The publication of this extensive collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov represents a singular pleasure for the admirer of Nabokov’s work. Not only does the collection gather together fifty-two stories that were published in four separate volumes long out of print, but it also contains several stories (primarily from Nabokov’s earliest years as a prose writer) that have not been readily accessible to Nabokov’s readers. With the collection in hand, one can clearly see the many ways in which Nabokov’s artistic talent grew and evolved over the first half of his career, before he attained widespread fame with the publication ofLolita in 1955. Critics have often noted that Nabokov was fond of reworking favorite themes and images, finding ever-new combinations and patterns to present to his readers. This collection offers a fresh view of the unique “combinational delight” to be found in Nabokov’s fiction.
Nabokov entered literature as a poet, and some of his early stories reflect what he later identified in Poems and Problems (1970) as “Byzantine imagery”—the presence of angels, spirits, and the like in his work. Indeed, one is struck by how many supernatural beings populate the pages of Nabokov’s earliest stories: a wood sprite expresses his dismay over the loss of Russia to the narrator of the first work in the collection (“The Wood-Sprite”); a strange, shaggy angel of the Alps takes cruel revenge on a woman in “Wingstroke”; the majestic “Thunder-god” Elijah descends to earth to retrieve a lost chariot wheel in “The Thunderstorm;” and the devil, incarnated as a tall, heavy, middle-aged woman, tries unsuccessfully to help a timid German collect a fabulous harem in fulfillment of his erotic aspirations (“A Nursery Tale”).
In later years, such beings disappear from Nabokov’s work, but not because he had lost all interest in the supernatural. On the contrary, he merely discarded its conventional trappings. In his mature work, beginning with the novel The Defense (1964) to Transparent Things(1972), the spirits of those no longer alive can be felt behind the scenes. His work suggests that such spirits retain an interest in the affairs of the persons they have left behind and perhaps can even have a subtle influence on their fate. In one of the last stories of this collection, “The Vane Sisters,” Nabokov demonstrates the power of the departed to affect the living by having his narrator unwittingly encode an acrostic message from two dead sisters in the last paragraph of his tale.
This concern with the power of the dead to affect the living reflects a more profound preoccupation on Nabokov’s part—his awareness of the cruel reality of loss, parting, and death in human experience. Throughout the collection, but particularly in the works written in the 1920’s, one finds Nabokov returning to the theme of sudden death and untimely parting. One recalls that after losing his beloved Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Nabokov was faced with an even more devastating loss in 1922—the murder of his father by a man seeking revenge for the end of the Russian imperial dynasty. Transmuting his grief into his fiction, Nabokov presents a gallery of individuals who struggle desperately to overcome the pain of their personal losses.
Some, such as protagonists of “Wingstroke,” “A Matter of Chance,” and “Christmas,” are so overwhelmed by tragedies that they contemplate or commit suicide, while others, such as the title character of “The Return of Chorb,” strive for imaginative defenses against the specter of isolation and oblivion. After the sudden death of his wife by electrocution, Chorb retraces the path of their honeymoon, trying to “gather all the little things they had noticed together” in the hope that through this process “her image would grow immortal and replace her forever.” The success of Chorb’s quest, however, remains questionable at the end of the tale, and the intense self- absorption he displays throughout the work casts doubt on the validity of his method of reanimating the past.
A more stunning articulation of the human potential for survival and transcendence occurs in the brief sketch “Christmas.” Sleptsov, the protagonist, is devastated by the sudden death of his son, and he decides to kill himself on Christmas Day. As he contemplates some of his dead child’s most cherished belongings, however, he is startled by a strange sound—the cracking of a cocoon that his son, an amateur lepidopterist, had bought some months earlier but that was assumed merely to contain a dead chrysalid. Out of the cocoon comes a great moth. As its wings “miraculously” expand, they seem to take “a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human...
(The entire section is 1972 words.)