Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Nabokov uses a variety of literary devices in this story. Most obvious to the reader is the first-person “confessional” narrative, seen in several other Nabokov works, notably Lolita (1958), and Pale Fire (1962). In “That in Aleppo Once,” this device allows the author to express his own opinions without signing his name. Thus, when the narrator recalls “With all her many black sins, Germany was still bound to remain forever and ever the laughing stock of the world,” it is really Nabokov expressing his contempt.

The title is an innovative example of foreshadowing: Readers familiar with Othello will recognize the line as a symbol of the impending death of a man whose illusions have overtaken him.

The narrator, being a poet, has a natural tendency to write in a descriptive manner, and, although he claims he is not a poet just now, he manages to slip in several rhymes and poetic allusions. The repetition and variation on certain themes, such as the loss of love and the embankment, seem like stanzas of a long, complex poem. In the middle of the story, when the narrator finds that his wife has gone with all of her belongings but has left a rose on the table, the narrator (and the astute reader) see this as what French rhymesters call une cheville—a word used to maintain the meter in a line of poetry.

In using so many literary devices and allusions, Nabokov is asking his readers to be as well educated as he. Without a knowledge of Othello, for example, the reader will miss the references throughout to that play, which reinforce the title’s meaning. Furthermore, without a knowledge of some French, Russian, and historical background, the reader is equally blocked. Perhaps Nabokov’s message, therefore, is that all of life depends on interwoven pieces and chance occurrences, and the more one knows, the better one can understand—and prevent—tragedy.