born to do, and she did it with a genius all her own. It may not make perfect sense, but as her husband, the author of "Lolita," intuitively and eloquently understood, love never does.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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