The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
edited by Dmitri Nabokov
Knopf. 659 pp. $35.00
Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first short story in 1921, when he was a twenty-two-yearold Russian émigré student at Cambridge University. Over the next two decades, living first in Berlin and later in Paris, he would produce, in Russian, a total of 55 stories. His first novel, Mary, appeared in 1926, and this longer narrative form soon became his primary vehicle. After his immigration to the United States in 1940, and his switch to English, he would write only ten new stories—though at least three of them are quite remarkable, and their publication in magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly played an important role in establishing his American reputation. After the 1950’s, he wrote no more stories.
It is good to have the complete stories, including thirteen Russian ones never before translated, in a single volume. The collection contains a half-dozen minor masterpieces and many other works that afford pleasures large and small, and some of which also illustrate the characteristic defects of Nabokov’s artistic virtues. Taken together, the stories highlight features of Nabokov’s vision of humanity that are often not kept sufficiently in view by critics of his novels.
Nabokov’s signature traits—the delight of his admirers, a perennial annoyance to his detractors—are inevitably on exhibit here. There are the wryly witty reimaginings of ordinary things, like this detail, circa 1940, of a shabby Parisian quarter: “the ceaseless Alpine gurgle of desolate latrines.” There is painterly, or cinematic, visualization: “In the dark of the night his starched shirtfront bulged like a whitish hump, and the flame of his cigar, like a ruby pinecone, illumined his small, wrinkled face from below.” There are delicately aestheticized images of the world: “In the soft flow of sunlight between two tongues of foliage midges circled like golden dust, and a bumblebee, entangled in the heavy lacework of a fern, already buzzed with a more reserved, evening tone.” The last two examples are both from “La Veneziana,” a brilliant 1924 story, unpublished in the author’s lifetime, that was Nabokov’s real breakthrough, in which he fully discovered his characteristic themes of the ambiguous relation between art and reality, and passion and sexual betrayal.
Also on display in quite a few of the stories is Nabokov the supremely inventive gamesman. There are cunning tricks of visual and temporal perspective, slippery narrators who turn out to be different from what they first appear, ploys of allusion and jugglings of letters, sounds, and words, culminating in the famous last paragraph of the late story, “The Vane Sisters,” which encodes an acrostic message to the narrator and reader. But these elements are rather less common than one might have expected. If some of the early stories can be faulted for excessive contrivance, a good many more can be faulted on other grounds, as slices of life insufficiently transmuted into art—bleak little fragments of the dreariness and quiet desperation of émigré existence, or bitter indictments of the totalitarian spirit.
What emerges, in fact, from a reading of the collected stories is that Nabokov’s overriding concern as a writer is not technical cleverness, or even the paradoxes of artifice and art, but rather pain, loss, and loneliness. From the beginning of his career, his great undertaking was to evoke pathos without sentimentality, and his celebrated techniques of “defamiliarization” are to a large extent an effort to achieve precisely that end. One can see this, for example, in the accelerated deadpan report on the fate of the heroine of “A Russian Beauty,” who flees her homeland in 1919:
Everything happened in full accord with the style of the period. Her mother died of typhus, her brother was executed by a firing-squad. All these are readymade formulae, of course, the usual dreary small talk, but, it all did happen, there is no other way of saying it, and it’s no use turning up your nose.
As the central figure of the story “Lik” reflects about himself, the typical Nabokov protagonist is someone “condemned to live on the outskirts of life.” These characters tend to be bumbling, inept, well-meaning, sometimes harboring a great ambition they will never realize, very often having been granted the fleeting, frustrating fulfillment—or only the ardent dream—of a consuming love whose object they lose forever through betrayal or death. The painful fate of Luzhin in The Defense (1930), of Pnin in Pnin (1957), even of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1955) is adumbrated in many of these tales of tender-minded, passionately loving losers. And if in them Nabokov’s technical impulse to reinvent narrative conventions is a defense against effusive feeling, it is at the same time a means of bringing the anguish and isolation of his protagonists into sharper focus.
The loss of something surpassingly precious—a place, a landscape, a person—is the fundamental experience of Nabokov’s world, and the source of its peculiar poignancy. The wrenching displacement of exile that he himself underwent is not, I think, the origin of this underlying perspective, but rather a kind of politically and geographically magnified model for it. “We transformed everything we saw,” remarks the narrator of “The Admiralty Spire,”
into monuments to our still nonexistent past by trying to look at a garden path, at the moon, at the weeping willows, with the same eyes with which now—when fully conscious of irreparable losses—we might have looked at that old, waterlogged raft on the pond, at the moon above the black cowshed.
In Nabokov’s treatment, the experience of emigration is never a unique case for special pleading or self-pity but instead a broad-scale instance of what is, after all, the universal human condition—that we become passionately attached to things we inevitably lose.
In this perspective of ineluctable pain, art becomes the supreme instrument of memory, a kind of fixative for that terrible flux of life which sweeps away from us everything we love (as Nabokov would luminously affirm in Speak, Memory , the book that, after Lolita, may be his finest achievement). The climactic revelation that comes to the protagonist at the end of “The Circle” is the one toward which all of Nabokov’s narrative artistry drives: “Suddenly Innokentiy grasped a wonderful fact: nothing is lost, nothing whatever; memory accumulates treasures, stored-up secrets grow in darkness and dusk.” In the end, the profuse technical virtuosity of Nabokov’s fiction is actuated by a desire to compensate for the inevitability of loss by making memory yield up its treasures, by vividly realizing the world in words: a puddle in a gutter, a street lamp in fog, a butcher-shop window, the delicate curve of a lovely woman’s neck.
“When I want to imagine her,” the émigré narrator of “That in Aleppo Once . . .” says of his desperately beloved, irrevocably vanished wife, “I have to cling mentally to a tiny brown birthmark on her downy arm, as one concentrates upon a punctuation mark in an illegible sentence.” This telescoping of a desired body and person with a printed text is characteristic of Nabokov, with his hyperconsciousness of the formal medium through which he represents the world. But what is equally Nabokovian is the focusing on a concrete image in order to hang on to some vestige of love lost. These twin impulses in his writing explain much of its paradoxical fusion of crystalline artifice and poignant feeling.