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Jeweler at Work

Details of a Sunset and Other Stories

by Vladimir Nabokov
McGraw-Hill, 179 pp., $8.95

This collection,” Mr. Nabokov announces in a foreword, “is the last batch of my Russian stories meriting to be Englished.” There are thirteen of them. Written and published in émigré journals between 1924 and 1935, they belong to the outset of his career when he was leading in Berlin “an odd but by no means unpleasant existence,” as he described it later in Speak, Memory, “in material indigence and intellectual luxury among perfectly unimportant strangers.” Now, in collaboration with his son Dmitri, he has translated them and supplied brief introductory notes.

In one of these notes he imagines someone asking, “What was your purpose, sir, in penning this story, forty years ago in Berlin?” and answers, “Well, I did pen it (for I never learned to type…); but I had never any ‘purpose’ in mind when writing stories—for myself, my wife, and half a dozen dear dead chuckling friends.” The “dear dead chuckling friends,” Russian intellectuals living in “foreign communities” in “more or less illusory cities,” whose “spectral” inhabitants were “to the mind’s eye as flat and transparent as figures cut out of cellophane,” could be counted on to relish the look, gestures, preoccupations, behavior, and idiom of the Russian characters about whom most of the stories were written, of these lonely, uprooted men, making the best of their precarious lives in shabby rooms that were like temporary camps on unplanned, unpredictable, enforced journeys. Poverty to them is not important but, driven as they have been from their country, abandoned by those they love or alienated from them by space and time, their pain of loss is keen indeed.

In “The Doorbell,” a youth, after years of separation from his mother, after fighting in the civil war and wandering over Russia, Italy, Africa, the Canary Islands, manages to trace her to an apartment in Berlin only to discover that she has changed both in herself and toward him, and realizing he is not wanted, leaves after a few embarrassed moments for heaven knows what new adventures.

In “The Reunion,” a well-established Soviet man, on business in Berlin, comes to see his émigré brother in his tiny room. Without anything to say to each other, they try to make conversation and finally fasten on the one point they have in common, the memory of a black poodle they used to play with in childhood. But they have forgotten its name and the pathetic urgency with which they struggle to call it back is a measure of their estrangement from each other and from their past. The émigré brother is “a needy but neat little man, in a black suit worn shiny and a turn-down collar that was too large for him.” He wears “spats to hide the holes in his socks,” and is too proud to mention his poverty, too bruised to speak of his solitude, and too courteous to hint at how exceptionally inopportune the unwelcome visit has been. An unpretentious, sensitive man, he prefigures in his gentleness, delicacy, considerateness, his innate nobility, the most affecting to my mind of all Nabokov’s creations, Timofey Pnin, who is as memorable as Akakiy Akakievich, the hero of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” or Turgenev’s Mumu, or any number of Chekhov’s piteous creatures.

There are other stories that have little or nothing to do with exile, that might have happened anywhere at any time, though three of them are set in Russia: “A Bad Day,” in which a little boy is rejected by his playmates for reasons he cannot understand; “Orache,” concerning another child, who has heard that his father’s life is in danger but has no one with whom to share his overwhelming anxiety; “Christmas,” the sketch of a father shattered by the death of his young son; “The Return of Chorb,” where the parents and the husband, stunned by the loss of their daughter and wife, confront each other in speechless grief. The last two are extremely poignant and subtly ironic, mute little tragedies of ineffable anguish.

In “A Busy Man,” a solitary, anxious individual, who for the whole of his thirty-third year has been fearfully expecting death, prophesied long ago in a dimly remembered dream, wakes up on the sunny morning after his thirty-fourth birthday to realize that the dreadfully appointed time has come and gone. This happy joke on premonitions is the last story of the collection, and it seems to balance the tale of unforeseen and unannounced death with which the volume opens, a neat frame of opposites, perhaps intentionally designed to set off Nabokov’s undogmatic, unsymbolic, unmetaphysical view of life’s fortuitousness and unpredictability.

The opening story, Nabokov tells us, was first called “Katastrofa,” an “odious” appellation for which he himself could not have been responsible. The new title, “Details of a Sunset,” “has the triple advantage of corresponding to the thematic background of the story, of being sure to puzzle such readers as ‘skip descriptions,’ and of infuriating reviewers.” Naïvely, one might have seen it as the pitiful tale of a young fellow who, unaware that the girl he loves has rejected him for another man, dies, as the result of a stupid accident, ecstatically thinking that she is by his side. But this would be wrong. The story should be read, according to Nabokov, not for what happens in it but for the way it is told, not for the narrative itself but for the skillful weaving of details in the process of narration.

Art to Nabokov is entertainment and his characters are pieces he manipulates on a chess board, devising problems for the absorbing, challenging, clever game of which he is a master. So about “Christmas,” a heartbreaking story, he notes that it “oddly resembles the type of chess problem called ‘selfmate,”’ thus, characteristically, taking away with one hand what he has given with the other, holding the reader off at arm’s length, retreating to the formidable barricade he sets up between himself and his subject, himself and the reader. He is not Tolstoy thinking vulgarly; of art as a language of emotions uniting mankind in brotherly love. His fiction, he always insists, is not about life but about art, and his characters, if not chessmen, are “methods of composition,” like those in the novels of his Sebastian Knight, “as if a painter said: look, here I’m going to show you not the painting of a landscape but the painting of different ways of painting a certain landscape.” Nabokov is such a painter, and the whole of his work may be read as his painting different ways of painting the landscape that has always engrossed him.

This landscape is the recondite, impenetrable, inner life of men, or rather the visible manifestations of this life, which interests him precisely because it is unfathomable. The “real” life of Sebastian Knight, to the discovery of which his adoring half brother devotes himself, remains a mystery. Pale Fire is a satiric contrast between the hidden depths of inward life and the showy spectacle of public adventures. Pnin, with his strange ways and his misuse of English idioms—“I am grazing,” he explains when found leafing through his landlord’s books—is to his colleagues a figure of fun, his nobility unappreciated and his suffering known only to himself. Nabokov execrates the presumptions of “depth psychology”; he is less concerned with character than with circumstance and pattern; his work is a bright surface protecting the concealed, cherished core of individual passion.

It is by passion he is most attracted. His characters are, for the most part, obsessed: Martin, in The Exploit (Podvig, not yet translated into English to my knowledge), by the need to prove himself courageous; Humbert Humbert by lust; Godunov-Cherdintsev, in The Gift, by his desire to become a poet. Luzhin’s obsession, in The Defense, obliterates all distinctions, and life itself, in his disordered mind, becomes a game of chess. They are not so much men as functions or instruments of their obsessions, which, disastrous as well as admirable, lead to great accomplishments but also to death and crime. Nabokov is also obsessed and in one notable instance, like Godunov-Cherdintsev, is brought by his obsession to destroy the thing he loves.

Both are obsessed by an ideal of perfection. Because of it Godunov-Cherdintsev gives up the book he is writing about his father, afraid he may spoil it “with a flashy phrase,” “contaminating” the record “with a kind of secondary poetization” far removed from the “real poetry” of his father’s work, and so leaves undone the monument he wanted to erect to his father’s memory. Similarly, Nabokov abandons, in the name of accuracy, the verse translation of Pushkin he has started, a virtuoso performance, in favor of a pedestrian prose version that makes his adored poet more unreadable than ever to those who do not know Russian.

How define Nabokov’s art, his “point of view” or “way of seeing things,” to use the terms of Henry James in his dictum that art is “but a point of view and genius but a way of seeing things”? Most obviously it is the point of view of a dedicated craftsman, a wordsmith and prosewright, for whom disheveled life is but the handmaid of that calculated, created, or invented order and design which is called art. His novels are demonstrations, overt or implicit, of his conviction that art and life have little, if anything, to do with each other, that the intricate relationship between an author’s work and his emotional life is insoluble, and that critics who claim to understand how a work of art comes into being are pretentious fools. Even Laughter in the Dark, that crude and cruel melodrama, turns out, upon reflection, to be a pointed contrast between the grossness of life and an artist’s idea of it, between the notion of bringing to life “perfectly reproduced on the screen in vivid colors…some well-known picture, preferably of the Dutch School” which fascinates the art critic Albinus, and the hideous scenario of actual life in which he is enmeshed and destroyed.

A work of art has no “purpose,” form and content are one, method and form are everything. And Nabokov, the most self-conscious of authors, never tires of insisting that his theme is not “reality” (the word is regularly imprisoned in derisive quotation marks), neither “real” people, nor events, nor ideas. Realism is a loose way of thinking and the “realistic” novelist—Balzac, Stendhal, Gorky, Goncharov, Pasternak, even Tolstoy of War and Peace though not of Anna Karenina—is “middle-brow,” like the writer in his own story, “The Passenger,” who seems to think that Life is a model for him to copy or sees himself as somehow in competition with Life and is disappointed when it eludes him.

Once, traveling in a train, he was caught up in an incident that seemed to have all the makings of a detective story of the kind he was in the habit of writing. But as it turned out, the repulsive passenger in the upper berth was not, as he had hoped, the criminal the police were after, and he himself would never know why the man lay there sobbing. “The trouble is that we are in the dark,” he concludes, “maybe Life had in mind something totally different, something much more subtle and deep.” Nabokov is careful to point out that his “middle-brow” writer is not a self-portrait—quite unnecessarily, for there is nothing clearer than that however in the dark his characters may be, Nabokov himself is not, that he knows all he wants to know and creates whatever depth and subtleties he pleases.

His way of thought, in which scientific faithfulness is combined with a miniaturist’s exactitude and the canny logic of an expert in chess, is stringent, restricted, sharply focused. His vision is intense, absorbed, almost fanatically concentrated. He is like John Shade, the poet of Pale Fire, whose “eyes were such that literally they / Took photographs,” so that whatever he looked on “was printed on [his] eyelids’ nether side,” and all he “had to do was close [his eyes] to reproduce” what he had seen. Nabokov’s eye, fixed on details, is reinforced by microscope or spyglass: “a half-open matchbox with one burnt match lay on the stove,” “a horsefly with satiny eyes settled on his sleeve,” “an arrow of bright copper struck the lacquered shoe of a fop jumping out of a car.”

One is reminded of Tolstoy’s celebrated precision. But Nabokov’s is wholly different. Tolstoy recorded ordinary objects “as if they had never been seen before” with great satiric and emotional power to emphasize the falseness of habit, the distortions of stereotyped attitudes. His scrupulous attentiveness originated in the introspection demanded by a relentless conscience and served a moral purpose, and also the interests of realism. Nabokov, on the other hand, points to minutiae that the casual eye would surely miss, but, once alerted, would see in the usual way. His method is descriptive, neither analytic nor moralizing, and his effects are not realistic but hallucinatory and surrealist.

Is not every writer precisely a person who bothers about trifles?” says the novelist in “The Passenger.” And in “A Guide to Berlin,” which Nabokov calls “one of my trickiest pieces,” trifles are shown to be tremendous. The gigantic black pipes by the sidewalk, waiting to be buried; the streetcar that “will vanish in twenty years or so”; the workmen “pounding an iron stake”; the men and vehicles transporting bread, meat, bottles, letters, a large tree; the animals locked up in the zoo—all will vanish, and some curious man in the distant future will haunt museums for vestiges of the familiar things that furnish the daily life of the present. This is why the narrator thinks that “here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times,” and why at the end of the story he watches intently the barkeeper’s child gazing in the direction where he and his friend are talking over drinks. His friend is puzzled: “I can’t understand what you see down there.” “What indeed! How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?” History itself, Nabokov implies, lives in the evidence of observed and recorded trifles, the only knowledge a human being may rightly claim. (Speak, Memory, one recalls, first appeared as Conclusive Evidence.)

These are man’s authentic records, these trifles preserved in private consciousness. Everything else—theories and arguments, mass movements and public disasters—is hearsay at second hand, gossip and clichés. The pages in which Nabokov most nearly approaches his ideal of perfection, such as the chapter on butterflies in Speak, Memory; the portrait of Godunov-Cherdintsev’s father in The Gift; the train rides in The Exploit, Speak, Memory, Pnin; the father’s excursion into the country with his small son in Bend Sinister are eloquent with a sense of keenly lived and accurately transcribed experience—polished, elegant, reserved even when they speak of passion. His best work might appropriately bear the title he has presented to Sebastian Knight, The Prismatic Bezel. It is jeweler’s work, without vagueness or depth, other than the mirror-depth of its lovingly burnished facets, expertly engraved with poignant shadows on their dazzling surfaces.

But there is another, lurid, nightmarish, and sadistic side to his mind’s coin, the grotesque counterpart of his elegant restraint and tenderness. It is exhibited when, turning from precise observation and specific experience to nonaesthetic generalizations, notably the upheavals and plagues of Bolshevism and Nazism, he gives them body and, from the background of his dramas, brings them forth to center stage. This is what happens in Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister. They were provoked by his abhorrence of mind-boggling tyranny, which could be expressed, he felt, only in nightmares. But his rational gift is not right for nightmares, and his humane intent takes the form of gruesomely contrived fantasies that assault our sensibilities without enlightening our experience, trivialize our knowledge of tragedy, and seem a travesty on the universal horror of our times.

The moral qualities Nabokov most admires—independence, pride, resilience—are most effectively incarnated in those of his heroes who must grapple with private sorrows rather than the avalanche of outward force, in Timofey Pnin rather than Cincinnatus C. of Invitation to a Beheading or even Adam Krug of Bend Sinister, whose magnificence as an artistic creation is dissipated in the unbelievable savageries he is dragged through. This, in part, Nabokov himself realizes. “The main theme of Bend Sinister,” he writes in an introduction, “is the beating of Krug’s loving heart, the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to—and it is for the sake of the pages about David and his father that the book was written and should be read. The two other themes [that] accompany the main one…are merely my whims and megrims.”

One is bound to agree. The instruction is obvious and needless. But Nabokov has little respect for the intelligence of the general reader. He sees him as a niggling, stupid, unperceptive adversary and defends himself with mockery. In this instance, he supplements his gloss with a three-page list of his “delicate markers,” riddles and allusions implanted in the text to abash the reader, and remarks: “Most people will not even mind having missed all this;…ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications…. In the long run, however, it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts.” True enough! But how often is the faithful reader trapped by Nabokov’s private satisfaction into suffering his “whims and megrims” and enduring his contempt!

It may be that Nabokov does not have the courage of his arrogance and, therefore, feels compelled, time and again, to herald his pre-eminence. Or maybe he simply loves to mystify and humiliate. At any rate, addressing forty years ago a few dear chuckling friends, he did not need to sheathe himself in the daunting armor of spiked disdain. And this may be the reason that his early stories are less suspiciously watchful, posturing, and unkind than the later fiction, directed to the unknown thousands of a world-wide audience.

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