A Questionnaire for the Immodest and Curious: Clever Puzzles, Riddles, and Word Games from Nabokov’s Love Letters to His Wife
By Maria Popova
Despite his enormous intellectual and creative achievements, Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) considered one private event the most significant of his life: meeting 21-year-old Véra Slonim in 1923. For the remaining half-century of his life, she became not only his beloved wife but also one of creative history’s greatest unsung heroes, acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.
Found in Letters to Véra (public library) — that spectacular collection of Nabokov’s passionate love letters to his wife, which also gave us literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning and was among the best biographies of 2014 — are a number of riddles, quizzes, and word puzzles the young author devised and included in his missives to Véra in the summer of 1926 as she was recovering from illness at a sanatorium in Germany. Their existence is a testament to the many dimensions of great love — intense passion coupled with creative communion, intellectual stimulation, and a shared capacity for delight.
Since the couple corresponded in Russian, most of the word riddles and crossword puzzles are hard to appreciate in English and require transliteration to grasp Nabokov’s almost mathematical genius of language. But in a letter from mid-July of that year — which he ends with his characteristic epistolary fervor: “Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.” — 27-year-old Nabokov includes this universally delightful hand-drawn visual riddle:
You must find in this person:
- another face
- a mouse
- a bunny
- a chick
- a pony
- Mrs. Tufty in a new hat
- a little monkey
In another letter from early July, he offers the following list of words for a riddle:
Riddle in transliteration:
Lomota, igumen, tetka, Kolya, Maron, versifikator, Leta, chugun, tropinka, landysh, Ipokrena
Riddle in English:
Aching, abbot, aunt, Kolya, Maro, versifier, Lethe, cast iron, little path, lily of the valley, Hippokrene
He then gives the following instruction:
Make ten new words out of the syllables of the words above, with these meanings:
- A place where science meets ignorance
- an engine
- a city in Russia
- a historic personage
- a good woman
- a part of a cart
- beatitude of the diaphragm
- the first architect (see the Bible)
- a lazybones
- a woman’s name
In a testament to what a perfect intellectual match Véra Nabokov was for her brilliant husband, Penguin editor Gennady Barbtarlo writes:
With few exceptions, Véra Nabokov seems to have solved them all by return post.
But what posed little trouble for [her] in 1926, who likely had no reference books to consult, proved quite a challenge to his beGoogled editors next century. it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.
Barbtarlo and his team offer the following solution to the riddle:
Answers in transliteration:
Answers in English
- pole [of a carriage]
But the most delightful of all is a “questionnaire for the immodest and curious” Nabokov sent in a letter from mid-July — a kind of personality test partway between the famous Proust Questionnaire of the late 19th century and the chain-email quizzes of the early 21st century:
A questionnaire for the immodest and curious
(not obligatory for anyone)
- Name, patronymic, last name
- Pen-name, or a preferred pen-name
- Age and preferred age
- Attitude to marriage
- Attitude to children
- Profession and preferred profession
- What century would you like to live in?
- What city would you like to live in?
- From what age do you remember yourself and your first memory?
- Which of the existing religions is closest to your world-view?
- What kind of literature do you like the most? What literary genre?
- Your favorite books
- Your favorite art
- Your favorite artwork
- Your attitude to technology
- Do you appreciate philosophy? As a form of scholarship, as a pastime
- Do you believe in progress?
- Your favorite aphorism
- Your favorite language
- On what foundations does the world stand?
- What miracle would you perform if you had a chance?
- What would you do if you suddenly got a lot of money?
- Your attitude to modern woman
- Your attitude to modern man
- What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a woman?
- What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a man?
- What gives you the keenest pleasure?
- What gives you the keenest suffering?
- Are you a jealous person?
- Your attitude to lies
- Do you believe in love?
- Your attitude to drugs
- Your most memorable dream
- Do you believe in fate and predestination?
- Your next reincarnation?
- Are you afraid of death?
- Would you like man to become immortal?
- Your attitude to suicide:
- Are you an anti-Semite? Yes. No. Why?
- “Do you like cheese”?
- Your favorite mode of transportation
- Your attitude to solitude
- Your attitude to our circle
- Think of a name for it
- Favorite menu
That Véra’s response is not included in the otherwise delicious Letters to Véra is a pity but understandable — some of the non-binary questions, like those about attitude to suicide, solitude, marriage, and immortality, would take any sensitive and intelligent person thousands of words and many hours to answer with the appropriate nuance. Still, one can’t help fantasizing about both Véra’s answers and the prospect of deploying this questionnaire on some of the most fascinating minds of our time.
Complement with Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, then revisit the celebrated author on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, the attributes of a good reader, and the story of what his butterfly studies reveal about the nature of creativity.
Published April 16, 2015