By Larry Woiwode
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
"The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov," edited by Dmitri Nabokov. Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pp.; $35
"Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years," by Brian Boyd. Princeton University Press, 619 pp.; $15.95, paper
"Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years," by Brian Boyd. Princeton University Press, 790 pp.; $16.95, paper
Vladimir Nabokov (or gnaw-BOAK-uff, as he pronounced it) is perhaps best remembered by those who never read him as that nasty old man who wrote the dirty book Lolita. Rather than attempt to polish Nabokov's image for the Christian reader, as certain aficionados of Saint Augustine try to shine him up for the secular public by emphasizing his attraction to heresy and whores, it seems best to quote from a letter Nabokov wrote to his mother as a young man, in an effort to console her in her continuing decline after her husband had been killed:
Three years have gone--and every trifle relating to father is still as alive as ever inside me. I am so certain, my love, that we will see him again, in an unexpected but completely natural heaven, in a realm where all is radiance and delight. He will come towards us in our common bright eternity, slightly raising his shoulders as he used to do, and we will kiss the birthmark on his hand without surprise. You must live in expectation of that tender hour, my love, and never give in to the temptation of despair. Everything will return.
This was written in Russian in 1925 and still conveys, even in translation, not only the scent of another century but the affectionate familial warmth of an earlier Russia, before its language, even, suffered the warp necessary to serve the pragmatics of "dialectical materialism." The extract is taken from the exhaustively detailed (over 1,400 pages) and truly exceptional biography by Brian Boyd, published by Princeton University Press in two volumes in 1990 and 1991, and now available in paperback--the proper place to begin for anybody who wants to know about the real Nabokov. The year Nabokov wrote that letter he was living in Berlin, an exile, and his mother was trying to scrape together an existence in Czechoslovakia.
Nabokov's family was of the landed gentry of nineteenth-century Russia and had been forced to flee after the unruly rise of Bolshevism. The Rukavishnikovs on his mother's side were among the largest landowners in Russia, and many magnificent estates (including one bequeathed to Nabokov when he was 21) were left behind--razed or used as quarters for the Red Army. His father, V.D. Nabokov, a lawyer and professor and athlete and editor of a progressive newspaper, was a liberal who was convinced change was overdue in Russia, but he eventually came to abhor and then oppose the bloody revolutionary chaos that arrived. Elected to the first provisional parliament ever formed in Russia, he was a courageous man, a hero to some. When he leaped up to shield a political enemy who was speaking at a rally in Berlin, he was shot to death by a pair of assassins. Their intended victim walked away unharmed.
This stuff of myth made up the boyhood and early life of Vladimir Nabokov. He was born in Saint Petersburg in 1899, and when he attended private school, in what was then the capital city of Russia, he was driven there each day in a touring car by a liveried chauffeur. Echoes of this mythical past resound throughout his impressive oeuvre of at least 30 books, depending on how you count. The difficulty of tabulation lies in the remarkable, almost unbelievable, nature of that body of work. Nearly half of it was composed in Russian, and the other half in English, with essays and some short stories in yet another language, French. Then, toward the end of his career, Nabokov translated the Russian half into English and the English half into Russian. No such feat has been performed by another writer--and certainly not with the artistic elan and accomplishment of a Nabokov--in any major literature in any century.
Until he was almost 40, Nabokov wrote exclusively in his mother tongue, under the pen name of Sirin. But during the years when he was growing up in Saint Petersburg and on his family's country estate, his father, an Anglophile, read Dickens aloud to the family, and a governess from England drilled English into all the children. There were five; Vladimir was the oldest and most loved by both parents. When he was ready for university study, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and completed a dual major in French and Russian literature--conducted at the apogee of proper English, of course.
So when--living and writing in emigre poverty in Berlin--he saw how awful was the translation of one of his early novels from Russian into English, he decided to translate the next one, "Despair," himself. At about this time, further upheavals in Europe--at least partly related to the communism now installed in Russia--caused another flight. Nabokov left Berlin with its brownshirts and Hitlerian brass because of his inherited abhorrence of tyranny, yes, but also for an even more visceral reason. His wife, the dear and cherished Vera, to whom he would remain married until death and to whom he would dedicate every book he wrote, was a Jew.
They hurried first to Paris, where, in December of 1938, Nabokov began his first novel written in English, "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight." With war imminent, he desperately tried to find a teaching position in England, to no avail. Finally, in 1940, at the last minute, an emigre group in New York, acting out of gratitude for the efforts of Nabokov's father, reserved for Vladimir and Vera first-class passage on one of the last liners leaving France for America--torpedoed on its next voyage. They left Paris just before the German invaders took the city. Penniless and bedraggled but secure in the sumptuous cabin, Nabokov and his wife turned to the prize they'd brought on board, their son, Dmitri, just turned six, who the day before had been running such a high fever they had thought they wouldn't be able to leave for America.
In the further working of circumstance, it was this son, their only offspring, who translated or cotranslated with his father much of Nabokov's early work and who now serves as editor of the most recent addition to the Nabokov canon: "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov."
Over 600 pages of stories, 65 in all, are collected here, including 13 stories not previously published in English in book form. At least one story has been unearthed by Nabokov's son since his death, the lovely "Sounds," which contains autobiographical material too telling to permit it to be printed when it was written, including details later recapitulated in "The Circle," a story detached from Nabokov's indisputable masterpiece in Russian, "The Gift." (Another novel from his Russian canon I would nominate to take its place beside "The Gift" is "The Defense," and the title character of the story "Bachmann" is clearly a precursor to the absently bedazzled chess grandmaster of The Defense.)
The mythical stuff of which Nabokov's life consisted can be followed through these collected stories like the thread of life leading to Rahab's family. But the reader should be cautioned not to expect too many autobiographical snippets. It is the shape and exhilaration and the poetic power of the stories that convey not only Nabokov's mythical past but the repercussions of his loss of it.
In an early story, "Beneficence," a young artist, a sculptor (his methods and studio are scrupulously described), is waiting near the Brandenburg Gate for a last meeting with a woman he loves, even though he is convinced she will never appear. He begins to notice a stout street person, similar to some of our present-day homeless, trying to sell tattered post cards from her seat on the sidewalk, to no avail. A soldier in the guardhouse at the gate offers her a cup of coffee, and as the narrator watches her consume it with relish in the cold fall air, a change comes over him:
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, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you [the woman he hoped to meet] was not only secreted in you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. 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.
The young sculptor, stunned by the gift of life itself, is conducted by it to the other side of loss and appreciates the unappreciated gift. In the beauty of creation, the lovely complexity of the natural world, Nabokov, who was also a lepidopterist of renown (he worked at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology), was able to pass beyond the material manifestations of his near-fictional past and delight in the unfolding life around him. Few Christian writers have conveyed creation's breathtaking beauty with such precision and delight.
The short story may not be the most difficult form to work within (though it gets my vote), but it is without a doubt the genre in which it is least easy to hide yourself and your dirty socks, as it were. You must enter a story with the straightforward momentum of a poet going headlong after the rhythms of a poem, yet shape every sentence with such careful prose that the reader is able to follow each word without the least slip to what seems an inevitable end, the last sentence. After a few dozen of these, no matter how studiously you may have tried to avoid the pitfalls of your personality, or slunk toward the trapdoors you use to conceal yourself, you stand exposed.
It is relevant that Nabokov began with poetry, then moved to the short story, then the novel. He never played up (or down) to an audience, and his observations and conclusions still enable us to see ourselves and the world in astonishing new ways. As here, in "La Veneziana," an early story of family deceptions and the transmutations even a forged masterpiece can bring about: "How radiantly the world's monotony is interrupted now and then by the book of a genius, a comet, a crime, or even simply a single sleepless night. Our laws, though--our pulse, our digestion are firmly linked to the harmonious motion of the stars, and any attempt to disturb this regularity is punished, at worst by beheading, at best by a headache. Then again, the world was unquestionably created with good intentions."
Or this stunning description of the city where an emigre now lives, written to a young woman he once loved and had to leave behind in Saint Petersburg:
A car rolls by on pillars of wet light. It is black, with a yellow stripe beneath the windows. It trumpets gruffly into the ear of the night, and its shadow passes under my feet. By now the street is totally deserted--except for an aged Great Dane whose claws rap on the sidewalk as it reluctantly takes for a walk a listless, pretty, hatless girl with an opened umbrella. When she passes under the garnet bulb (on her left, above the fire alarm), a single taut, black segment of her umbrella reddens damply.
The perhaps too easy pathos of this story's title, "A Letter That Never Reached Russia," looms over its unfolding, but its author was only 25, as he was when he wrote that letter of comfort, one of many, to his mother, and the final sentence discloses Nabokov's characteristic stance: "The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness."
Only a year later, the young Nabokov began to form his mature aesthetic. In a series of nearly postmodern vignettes entitled "A Guide to Berlin," the narrator steps forward and states,
I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.
How then did this gentle aristocrat come to write the lurid "Lolita?" Part of the answer, of course, is that she and Humbert and Quilty are dressed in their dowdy sinfulness for a masquerade that doesn't yield its full meaning on a first or even a second reading. It was a practice of Nabokov the writer to invert his personality, or dramatize the opposite of what he felt and believed, or to oppose aspects of himself, as Shakespeare did in Iago and Othello, in order to gather readers to the side of sanity.
It has been remarked by many who knew Nabokov as a father that his affection for Dmitri was extraordinary, even excessive, and perhaps he sensed this and employed the person of a prepubescent girl to communicate something of his overzealousness, hedged with caution (think of nambla), in this disturbing novel that ultimately conveys a moral tone. In a larger sense, I believe that Nabokov, who traveled America more widely than many natives, from coast to coast and north to south--often in search of a specific species of butterfly--came to care for his adopted country so completely that he wrote a horribly graphic and macabre parable of how its youth was being stained by the polymorphous sins of the decaying old world, Europe. It was in Europe that Nabokov had lived through what must have felt akin to the apocalypse, twice.
It is finally surprising to realize from Nabokov's own end notes to this volume (taken from previous collections) that he wrote only nine stories in English, not counting "First Love," which became an early chapter in his autobiography, "Speak, Memory." Short stories are indeed that difficult, and although Nabokov brought to every piece of prose a chiseled precision that heirs as diverse as John Updike and Thomas Pynchon continue to emulate, he never quite mastered the comfortable yet compressed music in English that a story demands, as he had orchestrated it so well in Russian--more a project anyway for the stout nerves of one-minded youth. In 1951, he hung up his harp on that resistant form and settled into novels, after the nightmarish experience he underwent to complete his last story, "Lance."
During the work on "Lance," sentences and phrases washed through Nabokov with such immediacy he couldn't sleep for days; he stalked from place to place dazed and shaking. (Later he came to realize that the story was an attempt to assuage his fears about Dmitri, who had taken to mountaineering on some of America's most precipitous slopes.) It's a curious story, to say the least. On its surface it seems to be about space travel, but it's also about mountaineering and an arresting climb toward death:
The classical ex-mortal leans on his elbow from a flowered ledge to contemplate the earth, this toy, this teetotum gyrating on slow display in its model firmament, every feature so gay and clear--the painted oceans, and the praying woman of the Baltic, and a still of the elegant Americas caught in their trapeze act, and Australia like a baby Africa lying on its side. There may be people among my coevals who half expect their spirits to look down from Heaven with a shudder and a sigh at their native planet and see it girdled with latitudes, stayed with meridians, and marked, perhaps, with the fat, black, diabolically curving arrows of global wars.
But the narrator understands that his "young descendant on his first night out, in the imagined silence of an unimaginable world, would have to view the surface features of our globe through the depths of its atmosphere"--this long before photos were beamed back from outer space--which "would mean dust, scattered reflections, haze, and all kinds of optical pitfalls, so that continents, if they appeared at all through the varying clouds, would slip by in queer disguises, with inexplicable gleams of color and unrecognizable outlines.
"But this is a minor point. The problem is: Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock?" What Nabokov was actually broaching here, as he did over and over in his fiction, is the possibility of existence after death. More than any writer of the twentieth century, perhaps, Nabokov reached for and brought back glimpses, intimations of a spiritual world coexisting with the everyday one we take for granted. He believed in that world with a sturdy aloofness that put people off, as many would be put off by his mere mention of heaven.
From the time of the letter to his mother, he looked forward to that world, sometimes with trepidation, but mostly with the arch and tender verve he communicated in his prose. In "Pale Fire," which even his most entrenched detractors acknowledge as at least a minor masterpiece, Nabokov puts into the mouth of one of his most untrustworthy narrators, the unseemly Kinbote, a portion of the credo he kept scattering through interviews toward the end of his life:
As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I think I know what he is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit that the name of God has priority.
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review