Véra & Vladimir: On Love Letters

…all lovers live on partial language
— Teju Cole, Open City

mensah headerI wonder, when I’m writing you, if the love letters are less classic, less “timeless” because the missives are digital. We live in the same city, same borough, making snail mail superfluous in the “I’m trying too hard to impress you, court you, make you swoon” way. But even if many miles separated us, if—say—we had to do more than board a subway train, I would still wonder the same thing, ponder the question of love letters’ longevity when written via email. With a press of a button, our personal literature could be wiped away. Perhaps that’s what worries me more, the ephemerality of love—but that’s another story.

On the subway train, on the way to you, I pulled out my iPhone 6—a distinction I must make, instead of saying “my smartphone” or “my iPhone”, because I love my iPhone 6 in many inappropriate ways—and read, via Pocket, an article on the love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, written to his wife Véra. I cannot resist reading the love letters between famous artists and their lovers, or between artists equally famous, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

It speaks to my desire to be a part of a creative couple. You know this. We’ve talked about it many times over Dominican food in Park Slope, or Mexican fusion in Fort Greene. I don’t know how to get there, how to do it, how to be a part of a coupling above barely functional, and neither did these famous artists; who knew Vladimir had a mistress? In any event, we try. We continue to try. We will succeed, I believe.

But what will become of our love letters? Maybe we’ll become famous artists too or, at best, internet famous, and—how will our letters be anthologized? Will they be accessible at all? When the revolution comes and the nuclear missiles fly, or when the aliens come and blast us all away with beam rays, will the gmail servers survive?

Anyway, I read about Vladimir and Véra. I read as I swayed back and forth inside the subway train, traveling through that netherworld between Manhattan and Brooklyn. In a future love letter, I’ll tell you more about my brief literary affair with Nabokov, triggered by his short story “Symbols and Signs,” still one of my favorites pieces of fiction.

Until then, I’ll say that Vladimir could be tedious. So tedious. Véra convalesced at a sanatorium for depression and anxiety, and received these letters from her husband, letters meant to cheer her up. And his language, his command of description, of detail, was stunning, but tedious. Heavy-handed. Boring, maybe? I promise to never write love letters like that to you.

I wonder, when I’m writing you, why I do it. What is the purpose of a love letter in the 21st  century when a phone call, or an emoji, will do? You know how I feel; I tell you in person, through words, through actions, through emojis, and I could cop out and say “I’m a writer and this is my best mode of expression,” yes.

Yet, I guess, to write a love letter is to be selfless. It is an archive of love, attempted. It is saying “I tried. we tried.” Sex can be denied. Children, too, to a point—Maury will always have the final answer. But to write “I love you”, to document the declaration, is an eternally permanent record; the revolution and alien invasions can’t wipe it off the planet, even if the gmail servers are destroyed. I wrote it. You know it. I know it. It has happened.

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