Synopses & Reviews
Serge Prokofiev was one of the twentieth centuryand#8217;s most brilliant composers yet is an enigma to historians and his fans. Why did he leave the West and move to the Soviet Union despite Stalinand#8217;s crimes? Why did his astonishing creativity in the 1930s soon dissolve into a far less inspiring output in his later years? The answers can finally be revealed, thanks to Simon Morrisonand#8217;s unique and unfettered access to the familyand#8217;s voluminous papers and his ability to reconstruct the tragic, riveting life of the composerand#8217;s wife, Lina.
Morrisonand#8217;s portrait of the marriage of Lina and Serge Prokofiev is the story of a remarkable woman who fought for survival in the face of unbearable betrayal and despair and of the irresistibly talented but heartlessly self-absorbed musician she married. Born to a Spanish father and Russian mother in Madrid at the end of the nineteenth century and raised in Brooklyn, Lina fell in love with a rising-star composerand#8212;and defied convention to be with him, courting public censure. She devoted her life to Serge and to art, training to be an operatic soprano and following her brilliant husband to Stalinand#8217;s Russia. Just as Serge found initial acclaimand#8212;before becoming constricted by the harsh doctrine of socialist-realist musicand#8212;Lina was at first accepted and later scorned, ending her singing career. Serge abandoned her and took up with another woman. Finally, Lina was arrested and shipped off to the gulag in 1948. She would be held in captivity for eight awful years. Meanwhile, Serge found himself the tool of an evil regime to which he was forced to accommodate himself.
The contrast between Lina and Serge is one of strength and perseverance versus utter self-absorption, a remarkable human drama that draws on the forces of art, sacrifice, and the struggle against oppression. Readers will never forget the tragic drama of Linaand#8217;s life, and never listen to Sergeand#8217;s music in quite the same way again.
"A sensitive rendering of one of the century's great love stories." Mirabella
"I am truly in love with this book. Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast." Anita Shreve
"An absorbing story, illumined by Schiff's flair for the succinct insight." The New York Times Book Review
"Véra is an astonishingly fine book a tale told with wit and elegance, a tale that succeeds in encompassing both the intimacy of a marriage and the sweep of history. I found it a great pleasure to read. And I'm in awe of Stacy Schiff's talent." Jonathan Harr
and#8212;Wall Street Journal and#160;"The sort of reading experience one might expect from a novel of foreign intrigue."
and#8212;SFand#160;Examiner and#160; "Morrison energetically and compellingly traces Linaand#8217;s life from her childhood in Europe through her young adulthood in New York to her tempestuous marriage to the famed composer Serge Prokofiev, her time in the gulag, and her final years in the U.S...Morrison's powerful portrait reveals a haunting story of one womanand#8217;s tragedy and one manand#8217;s flaws."
and#8212;Publishers Weekly "An authority on the life and works of Serge Prokofiev charts the sad biographical arc of his wife, Lina, who spent some devastating years in the Soviet gulag. Morrison, who had access to the family and significant archival collections, has produced a gripping story of a young womanand#8217;s rise into the highest social and musical circles, her marriage to Prokofiev (whose principal affection was for his music, not his family), and their globe-trotting tours and swelling celebrity...Research, compassion and outrage combine in a story both riveting and wrenching."
and#8212;Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Simon Morrison has written a brilliant and riveting tale of love, intrigue, terror, and betrayal that forces us to confront the paradox of how great art can be made by unspeakably cruel and heartless individuals."
and#8212;Leon Botstein, music director and conductor, American Symphony Orchestra, and president of Bard College
"I knew my mother-in-law in the last fifteen years of her life and understood her as a person whose relationship with Prokofiev was the driving force of her life. She was someone who was unwilling to revisit the painful aspects of her past and yet longed for her story to be heard. This well-written and impeccably researched book is an authoritative and sensitive account of an extraordinary relationship."
"In the hagiographic hall of fame that is the Russian artist's wife and#8212; Sophia Tolstoy, Anna Dostoevsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam, all muses who stood watch while their men created things of genius, and then who jealously guarded the legacy and#8212; Lina Prokofiev is odd woman out. Her story almost cannot be believed, until Simon Morrison gained access to the documents (and the trust of the family) in order to tell it. Biography does not get more important than this."
and#8212;Caryl Emerson,and#160;author of Mikhail Bakhtin and The Life of Musorgsky
"An engrossing tale, beautifully told on the basis of new material that illuminates Prokofiev's life as well as Lina's. An attractive young cosmopolitan singer lands her man, the famous composer, and ends up with him in Moscow and#8212; and then alone in the gulag. Simon Morrison has given us her story, including the parts that were too painful for her to remember."
and#8212;Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor emerita of Soviet history, University of Chicago "In "Lina and Sergeand#8217;and#8217; Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, best known for his biography, "The Peopleand#8217;s Artist: Prokofievand#8217;s Soviet Years,and#8217;and#8217; creates a fascinating portrait of the self-absorbed couple. Linaand#8217;s dramatic story, new to Western readers, reveals Prokofiev beyond his famously unsentimental exterior. Beginning with Linaand#8217;s arrest, which had "shaken" Prokofiev, Morrison maintains strong narrative tension, following the couple back to their cosmopolitan milieus before the ill-fated relocation." -- Boston Globe
"Vera" is the "utterly romantic" (New York magazine) story of the 52-year marriage between Vladimir Nabokov, one the 20th century's most original writers, and a woman with an intellect and devotion to literature equal to her husband's.
An intimate biography of the woman who stood at the centre of Vladimir Nabokov's life and work.
At once a love story, a portrait of a marriage, and an answer to a riddle, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) explores a remarkable literary partner-ship that of a woman who devoted her life to her husband's art and a man who dedicated his works to his wife. Open a volume of Nabokov's, and there is Véra on the dedication page. But search for her elsewhere, and his wife of fifty-two years fades from view.
Stacy Schiff follows Véra Nabokov from her affluent St. Petersburg childhood to the streets of Weimar Berlin, where she makes a spectacular entrance into the life of her future husband, then a gifted but struggling writer of Russian verse. In the three decades that pass before he metamorphoses into the celebrated author of Lolita, Véra proves to be nothing less than his full creative partner. It was Véra, in fact, who plucked the manuscript of Lolita from the flames to which its author attempted to sacrifice it, commanding, "We are keeping this."
Véra's story never told, never really known at all before is based on new material, including Vladimir's diaries and letters, and family correspondence.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography and hailed by critics as both “monumental” (The Boston Globe) and “utterly romantic” (New York magazine), Stacy Schiff’s Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time. Vladimir Nabokov—the émigré author of Lolita; Pale Fire; and Speak, Memory—wrote his books first for himself, second for his wife, Véra, and third for no one at all.
“Without my wife,” he once noted, “I wouldn’t have written a single novel.” Set in prewar Europe and postwar America, spanning much of the century, the story of the Nabokovs’ fifty-two-year marriage reads as vividly as a novel. Véra, both beautiful and brilliant, is its outsized heroine—a woman who loves as deeply and intelligently as did the great romantic heroines of Austen and Tolstoy. Stacy Schiff's Véra is a triumph of the biographical form.
The dramatic, untold story of Lina and Serge Prokofiev, a doomed love story and a shattering portrait of an artist.
About the Author
Simon Morrison is Professor of Music History at Princeton, where he earned his PhD in musicology. A leading authority on composer Serge Prokofiev, he is the author of The People's Artist, along with numerous scholarly articles, and features for the New York Times. In 2011, Morrison was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Reading Group Guide
This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Vera. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.
1. l. Schiff describes the Russia of Vera Slonim's childhood as one in which Jewish families obligatorily engaged in "what must have seemed like a colossal, rigged game of Simon Says" (p. 20). Do you think this tells you anything about the woman who would become Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov? How did Vera 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" (p. 38) had any impact on their relationship? 3. To what do you attribute Vera 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 Vera 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 l937 left a lasting mark on the marriage? Did that affair come as a surprise to you, or did you sense it coming? 6. At Vera 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" (p. l87). To what do you attribute her statement? 7. How do you reconcile Vera 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 Vera Nabokov's presence in her husband's classroom (pp. l75-6)? 9. What did Vera 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 Vera 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 (p. 305). Is it your impression that Mrs. Nabokov was reasonable and the world less so, or vice versa? l2. Why do you think the author included the l96l 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 Vera Nabokov's disdain for Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago (p. 242-3)? Are you sympathetic with her sentiments? 14. What kind of childhood would you say Dmitri Nabokov had? On p. 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? l5. Where is Vera 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? l6. 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 Vera 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 Vera Nabokov's life, and of recurrent or overall themes in that life? Do you think all lives have themes?