While shelving in the Fiction section (ah, the sweet rewards of shelving!), I came upon a used copy of Nabokov's stories and began leafing through its pages. Years ago, I'd read his charming and much anthologized "Mademoiselle O," but all the others here were new to me, each luminous in its own way. They range from tender to devilish, whimsical to darkly funny, wry to deeply heartening. And now I've happily added Nabokov's to my bedside stack of favorite short story writers, like Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, D.H. Lawrence, Mavis Gallant, and William Maxwell.
One of the first I glanced at was the sly, keen-edged, “A Dashing Fellow,” that grabbed me in its first paragraph. The first-person narrator speaks from the rather roguish viewpoint of “we,” which turns out to include a pair of inner accomplices plotting an act of brief, extramarital mischief.
We have a swarthy complexion, a network of purple-red veins, a black moustache, trimly clipped, and hairy nostrils. We breathe hard through our nose as we try to solve a crossword puzzle in an émigré paper. We are alone in a third-class compartment—alone and, therefore, bored.
When the trio's much-anticipated, but ultimately humiliating, fling with a young woman ends a couple of hours later, they're back on the crammed and heat-stifled train.
We feel out of sorts, but do not quite know if we are hungry or drowsy. But when we have fed and slept, life will regain its looks…. And then, sometime later, we die.
What I love most about these tales, besides their wit, is Nabokov’s enormous sensory appetite, and that of his characters—all fine by me since I’m definitely a reader (and a story writer myself) hungry for sensory details. One of my favorite writers, Claire Boylan, wrote, “I love the feeling, with the short story, that the world is in the detail and that small random acts can set ordinary lives alight or consume them to ash.” Nabokov's mother had nurtured his visual memory from a very young age, and fostered an acute sensory response to facets of color and light in, say, a handful of jewels or the play of sunlight through stained glass.
Throughout his writing, Nabokov joyfully savors, for himself and his wished-for readers, the rich life and complex people of the many vanished worlds he had known (Petersburg, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Switzerland) through scintillating combinations of detail. More than merely evoking his readers’ empathy with his characters, Nabokov invites his readers to perceive sensually, let’s say, the interior of a sleeping compartment on the Moscow-Petersburg night train of a hundred years ago in which, say, a drowsy Russian boy and his English governess are whisked away.
Two of his shortest and most radiant stories, “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” and “Beneficence,” are striking examples of his visual magic and the sensory ambience he wove around his characters to glean their consciousness, to capture fleeting changes of mood or attitude. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon remarks that “Nobokov’s English combines aching lyricism with dispassionate precision in a way that seems to render every human emotion in all its intensity but never with an ounce of schmaltz or soggy language.”
At the end of “The Fight,” the narrator confesses,
The story could have been given a different twist, and made to depict compassionately how a girl’s happiness had been mortified for the sake of a copper coin, how Emma spent the whole night crying, and how, after falling asleep toward morning, she saw again, in her dreams, the frenzied face of her father as he pummeled her lover. Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all, but, rather, the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way."
Nabokov believed that the ability to marvel at the mundane world—to “wonder at trifles”—is the key to understanding his characters’ pain of loss or mortality’s destructive power, and the life force that is then mysteriously released within and around them. In the beautiful story, “Gods,” a father refuses to share his wife’s sorrow over the death of their child. Rather, the strange beauty of arbitrary things around him persuades him that “there is no death.” He tells his wife,
“Forgive me if I am incapable of weeping, of simple human weeping, but instead keep singing and running somewhere, clutching at whatever wings fly past…”
It’s as though this man’s utterly nondiscriminating vision of ordinary things—of intersecting wires in the sky, of the hazy mosaic of factory chimneys, the afterglow of lightbulb filaments on a suddenly darkened underground train—lends him a kind of clairvoyance into what lies beyond.
In her new and delightful book, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, Lila Azam Zanganeh agrees with this.
Literature is but scintillating texture… [for Nabokov] “The demonic artistry of words perhaps conceals ‘galaxies divine’, where death might be no more than a lifted corner of the eternal present.”
Nabokov tells in his memoir Speak, Memory that he experienced instances of “a strangely translucent” state in which he could envision in vivid detail simultaneous events that he couldn't possibly have known. One senses that this surely informed his abiding preoccupation with gazing into a timeless ‘otherworldliness’ in his stories.
According to Stephen Jay Gould, Nabokov’s vivid and patient attention to detail in writing stemmed from the same source as his devoted attention to the fine points of butterfly genitalia as he stared through a microscope for hours on end at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. It was his love not only of detail, but of the contemplation of detail and the hidden symmetry to be found there. In the most autobiographical of his novels, The Gift, the main character describes “…the odors of butterflies—musk and vanilla…the voices of butterflies…the incredible artistic wit of mimetic disguise” as a cunning Brazilian butterfly imitates the whir of a local bird.
Nabokov once explained to an interviewer,
When I was younger, I ate some butterflies in Vermont to see if they were poisonous…. I didn’t see any difference between a Monarch and a Viceroy. The taste of both was vile, but I had no ill effects. They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination…. Will you eat some with me tomorrow for breakfast?
But there’s something more to this, as Barbara Wyllie points out: His expertise as a butterfly specialist “informed his themes of transformation and transcendence that seem to dominate his work.” After all, what’s more transformative than the life stages of a butterfly?!
One of the shortest and most touching stories in this book, titled simply “Christmas,” describes a grieving Russian widower on a snowy Christmas Eve, returning home alone from his young son’s funeral who discovers by lantern light in the boy’s cold, dark room his butterfly net and mounting supplies and trays of specimens—and an English biscuit tin containing a large exotic cocoon that was “papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf.” He brings the tin back with him to his own, warm study, when suddenly there’s a snap that brings him out of his revery. The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst open…” and though the ending may seem predictable, it catches you by surprise and takes my breath away with each reading.
Another fascinating quality of Nabokov and his writing is that, like his mother, he was a synaesthete. At a young age, he equated all the letters of the alphabet with distinct colors. In his memoir, Speak, Memory, he tells us that “I see ‘q’ as browner than ‘k’, while ‘s’ is not the light blue of ‘c’, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.” He often gave his protagonists the same synaesthetic senses. There’s a famous line from The Gift, in which the main character, an auditory synaesthete (as was Nabokov’s mother), says, “If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt-sienna and sepia for you so as to match the color of a ‘ch’ sound.” Nabokov’s wife Vera and their only child Dimitri were also synaesthetic. The colors Dimitri associated with some letters were blends of his parents’ hues, which, he describes, “is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”
Nabokov’s extraordinary range of gifts, of which he was joyfully grateful, plays out for us in his fiction and in his spectacular memoir that, through the years, I’ve relished more with each reading.