Vladimir Nabokov’s (born April 22, 1899 — July 2, 1977) 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 Anton 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. He pulls off his new glove and tries to throw it at Berg. Instead, it “slapped against the wall and dropped into the washstand pitcher.” The ludicrous failure of Anton Petrovich’s challenge sets the farcical, burlesque tone for the tale.
Anton Petrovich is a loving, tender, hardworking, amiable fellow whose major fault—abject cowardice—becomes his undoing. Anton Chekhov would have treated him gently and compassionately; Nabokov handles him disdainfully and absurdly, emphasizing his fondness for his shiny fountain pen, expensive shoes and socks, and monocle which “would gleam like a foolish eye on his belly.” A duel is arranged but does not actually take place. Anton Petrovich, who has never fired a weapon, shakes with increasing fear at the prospect of confronting a former White Army officer who boasts of having killed hundreds. Before entering the woods where the combat is to occur, he and his caricatured seconds stop at a tavern for a round of beers. Anton Petrovich thereupon runs into the bar’s backyard, slides and slips ridiculously down a slope, stumbles his way back to a train, and thence rides back to Berlin. He fantasizes that his craven flight will have been overshadowed by Berg’s even earlier change of mind about dueling and that his wife will leave Berg and return to him, filled with love, delighted to satisfy him with an enormous ham sandwich.
Abruptly, Anton Petrovich awakens from his fiction. “Such things don’t happen in real life,” he reflects. He realizes that his reputation, his career, and his marriage are now ruined. He orders a ham sandwich and, animalistically, “grabbed the sandwich with both hands, immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging margin of fat, and grunting greedily, began to munch.” Nabokov has here begun to command the art of grotesquerie, precisely observed, relentlessly rendered, contemptuously concluded. Anton Petrovich would serve as a model for Albinus Kretschmar, cuckolded lover and failed artist in the novel Kamera obskura (1932; Camera Obscura, 1936; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938). Kretschmar in turn is a prototype for Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.
The Admiralty Spire
An amusing as well as saddening early exercise in playing mirror games, which were to become more and more convoluted in Nabokov’s fiction, is his 1933 story “Admiralteyskaya Igla” (“The Admiralty Spire”). Its narrator addresses a trashy Soviet female writer who uses the pseudonymous male name Sergey Solntsev. He asserts that her cheap romantic novel, The Admiralty Spire, is a vulgar version of his first love affair, sixteen years earlier, with a young woman named Katya, whom the writer has renamed Olga. He accuses her of “pretentious fabrication” and of having “encroached with astonishing insolence on another person’s past!” The letter proceeds to lecture the writer on the correct, nostalgic use of the sentimental past, but in the process of recall, the writer admits his distaste for Katya’s “mendacity, her presumption, her vacuity” and deplores her “myopic soul” and the “triviality ofAnalysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Stories
[her] opinions.” He did, however, once love her. The narrator ends with the speculation that the mediocre novelist he is addressing is probably Katya herself, “who, out of silly coquetry, has concocted a worthless book.” He hopes against the odds that his presumption is erroneous. The atmosphere of overlapping dimensions of reality established here was to be splendidly employed in such later novels as Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor.
Cloud, Castle, Lake
In “Oblako, ozero, bashnya” (“Cloud, Castle, Lake”), the protagonist, a timid, intellectual bachelor, Vasili Ivanovich, wins a pleasure trip at a charity ball for Russian expatriates in Berlin. He is the kind, meek, saintly soul familiar in Russian literature since Gogol’s stories. He does not really want to take the journey but is intimidated by bureaucratic mazes into doing so. Obstacles thwart him persistently: Trying to settle down with a volume of Russian poetry, Vasili is instead bullied by a squadron of husky German fellow travelers, with monstrous knapsacks and hobnailed boots, into forced communal games that prove witless and humiliating. When the group pairs off, no one wants to romance him: He is designated “the loser and was forced to eat a cigarette butt.” Unexpectedly, they come upon “a pure, blue lake,” reflecting a large cloud and adjoining “an ancient, black castle.” Overjoyed, Vasili wishes to surrender to the beautiful prospect and remain the rest of his life in the inn from which he can delight in this tableau. Unfortunately for Vasili, the group insists on dragging him back and beats him furiously during the return journey.
The tale is manifestly an allegory mourning the defeat of individuality and privacy in an ugly world determined to enforce total conformity. “Oh, but this is nothing less than an invitation to a beheading,” protests Vasili as the group grimly denies him his room with a view. By no accident, Nabokov would soon write his novel, Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938, 1935-1936; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959), whose main character, Cincinnatus C., is condemned to death for not fitting into a totalitarian culture. Nabokov may have occasionally presented himself as an arrogant, coldhearted puppeteer lacking any world-mending concerns, but he does clearly condemn all cultures of regimentation and authoritarianism.
Spring in Fialta
“Vesna v Fialte” (“Spring in Fialta”) was to become the title work of a collection of Nabokov’s short stories; some critics regard it as the masterpiece among his stories, although others prefer “Signs and Symbols.” The narrator of “Spring in Fialta,” Victor, is a Russian émigré businessman who, over the course of fifteen years, has had sporadic meetings with a charmingly casual, pretty, vital woman named Nina. These encounters are sometimes sexual but never last more than a few hours and occur outside their continuing lives and separate marriages. “Again and again,” Victor notes, “she hurriedly appeared in the margin of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text.” So, at least, he believes. He has his respectably bourgeois world “in which I sat for my portrait, with my wife, my young daughters, the Doberman pinscher.” Yet he finds himself also drawn to Nina’s world of carefree sexuality mixed with “lies . . . futility . . . gibberish.” This tension that Victor experiences is common in both life and literature, and Nabokov’s characters are not immune. Although Nabokov appears to admire uxoriousness, as in the marriages of the Shades in Pale Fire or the Krugs in Bend Sinister, his protagonists are also mesmerized by belles dames sans merci—Margot (renamed Magda) in Laughter in the Dark, Lolita, Ada, and many more.
Nina is married to a gifted but repulsive Franco-Hungarian writer, Ferdinand; she also travels with the equally offensive but far less talented writer, Segur. Both men are artist figures: selfish, artificial, buoyant, heartless. Nina, while adaptable and “loyally sharing [Ferdinand’s] tastes,” is not really his muse: rather, she represents life’s vulnerability, and her attempt to imitate Ferdinand’s world proves fatal. When the car in which the three of them ride crashes into a truck, Ferdinand and Segur, “those invulnerable rogues, those salamanders of fate . . . had escaped with local and temporary injury . . . while Nina, in spite of her long-standing, faithful imitation of them, had turned out after all to be mortal.” Life can only copy art, not replace it.
Signs and Symbols
In “Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov wrote his most sorrowful story. An elderly, poor Russian émigré couple intend to pay a birthday visit to their son, institutionalized in a sanatorium, afflicted with “referential mania,” in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” On their way to the sanatorium, the machinery of existence seems to malfunction: The subway loses its electric current between stations; the bus is late and crammed with noisy schoolchildren; they are pelted by pouring rain as they walk the last stretch of the way. Finally, instead of being able to see their son, they are informed that he has again attempted suicide and should not be disturbed. The couple return home with the present that they cannot give him, wordless with worry and defeat, the woman close to tears. On their way they see “a tiny, halfdead unfledged bird . . . helplessly twitching in a puddle.”
After a somber supper, the husband goes to bed, and the wife reviews a family photo album filled with the faces of mostly suffering or dead relatives. One cousin is a “famous chess player”—Nabokov’s oblique reference to Luzhin of The Defense, who commits suicide. In his previous suicide attempt, the son had wanted “to tear a hole in his world and escape.” In the story’s last section, the time is past midnight, the husband is sleepless and in pain, and the couple decide to bring their boy home from the institution; each parent will need to spend part of each night with him. Then the phone rings: a wrong number. When it rings a second time, the wife carefully explains to the same caller how she must have misdialed. After a while the phone rings for the third time; the story ends. The signs and symbols in all likelihood suggest that the last call is from the sanatorium, to announce that the son has succeeded in escaping this world.
Artistically, this story is virtually flawless: intricately patterned, densely textured, remarkably intense in tone and feeling. For once, Nabokov the literary jeweler has cut more deeply than his usual surfaces; for once, he has entered the frightening woods of tragic, unmitigated grief; for once, he has forsaken gamesmanship and mirror-play, punning and parody and other gambits of verbal artifice to face the grimmest horrors of a sometimes hopeless world.
Plays: Dedushka, pb. 1923; Smert’, pb. 1923; Polius, pb. 1924; Tragediya gospodina Morna, pb. 1924; Chelovek iz SSSR, pb. 1927; Izobretenie Val’sa, pb. 1938 (The Waltz Invention, 1966); Sobytiye, pr., pb. 1938.
Novels: Mashenka, 1926 (Mary, 1970); Korol’, dama, valet, 1928 (King, Queen, Knave, 1968); Zashchita Luzhina, 1929 (serial), 1930 (book; The Defense, 1964);Kamera obskura, 1932 (Camera Obscura, 1936; revised as Laughter in the Dark, 1938); Podvig, 1932 (Glory, 1971); Otchayanie, 1934 (serial), 1936 (book; Despair, 1937; revised 1966); Priglashenie na kazn’, 1935-1936 (serial), 1938 (book; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959); Dar, 1937-1938 (serial), 1952 (book; The Gift, 1963); The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941; Bend Sinister, 1947; Lolita, 1955; Pnin, 1957; Pale Fire, 1962; Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969; Transparent Things, 1972; Look at the Harlequins!, 1974.
Nonfiction: Nikolai Gogol, 1944; Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir, 1951; Drugie berega, 1954; Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966 (revision of Conclusive Evidence and Drugie berega); Strong Opinions, 1973; The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, 1979; Lectures on Literature: British, French, and German, 1980; Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981; Lectures on Don Quixote, 1983; Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977, 1989.
Poetry: Stikhi, 1916; Dva puti, 1918; Gorny put, 1923; Grozd’, 1923; Stikhotvorenia, 1929-1951, 1952; Poems, 1959; Poems and Problems, 1970.
Screenplay: Lolita, 1962.
Translations: Anya v strane chudes, 1923 (of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland); Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tiutchev, 1944 (with Dmitri Nabokov); A Hero of Our Time, 1958 (of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel; with Dmitri Nabokov); The Song of Igor’s Campaign, 1960 (of the twelfth century epic Slovo o polki Igoreve); Eugene Onegin, 1964 (of Alexander Pushkin’s novel).
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
____________. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Connolly, Julian W. The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Grayson, Jane, Arnold B. McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer, eds. Nabokov’s World: Reading Nabokov. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Nicol, Charles. “‘Ghastly Rich Glass’: A Double Essay on ‘Spring in Fialta.’” Russian Literature Triquarterly, no. 24 (1991): 173-184.
Nicol, Charles, and Gennady Barabtarlo, eds. A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Parker, Stephen Jan. “Vladimir Nabokov and the Short Story.” Russian Literature Triquarterly, no. 24 (1991): 63-72.
Shrayer, Maxim D. “Mapping Narrative Space in Nabokov’s Short Fiction.” The Slavonic and East European Review 75 (October, 1997): 624-641.
____________. The World of Nabokov’s Stories. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.