Love Letters From A Literary Great

Reviewing Letters to Vera, Philip Hensher marvels at what Vladimir Nabokov’s correspondence with his wife reveals about his talents as a writer:

The letters are full of rapturous comment, of course, but their substance, and the reason they are so absorbing, is Nabokov’s intense interest in the world around him. He knows that when you are in love, the slightest detail of the beloved’s world and days are interesting: what he might have learnt, through writing these letters, is that the specific is always interesting for readers, too. All through those 1926 letters, he remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.

Nabokov is such a great letter writer because he wants to interest, not just pour out his emotions. These letters must have been a joy to receive. He keeps his eyes open, and concentrates on recording what he sees:

Alongside the paths coloured stripes are daubed on beech and oak trunks, and sometimes simply on the rocks, like little flags to show the way to this or that hamlet. I noticed too that peasants put red earflaps on their percherons and are cruel with their geese, of whom they have plenty: they pluck off their breast feathers when the geese are still alive, so that the poor bird walks around as if in a décolleté.

Love, and intense care for what will interest his readership of one, directed Nabokov’s writing, and shaped it for the future. The clarity of observation here about a moment of terrible animal sadness holds in it the flash of insight at the beginning of Lolita, the parable about the monkey learning to draw and producing an image of the bars of its own cage.