Vladimir Nabokov Short Fiction Analysis
Vladimir Nabokov’s early stories are set in the post-czarist, post-World War I era, with Germany the usual location, and sensitive, exiled Russian men the usual protagonists. Many are nascent artists: wistful, sorrowful, solitary, sometimes despairingly disheartened. Many evoke a Proustian recollection of their Russian pasts as they try, and often as not fail, to understand an existence filled with irony, absurdity, and fortuity. These tales display Nabokov’s abiding fascination with the interplay between reality and fantasy, between an outer world of tangs, scents, rain showers, sunsets, dawns, butterflies, flowers, forests, and urban asphalt, and an inner landscape of recondite, impenetrable, mysterious feelings. He loved to mix the disheveled externals of precisely described furnishings, trappings, and drab minutiae with memories, myths, fantasy, parody, grandeur, hilarity, masks, nostalgia, and, above all, the magic of artistic illusion. He celebrates the unpredictable permutations of the individual imagination over the massive constraints of the twentieth century’s sad history. He is the supreme stylist, dedicated to forging his vision in the most dazzling verbal smithy since James Joyce’s.
One of his first stories, “Britva” (“The Razor”), is a clever adaptation of motifs used in Nikolai Gogol’s “Nos” (“The Nose”) and Pushkin’s “Vystrel” (“The Shot”). A White Russian émigré, Colonel Ivanov, now a barber in Berlin, recognizes a customer as the Red officer who had condemned him to death six years before. He toys with his victim, terrorizing him with caustic, cruel remarks, comparing his open razor to the sharp end of a sword, inverting the menace of their previous confrontation in Russia. Yet he shaves his former captor gently and carefully and finally releases him unharmed. By doing so, Ivanov also releases himself from his burning desire for vengeance. Nabokov uses the multivalent symbol of the razor compactly and densely: The acerbic Ivanov both sharpens and encases his razorlike temperament.
In “Zvonok” (“The Doorbell”), Nabokov delineates a tragic encounter between past and present in a complex tale fusing realism and symbolism. A son, Galatov, has been separated from his mother for seven years, during which time he has fought in the post-1917 Russian Civil War and wandered over Africa, Europe, and the Canary Islands. He learns that his mother’s second husband has died and left her some real estate in Berlin. He searches for his mother there, meets her dentist, and through him obtains her address. Structurally, Galatov’s visits to the dentist, a Dr. Weiner, anticipate his reunion with his mother: This Weiner is not Galatov’s childhood dentist, yet he does happen to be his mother’s. When Galatov finally meets his mother, he learns that she, too, is not the mother of his childhood: He meets, in the Berlin apartment, not the faded, dark-haired woman he left seven years earlier but an aged courtesan awaiting the arrival of a lover who is three years younger than her son. Galatov realizes that her fervent greeting of him had been intended for her paramour. When the doorbell announces the latter’s arrival, Galatov learns, observing his mother’s distraction and nervousness, that her new déclassé circumstances leave no room for him. He hurriedly departs, vaguely promising to see her again in a year or thereabouts. He knows now that not only has the mistress supplanted the mother but also his mother may never have cherished him as dearly as his previous need for her had deluded him into believing. The story’s structural symmetry between memory and new reality is impressively achieved.
“A Matter of Chance”
“Sluchainost” (“A Matter of Chance”) is one of Nabokov’s most poignant tales. Its protagonist, Aleksey Luzhin—whose surname reappears five years later as that of the hero of The Defense—is a Russian exile who, like Galatov, has traveled to many places and worked many jobs. Currently, he is a waiter on a German train; having had no news of his wife, Elena, for five years, he is deeply depressed and has become addicted to cocaine. He plans his suicide for the night of August 1, the ninth anniversary of his wedding and the day of this story. On this particular trip, an old Russian princess, Maria Ukhtomski, is joined in her compartment by a young woman who arrived in Berlin from St. Petersburg the previous day, Elena Luzhina, who is seeking her lost husband. The story’s rising action is full of suspense: Will the unsuspecting spouses find each other on the train? Luzhin sniffs cocaine in the toilet, on the day he has resolved to make his last. The princess has known the Luzhin family and recalls its former aristocratic opulence. Ironically, when the now plebeian Luzhin announces the first seating for dinner, his cocaine-rotted mind can only dimly note the princess; he cannot connect her to his elegant past.
The links between the two plots never interlock. Elena, disturbed by a rudely aggressive fellow passenger, decides to forgo the dinner in the dining car where she would probably have met her husband. She loses her prized golden wedding ring in the vestibule of the train’s wagon; it is discovered by another waiter as Luzhin leaves the wagon and jumps to his death before another train: “The locomotive came at him in one hungry bound.” Missed chances abound—perhaps too many: Nabokov’s uses of coincidence and his insistence of the malignity of haphazard events strain credulity.
Perhaps Nabokov’s most accomplished story of the 1920’s is “Podlets” (“The Scoundrel,” retitled by the author “An Affair of Honor” for its English publication). In his foreword to the English translation, Nabokov explains that “’An Affair of Honor’ renders, in a drab expatriate setting, the degradation of a romantic theme whose decline had started with Chekhov’s magnificent story ‘The Duel’ (1891).” Nabokov situates the duel within the traditional love triangle. The husband, an affluent banker named Anton Petrovich, returns home early from a business trip to find an arrogant acquaintance, Berg, nonchalantly getting dressed in his bedroom while his wife, Tanya, whom the reader never sees, is taking an interminable bath. Anton Petrovich challenges Berg to a duel....
(The entire section is 2632 words.)