Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972
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 happiness.” All is not lost; the spirit of Sleptsov’s child lives on in the astonishing emergence of this fabulous moth.
Nabokov’s fiction also looks to more mundane moments to assert a belief in the basic goodness and beauty of life. Writing to a former love in Russia, the narrator of “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” avidly records his impressions of a Berlin nightscape, and he declares that even though he himself will someday die, his happiness will remain “in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.” The narrator of the sketch “Beneficence” makes a similar discovery. Although the woman he loves has jilted him and will not appear for an expected rendezvous, he takes comfort in the sight of an old woman receiving and reciprocating an act of kindness. In one of the most optimistic declarations to be found in Nabokov’s fiction, he proclaims:
Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation. . . . I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed on us and unappreciated.
Nabokov populated his stories with a memorable cast of characters, from modest dreamers to callous egotists. Particularly distinctive are those who see the world around them transformed, whether this transforming vision arises from trauma (“Details of a Sunset”), illness (“Terra Incognita”), or more enigmatic, even fantastic causes. The narrator of “The Visit to the Museum,” for example, enters a museum in France, only to exit it onto the streets of Leningrad. Even more intriguing is the story “Ultima Thule,” which features a character who claims to have “accidentally solved ‘the riddle of the universe.’” Nabokov’s suggestive prose indicates that this claim might just be true, at least for this fictional denizen of a fictional universe.
Several of these visionary characters share an important feature with their creator: They are artists or writers. The theme of art, and particularly of the self-conscious intentionality that goes into the fiction-making process, became increasingly prominent over the course of Nabokov’s career. In “A Guide to Berlin,” the narrator explains that “the sense of literary creation” is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times.” In “The Passenger,” a writer and a critic contrast the inventive genius of a writer’s plots with those of life itself. Finally, in “Recruiting,” Nabokov’s narrator reveals the secret of his creative conjury: After spinning out a touching tale about the lonely life of an elderly man, he discloses in the end that the entire story is a fiction projected onto the figure of an unknown person sitting on a park bench. These stories serve as something like a preliminary sketchbook for the complex novels Nabokov fashioned as he matured as a novelist, novels such as The Gift and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
When one surveys the entire span of Nabokov’s short fiction, a palpable development can be discerned in the writer’s art. Some of the earliest stories (such as “Revenge”) are reminiscent of the work of O. Henry, Théophile Gautier, or Edgar Allan Poe; they are built around a central suspenseful anecdote, with a sudden plot twist (often macabre) coming at the end of the tale. Gradually, this type of work is supplemented by sketches with a more lyrical, poetic density which reminds one of the work of Anton Chekhov or Ivan Bunin (“Sounds” is a good example of this). These works testify to the writer’s acute powers of observation and description. The texture of a young woman’s skin, the complex play of light on the surface of someone’s eye, the fresh way that everyday scenes and situations come alive when apprehended by the master’s vision: All of these carry the unmistakable hallmarks of Nabokov’s gifts.
It his mature works, however, that reveal a genius that is absolutely unique: They are multilayered, resonant, and cunningly rich. “Lips to Lips,” for example, is on the surface a simple tale of an aging man’s vain desire to win distinction as a writer. Yet while the story delicately evokes the lonely man’s quest “not for fame, but simply for some warmth and heed on the part of readerdom,” it manages both to satirize literary banality (in the trite formulas of the old man’s writing) and to settle long-standing scores with some of Nabokov’s adversaries from the ranks of contemporary Russian critics.
Examining Nabokov’s finest achievements in the short-story form (such as “Signs and Symbols”), one can only be impressed by the way he elevates earlier themes and devices to an entirely new level of complexity. The suspense of a ringing bell in the sketch entitled “The Doorbell” reappears in “Signs and Symbols” as the excruciating tension of a series of telephone calls, but with much more powerful and disturbing implications. As the elderly parents of a suicidal boy anticipate in fear the possibility of a call from the hospital informing them that their son is dead, the telephone rings twice. In both cases, it is a wrong number. The telephone then rings for the third time, and before the old woman can answer it, the narrative comes to an end. Is it again a wrong number? Or is it the dreaded call from the hospital? Here Nabokov implicates the reader in the boy’s affliction, which has been labeled “referential mania”—the delusion that everything happening around oneself is a veiled reference to one’s own personality and existence. Trying to guess what the call will mean to the parents, the reader becomes caught up in the meaning-making process too. In fact, at this moment the reader becomes something akin to a coauthor: Depending on what meaning one assigns to the telephone call, the reader may either spare the parents the cruel certainty of the child’s death or, on the contrary, confirm that very certainty. Ironically, Nabokov’s description of the child’s suffering may make the latter choice the more merciful one, for as the writer puts it, what the boy really wants to do is “to tear a hole in his world and escape.”
The final blow never comes, however, and this suspension of likely death resonates with compassion on the part of the author. This work represents a high point of Nabokov’s accomplishments as a short-story artist. While some of the later stories seem marred by a certain diffuseness or lack of focus, the subtle power and intensity of works such as “Signs and Symbols” earn for them a place next to Nabokov’s more famous achievements in the novel form.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, September 1, 1995, p. 6.
Library Journal. CXX, September 15, 1995, p. 96.
The New Republic. CCXIII, November 20, 1995, p. 42.
The New York Times. October 20, 1995, p. C35.
The New York Times Book Review. C, October 29, 1995, p. 7.
The New Yorker. LXXI, December 4, 1995, p. 108.
Newsweek. CXXVI, November 6, 1995, p. 90.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, September 4, 1995, p. 46.
Time. CXLVI, October 30, 1995, p. 40.
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