A Revolver to Car­ry at Night

  • Review
By – April 29, 2024

Being in Vladimir Nabakov’s orbit seems to have been a lot like read­ing one of his books: he gave peo­ple the impres­sion that they had the full focus of the sun, and they left feel­ing that every­thing else was much duller by com­par­i­son. Sev­er­al books could be filled describ­ing Nabokov’s com­plex rela­tion­ships with, and his ulti­mate effect on, those clos­est to him: there is his lover, Iri­na, whom Nabokov ulti­mate­ly for­feits for the sake of his fam­i­ly; there is his son, Dmitri, who first takes up opera so as to be incom­pa­ra­ble with his father and lat­er inher­its his mother’s love of speed, which he believes to be a more attain­able goal; and there is Dmitri’s moth­er and Vladimir’s wife, Vera. After learn­ing about Vera Nabakov, one might find it fool­ish that Dmitri con­sid­ered his moth­er the safer par­ent to emulate.

Vera, Nabakov’s typ­ist, edi­tor, and de fac­to busi­ness man­ag­er, is the sub­ject of Moni­ka Zgustova’s slim new nov­el, A Revolver to Car­ry at Night. Rec­og­niz­ing ear­ly on her lack of raw cre­ative tal­ent, Vera decides to make her mark on world lit­er­a­ture by fine-tun­ing her bril­liant husband’s mas­ter­pieces. Yet Vera nev­er gives up her cre­ative instincts, and Zgus­to­va even sug­gests that her moti­va­tion in wield­ing it might not have always been in the pure ser­vice of art.

In the very first para­graph, we learn:

He rec­og­nized that when­ev­er he con­ferred a touch­ing detail from his own life on one of his char­ac­ters, it was quick­ly absorbed by the fic­tion­al world in which it had been uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly dropped. Even if it did stay with him, the warmth and charm it had enjoyed in his mem­o­ry began to dis­si­pate, until after a while it became more inti­mate­ly relat­ed to the nov­el than to his own experience.

Here, Nabokov is aware that by using mem­o­ries to pop­u­late a nov­el, he is dis­tanc­ing him­self from those mem­o­ries. Won­der­ful­ly, the scene shows Nabokov resist­ing this trans­fer of expe­ri­ence, unwill­ing to sac­ri­fice his most pre­cious mem­o­ries for the sake of his art. Per­suad­ing him to do so, as we will see, is Vera’s task.

As we dive into Nabokov’s mem­o­ries and the nov­els they inform, we learn about the rela­tion­ship between his life and his fic­tion, and we come to under­stand that a great por­tion of his best work was inspired by his extra­mar­i­tal affairs and friend­ships — in oth­er words, by his life with­out Vera. This is not a sto­ry of a wife against an extra­mar­i­tal affair, or even of a cre­ator against the things that will impede cre­ation. Rather, it is a sto­ry of the fric­tion between the two. While they dif­fer in foun­da­tion, they share the same goal: to make Vladimir Nabokov write books.

The read­er is left to decide whether Vera’s moti­va­tions are lit­er­ary, domes­tic, or some com­bi­na­tion of the two. She cer­tain­ly thinks they are lit­er­ary, but she also under­stands her husband’s cre­ative process­es well enough to sus­pect that his pen is a bet­ter way to clear his head of old dal­liances than the best of her jeal­ous guard­ing can be. Push­ing him to divulge his expe­ri­ence in writ­ing is a means, for Vera, of killing two birds with one stone: she gets to make her mark on the lit­er­ary world through her hus­band, and she gets to exor­cise the mem­o­ries of Vladimir’s oth­er lovers. 

Whether or not this inter­play of mem­o­ry, art, and moti­va­tion is his­tor­i­cal, Zgus­to­va makes it con­vinc­ing. In just one hun­dred and fifty pages and an array of qui­et scenes, she gives us a provoca­tive, psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of a remark­able woman and the man she helped to steer toward greatness.

Daniel H. Tur­tel is the author of the nov­els The Fam­i­ly Mor­fawitz and Greet­ings from Asbury Park, win­ner of the Faulkn­er Soci­ety Award for Best Nov­el. He grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in math­e­mat­ics and received an MFA from the New School. He now lives in New York City.

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