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,...
(The entire section is 2,632 words.)