Even when I was 11, I remember finding Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith’s follow-up novel to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a little treacly for my taste. It was about a young couple, newly married and in love, and there was a fair amount of implied sex, so you’d think I’d have liked it. But the part that stuck with me was the starry-eyed wife’s desire to hold her husband’s pens for him while he studied for his law school quiz, “like Dora in David Copperfield.” I may have been an unformed little thing, but my mom was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine and I didn’t need anyone to point out the cringeworthy subservience there. I knew, even back then, that I was never going to get stuck holding some guy’s pens, or anything else, for him.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know anything about Véra Nabokov, or I might have had to rethink that. There was nothing cringing or subservient about her, yet she put her own career aside in order to support Vladimir—she was his first reader, his typist, his agent, and his chauffeur. And I couldn’t tell you if that was enough, but who’s to say it wasn’t?
Flavorwire has put together a slide show of Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, most of them as inscriptions on the title pages of his books: “for Véra,” in his impeccable Old World handwriting. The drawings have something of a butterfly’s translucence to them, elegant little doodles by a true Renaissance man. Who knows what compromises lie behind the deals partners make with each other when it comes to work and support? Ideals are good, setting them in stone maybe less so. I wouldn’t trade a lifetime of creative potential for a shelf full of butterfly drawings, but it’s also good to remember that faith in the talent of loved ones is not easily misplaced. And Nabokov’s butterflies are really something.