Nabokov is the high priest of sensuality and desire, the magus who knows virtually everything about what is at once the most solemn and the most elusive of all our painful joys—the stab of erotic pleasure, that emblem of transitory happiness on earth. As Proust observed, ardor is the only form of possession in which the possessor possesses nothing.
But if passion is the treasure (that is, the absence) that lies at the heart of the great pyramid of Nabokov’s art, he has been careful to protect it from the vulgar, the prying, the smug; he has surrounded his secret riches with a maze of false corridors, of precariously balanced, easily triggered, almost lethal megaliths. These are the notorious traps, the crushing menhirs of Nabokov’s wit, his scorn, his savage satire. Nonetheless I’d insist that passion, not brilliance or cruelty or erudition or the arrogant perfection of his craft, is his master motif, that his intelligence is at the service of the emotions.
In a superb story, perhaps his best, “Spring in Fialta,” first written in Russian and published in 1938, the love between the narrator and the heroine, Nina, is contrasted with—I’m tempted to say safeguarded by—the contempt directed at her husband, Ferdinand. Nina is an impulsive, generous, but negligent woman who has often given herself to the narrator (and to many other men along the way); just as suddenly and often she has forgotten the gift she’s conferred on them. The narrator first meets Nina in Russia “around 1917,” as he says with an eerie casualness, and they exchange their first embrace outdoors in winter:
Windows light up and stretch their luminous lengths upon the dark billowy snow, making room for the reflection of the fan-shaped light above the front door between them. Each of the two side-pillars is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex libris for the book of our two lives. I cannot recall why we had all wandered out of the sonorous hall into the still darkness, peopled only with firs, snow-swollen to twice their size; did the watchmen invite us to look at a sullen red glow in the sky, portent of nearing arson? Possibly. Did we go to admire an equestrian statue of ice sculptured near the pond by the Swiss tutor of my cousins? Quite as likely. My memory revives only on the way back to the brightly symmetrical mansion towards which we tramped in single file along a narrow furrow between snowbanks, with that crunch-crunch-crunch which is the only comment that a taciturn winter night makes upon humans. I walked last; three singing steps ahead of me walked a small bent shape; the firs gravely showed their burdened paws. I slipped and dropped the dead flashlight someone had forced upon me; it was devilishly hard to retrieve; and instantly attracted by my curses, with an eager, low laugh in anticipation of fun, Nina dimly veered toward me. I…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.
Copyright © 1984 by Edmund White