After Vladimir Nabokov’s death in 1977, the novelist John Updike included the following praise of him (reprinted in Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov) in an obituary:
The power of the imagination is not apt soon to find another champion of such vigor. . . . He takes with him the secret of an undiscourageable creativity, he leaves behind a resplendent oeuvre.
Updike’s admiration of Nabokov’s work is one shared by many readers. Although he is best known for Lolita, his 1955 novel about the perverse Humbert Humbert’s love for a twelve-year-old girl, Nabokov wrote seventeen other novels, dozens of poems, essays, lectures on literature, and over fifty short stories. He stands today among the ranks of Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf as one of the twentieth-century’s foremost literary stylists.
‘‘That in Aleppo Once . . .’’ first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1943. It was included in the 1958 collection Nabokov’s Dozen. The story’s title is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello, in which the title character, through the machinations of the villainous Iago, becomes so jealous of his innocent wife that he eventually strangles her and kills himself. Like Othello, Nabokov’s story explores the issues of jealousy, marital fidelity, and the ways that a credulous mind is affected by one more crafty.
The story is like many other works by Nabokov, which demand careful reading (and rereading) to understand. Upon first glance, the story seems to be one of an innocent man whose wanton wife makes a fool of him through her adulterous affairs. However, the story, like the narrator’s wife, proves more elusive and the events of its plot more difficult to pin down upon closer examination. Nabokov demanded readers tolerate ambiguity and examine the ways in which ambiguity affects the narrator.
Nabokov’s story is written in the form of a letter from an unnamed narrator to V., his Russian expatriate friend living as a novelist in the United States. The narrator begins by telling V. that he has arrived in America. While in New York City, he fortuitously met a mutual friend of theirs (Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko), who provided V.’s address.
After fondly recalling their days as young, eager poets, the narrator begins telling the story of his doomed marriage—the real subject of his letter. He was married ‘‘a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris,’’ which occurred in 1940. However, the narrator claims that he is ‘‘positive’’ that his wife ‘‘never existed.’’ Her name is ‘‘the name of an illusion’’ and he is therefore able to speak of her with ‘‘as much detachment’’ as he would a character in a story. When he first met her, he felt no great emotions, but one night she said something ‘‘quaint’’ on a walk and he kissed her on the hair. Despite his recollection of this scene, she remains ‘‘nebulous’’ to him; he tells V. that he has great difficulty trying to imagine her face. She was younger than the narrator and the reader learns that she was initially attracted to his verse, although the narrator assumes that once she had penetrated the mysteries of his poetry, she found herself stuck with ‘‘a stranger’s unlovable face’’—his own.
The narrator reveals he had been planning to follow V.’s lead and move to the United States. His wife informs him that she has an uncle living in New York City. The couple writes a ‘‘passionate’’ letter that receives no reply. Meanwhile, the narrator has received an invitation to come to the United States from a fellow Russian living in Chicago. Although he has done little to secure the papers he needs to leave France, he knows that he has to begin the process, since the Germans have just invaded and he has written in one of his books that ‘‘Germany was bound to remain for ever and ever the laughing stock of the world.’’ Fearing that the German commanders will be shown the book by ‘‘some helpful...
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