Books: She did everything except write his books for him

Vera (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff Picador pounds 25
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Vera Slonim's first meeting with Vladimir Nabokov, one spring evening on a bridge in Berlin, set the scene for their subsequent relationship. Young, slim, with sparkling blue eyes, a translucent complexion and a mane of wavy hair, Vera enchanted the novice poet by wearing a black satin mask. Her conversation was equally alluring. Within months, he was writing: "You came into my life - as one enters a kingdom, where all the rivers have waited for your reflection." In a poem, he tells her, "I start to talk - you answer, / as if rounding off a line of verse." Later he declares, quite simply: "You are my mask." Reciprocity and role-playing were the leitmotifs of the Nabokovs' long love affair, a partnership which survived infidelity, penury, exile, and the stress of notoriety, and endured until Vladimir's death in 1977.

Nabokov's claim that "Without my wife, I wouldn't have written a single novel" seems justified. Vera's fragile appearance concealed a woman of extraordinary capability. At the time of their marriage in 1925, she and Nabokov were emigres, part of the vast community of Russians who fled to Berlin in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. From the start, Vera took charge of all practical matters, from placating landlords to working as a secretary to supplement the family income. She still managed to find time to type Nabokov's manuscripts. Later, when Nabokov found teaching posts in the USA, Vera was at hand to help him draft lectures, grade papers, and even to take the courses herself when he was indisposed. As Nabokov's publications increased and, in particular, after the astounding success of Lolita, she read proofs, corrected translations, and managed all her husband's business affairs, negotiating contracts, chasing royalty payments, keeping a canny eye on tax loopholes, and writing a seemingly endless stream of letters on his behalf. In their correspondence, the Nabokovs took their Siamese-twin act to new heights. First one, then the other would write, depending on the matter in hand; sometimes they swapped authorship mid-sentence, and Vladimir even imitated Vera's handwriting, creating a baffling joint identity that echoed the twins, impersonators and doppelgangers who litter Nabokov's fiction.

For her public persona, Vera eventually settled on "Mrs Vladimir Nabokov", a useful mask that allowed the real Vera virtually to disappear. As time went on, however, her studious self-effacement had the reverse effect. People became increasingly aware of her existence, although her origins remained elusive: she was variously reported to be French, a German princess, a Russian aristocrat. One young lawyer concluded that she was the Department of Recollection, from her habit of correcting Nabokov's faulty memory.

Vera herself had no doubts about her identity. Throughout her life, she insisted on her Jewishness, even when it was dangerous to do so. As a young girl, fleeing to Odessa when the pogroms in Ukraine were at their height, Vera overheard a militiaman on a train insulting a Jew, and indignantly stood up for her fellow-passenger. Later, applying for secretarial work at the office of a German minister in Berlin, she made a point of informing her interviewer that she was Jewish. Astonishingly - and luckily - she was told that it made no difference. This emphasis on her heritage may partly explain Vera's wifely dedication, a tradition that went back to early Judaism, when a wife's principal duty was to facilitate her husband's study of the Torah.

Insecurity dogged Vera's life. For a few months in 1964, Nabokov kept a dream journal for himself and his wife. Vera's dreams make extraordinary reading for a 62-year-old woman, apparently comfortably settled in a Swiss tax haven. Again and again she rehearsed the nightmare experiences of the refugee: the hurried border crossing; the bribing of officials; the risk of interrogation. In one scenario, she was released, barefoot, from prison, her son Dmitri, still a baby, clutched in her arms; in another, the floorboards seemed to part beneath her feet.

This sense of threat had been a common experience for Russian Jews at the turn of the century. One English visitor exclaimed, "I would rather be treated as a swindler, a forger, or a vulgar assassin, than as a respectable Russian Jew!" Even well-to-do Jews like the Slonims, Vera's family, were in constant danger of inadvertently flouting one or other of the complicated, contradictory laws that controlled their rights, and, hence, of facing expulsion.

Life did not greatly improve when Vera escaped to Berlin and then to Paris with Nabokov. Their early years together were overshadowed by revolution and war, and even when they arrived in America, they did so as refugees. Until the publication of Lolita in 1955, the Nabokovs were chronically short of money, and moved from one rented apartment to another. Throughout her life, Vera never had a proper home of her own. In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that she chose to focus on the one fixed point in an unstable world, her joint project with her husband: the writer "Vladimir Nabokov". When this refuge was threatened by Nabokov's affair with Irina Guadanini, Vera dealt with the problem by ignoring it.

"She is convincing herself and me ... that you are a hallucination," Nabokov wrote gloomily to Irina. The tactic worked. There were no more serious disturbances to the Nabokovs' intense duet.

"The unravelling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind," wrote Nabokov. Stacy Schiff confesses that the materials available to solve the enigma of Vera are slender, not least because of her subject's personal reticence, and her insistence that she played no more than a marginal part in Nabokov's career. Schiff's solution is to leave no stone unturned, but the accumulation of detail tends to submerge rather than reveal her subject. Despite Schiff's impressive commentary, the woman who signed herself "Mrs Vladimir Nabokov" remains elusive. Which is, of course, exactly what Vera would have wanted.