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 …

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