|PULITZER PRIZE WINNER-BIOGRAPHY|
April 11, 2000
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner for biography this year is Stacey Schiff for her book "Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov." It's a portrait of an unusual literary marriage. Vladimir Nabokov was the author of "Pale Fire," "Speak Memory," and "Lolita," among other works. His wife, Vera, was his muse, editor, driver, typist, agent and much more. Stacey Schiff is a former book editor who has also written a biography of the French aviator and author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Thanks for being with us and congratulations.
STACY SCHIFF, Pulitzer Prize, Biography: Thank you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why does Vera Nabokov merit a biography? She was famously reticent. She threw away the letters that she herself wrote. She didn't want attention. Why write a biography about her?
STACY SCHIFF: I have to say, Elizabeth, that all of those reasons, more or less qualified as open invitations to me. The more she tried to back away, the further I thought I should flush her out from the bushes. Every time she denied any involvement in her husband's life or work, there was evidence that she had had enormous involvement in her husband's life and work, to the extent that even their son admitted she was a full creative partner in everything his father had done. So the more the lady protested, the more, I'm afraid, I was egged on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a wonderful line about her becoming larger and larger the more she tries to minimize her role. Why does she try to minimize her role so much?
STACY SCHIFF: Well, I think natural feminism modesty to some extent. This was a woman who was born in pre-Revolutionary Russia in a Jewish family and somewhat constrained by the circumstances, so I think there was a level of discretion as well with everything that Mrs. Nabokov did. But I think there was an old world sense that one stays behind the scenes, and basically tips one's hat to genius. And in this case genius was what she was married to.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to come back to some of the things she did, but first tell us about their love story. They felt they were fated to be together.
STACY SCHIFF: There is a real sort of wonderful Russian sense of this was meant to be about the Nabokovs, which immediately is conveyed upon their meeting in Berlin in 1923 in his poetry, and immediately starts talking about fate and the two of them coming together. And it's pretty much carried through throughout the life, so that almost after 50 years of marriage when Nabokov is asked what would have happened to him if he and his wife wouldn't have met, essentially cut the interviewer short, and said "we would have met under other circumstances." It was almost inconceivable to this man, despite his Protean imagination, that anything else could have happened in his life than meeting Vera Nabokov, so there really was this wonderful sense I think on both of their parts that this was destined to be.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You quote an interesting exchange between Vladimir Nabokov and an interviewer where he asks, could you say how important your wife has been as a collaborator in your work?" And Nabokov answers, "I could not," so she was that important. Tell us how.
STACY SCHIFF: Well, she basically began simply as his typist. I guess you would say his typist-slash-editor. Every word that Nabokov wrote after the two of them meet is put on paper by Mrs. Nabokov, by Vera Nabokov, even before she becomes his wife, and as she sat at the typewriter. I suppose this is what we would say was the most crucial aspect of the relationship, she would essentially say from time to time, "no, no, you can't say it this way," and Nabokov would come up with a better solution, or she would say "isn't this a better solution?" -- and suggest something and he would take it. So there was that sort of elementary editing aspect which isn't so elementary. In many other ways she contributed observations that she had made to what we know as the final pages of "Lolita," it was she who suggested certain works, which we know in their published forms. Nabokov's lectures on literature, which are the brilliant imaginative flights of unscholarly and scholarly fancy, include lines and research done by Mrs. Nabokov. So there is a really a contribution at many, many levels.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wasn't she sort of his way of dealing with the outside world? In your book he is pictured as being someone incompetent. He won't drive. She drives with him. She even carried a gun for his protection when they were butterflying. They were both avid butterfly - in fact he was really a great scientist of butterflies.
STACY SCHIFF: He was a very great scientists of butterflies. She was really only his adjunct in this capacity, but happy to join him. They were always a little competitive in that lovely sort of married way of, "but darling I saw it first." I sought -- I caught it more easily. But yes, in the sense one of them had to learn to drive, Elizabeth, and the job fell to Mrs. Nabokov so she would chauffeur him across America on their butterfly expeditions. And it was in the course of those expeditions that he writes "Lolita," much of it in the back seat of a car. While she had parked under a lovely tree -- as Nabokov describes it -- it was his favorite place to write. It was quiet. There was no draft. He could concentrate. And what Mrs. Nabokov did at those moments of course is something we'll never know, but probably read a book herself, or went for a walk, but the driving and dealing with the outside world when he was a professor, the dealing with all of the administrative functions fell to Mrs. Nabokov.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did she think of Lolita, this older man's sexual obsession with a very young girl?
STACY SCHIFF: That is where she truly astonishes. Here was a woman who had herself a young son, and when he was young wouldn't let him read Mark Twain because she was afraid he might be corrupted by it, yet as her husband in the late 1940's is writing this sexually explicit novel about a young girl, is happily typing away, and thinking this is a work of genius -- never had any doubts about it, had doubts that could be published but it was really Mrs. Nabokov that pursues publication. And in those moments of greatest doubt when Nabokov actually tries to burn the manuscript of "Lolita," it is Mrs. Nabokov who fishes it out of the garbage can into which her husband has set it, stomping on the pages, to say, "we'll not be throwing this away. We are keeping this."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you actually met somebody who saw that happen, right? You found an eyewitness to that?
STACY SCHIFF: That's one of those wonderful, I thought it was an apocryphal story that she saved the manuscript from the flames but after a great deal of research I found her admission that she had done so. Then about a year after that through a complete coincidence I did meet a Cornell student who walked into the yard that very day, and saw the fire burning in the yard, and saw mars. Nabokov come out the back door, and begin to fish the pages from the flames, which is one of the moments for which the biographer lives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One of the most - the strangest parts of the book are the most interesting parts to me -- comes when you describe how she sits in the front row of his class at Cornell where he is giving these lectures, he introduces her as his assistant. She writes on the board, she replaces him if he is sick. Tell us about that. Why was she doing that?
STACY SCHIFF: She, I think, had her own reasons for doing that. I think mostly he wanted her there. I think this was a sense of him thinking that he was to some extent greater than or lost on the audience in front of him... Knowing that his wife would appreciate him for w was worth -- because what he was saying is really extraordinary... his manner of teaching literature was truly extraordinary -- and she was there as the sort of the great appreciator in many ways. What the Cornell students for whom this act was performed made of it was of course much more interesting. None of them, not all of them were sure it was his wife. Some thought it was his mother, some of them thought it was a Russian countess, some of them thought it was a German ballerina, some of them thought she was there to protect him with a gun. Some of them thought she was a ventriloquist, I mean, every possible theory as to what Mrs. Nabokov was doing in the classroom day after day after day.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They furthered that, didn't they? They very much enjoined wearing a mask, both of them?
STACY SCHIFF: That was the beauty for me of putting together the book and prying apart the marriage. There is an enormous amount of mutual leg pulling of trying to fit difference masks on to different faces, of trying to project some kind of illusions to the world. Finding out what was really underneath all of that was not always easy, but it was greatly gratifying.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He died in 1977 and she lived on until 1991. Right?
STACY SCHIFF: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did she do after he died?
STACY SCHIFF: Enormous amount of work. Essentially, the work for two is what remained to her. Every translation, every new edition of Nabokov's needed to be checked. She was often found translating. Finally in her 80's in that amazingly heroic tour-de-force, she helps to translate, and ultimately, herself translates "Pale Fire," one of Nabokov's most difficult books, into Russian, and stayed on top of all the legal things, the copyright issues, continued to be her husband's agent, as she had been in his lifetime, but added to that much of the creative work as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Stacy Schiff, congratulations again and thanks for being with us.
STACY SCHIFF: Thank you, Elizabeth.