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The Poem With Which Nabokov Won Over the Love of His Life


Vladimir Nabokov wrote this poem just hours after meeting the woman who would become his wife and editor for more than 50 years.

In May 1923 a fancy dress party for immigrants was held in which a pair of young Russians met, exchanged a few impressions about Berlin, and possibly about the harlequin’s mask that she was wearing, before cordially bidding each other farewell at the end of the evening. No surprises so far. But this however was one of the most defining encounters in the lives of Vladimir Nabokov and Vera Slonim, who were aged 24 and 21 respectively.

The young Vladimir was going through a difficult time after the death of his father and his first great relationship rupture; perhaps it is that darkness that dissipates in the poem when the mysterious masked girl appeared. She recited a poem by Nabokov from memory, published a few months earlier in a liberal Russian newspaper and which had bewitched her.

It was still not love, neither pure or full of sexual desire: In this poem Nabokov creates a delicate miniature in which he not only documents the encounter with Vera but also achieves the creation of a kind of invitation, rather like – and excuse the image – an alien saying “I come in peace,” perhaps aware of the violence (feared but to a certain extent inevitable) that implies assuming the amorous feelings of another. Love, desire or simple curiosity are not set out as a conquest or discovery, nor as a challenge or a dispute: in the final images, the young Vladimir trusts in the movement of the planets (“revolution”) and simply hopes to know the girl in the harlequin’s mask.

The encounter between the future Mr and Mrs Nabokov would result in their wedding two months later, and they would remain together for half a century until death separated them. It is said that Vera put her hands in the fire, literally, when on a sunny spring afternoon Vladimir threw the manuscript of Lolita into the coals. And that is surely not the only time she saved his life.


enchanted by this strange proximity

Longing, and mystery, and delight…
as if from the swaying blackness
of some slow-motion masquerade
onto the dim bridge you came.

And night flowed, and silent there floated
into its satin streams
that black mask’s wolf-like profile
and those tender lips of yours.

And under the chestnuts, along the canal
you passed, luring me askance.
What did my heart discern in you,
how did you move me so?

In your momentary tenderness,
or in the changing contour of your shoulders,
did I experience a dim sketch
of other — irrevocable — encounters?

Perhaps romantic pity
led you to understand
what had set trembling that arrow
now piercing through my verse?

I know nothing. Strangely
the verse vibrates, and in it, an arrow…
Perhaps you, still nameless, were
the genuine, the awaited one?

But sorrow not yet quite cried out
perturbed our starry hour.
Into the night returned the double fissure
of your eyes, eyes not yet illumed.

For long? For ever? Far off
I wander, and strain to hear
the movement of the stars above our encounter
and what if you are to be my fate…

Longing, and mystery, and delight,
and like a distant supplication….
My heart must travel on.
But if you are to be my fate…

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