By Vladimir Nabokov
These early butterflies are netted from the pages of the Russian emigre periodicals that appeared in Paris and Berlin during the '20s and '30s. The stories themselves have that air of "fragile unreality" that Nabokov in Speak, Memory describes as characteristic of emigre publishing ventures--beautiful work for a transient audience published in vacuo. The stories' fragility and their accessibility to the reader disguise for a moment the fact that everything characteristic of the later work is already here, but it is here without the Nabokovian handstands of his American fiction. It is almost as if the emigre world for which they were initially published were not capable of supporting that much exuberance and arrogance. Possibly Nabokov had to be in America to turn the world on its head in Ada, but these stories make it clear that the impulse to do so was there from the beginning. One need only read backward from Ada to see that the novelist who proclaimed the supremacy of the fictional over the so called actual at age 70 was already eager to do so at 25.
The misleadingly specific topography of both Pale Fire and Ada, which belie any literal readings, have their beginnings in these stories where characters (most often emigres) step out into the streets of what they call "incidental" cities. The profound dislocation that emerges in story after story is not a symptom of the exiled person as much as it is his privileged knowledge of how things actually are. While a few of these characters vouchsafed this knowledge that the actual world makes sense only in art, the rest are left with the brittle ironies of the mirror world where everything is a parody of something else. This mirror theme so familiar to Nabokov's readers arises quite naturally; from the emigre milieu where life was too often modeled on an aristocratic culture that was itself dead. In the story "Lik" the Russian emigre actor, Lik, gets the roles of carefree and sunny Russian aristocrats--parts for which there are no longer any real-life counterparts. As an imitation of an unreality Lik's acting career is ludicrous and pathetic, but no more so, we discover, than his actual existence in the unspecified cities of Europe that are themselves the suburbs of a perpetually receding reality.
Lik is only one of several characters in these stories who seem fashionably modern in their inability to make connections with the world outside themselves. But Nabokov is no Sartre, so when he sets a character up in this way he also provides as compensation for the uneasiness of existing, the exultation of his art that is neither uneasy nor terrifying. In "Recruiting" the narrator-novelist recruits an old man he sees on a Berlin street and endows him with the loneliness of an aged Russian emigre. Thrilled at his capacity to transform the actual into the fictional and to populate his fiction and his life, the narrator's happiness is suddenly eclipsed by the voice of the author who reminds us that he has had the double bliss of fabricating this narrator as well as his elderly recruit. Whatever has been lost is recovered and perfected by art.
Paradoxically only death for Nabokov can be more efficient than art against the transformations of time. In "Perfection" a serge-suited Russian tutor languishes on the Riviera. He passes his time trying to tie up the loose ends of the universe in his daydreams; he does so to no avail until he accidentally drowns and the loose ends (of which he is one) are gathered up to shine forth in a final vision granted him by the conjunction of art and death.
The melancholy quality of a story like "Perfection" arises in part from Nabokov's direct use of nostalgia. Although there is less capering about with time and memory in the early work, Nabokov is already concerned that the nostalgia so crucial to his art be rightly used and understood. In "The Admiralty Spire" the narrator writes to a pseudonymous novelist who has used the story of the narrator's first love in a cheap romantic novel. The letter instructs the writer on the correct use of the past and chastises her for those literary elegances that heighten emotion and kill memory. Describing the actual affair, he reveals that it was itself literary, "like something that had already once happened long ago." The lovers lived in the realm of fiction, he says, so that "when that past really existed for us, we would know how to cope with it and not perish under its burden." The trick, then, is to use nostalgia so that all time is present at once. The romanticism the narrator dislikes confines experiences to different time zones, and he has had enough of isolation and exile to tolerate that.
Even in these early stories Nabokov's desire to make his art the holding company for his past, present and future keeps the fiction like a beloved dog on a tight leash. With the author at the other end of the strap we rarely manage to confront the work alone. He must tell us that one story contains an anagram in its last paragraph, or that a musical pun makes sense of another, and that a literary quarrel inspired a third. Unlike Chaucer he cannot say simply "Go, litel bok." To reap the considerable compensations of his art the reader must begin by getting used to the writer's tagging along.
Elizabeth Pochoda teaches literature at Temple University in Philadelphia.
By Elizabeth Pochoda