Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nabokov's Stories

I recently finished reading 650 pages or so of Nabokov's short stories and felt like spewing forth a few thoughts on them, as follows:

Nabokov's stories touch on some perhaps unexpected subjects (angels, astronauts, conjoined twins - that last one isn't really unexpected given VN's obsession with doubles), but in large part he wrote emigre stories for an emigre audience. The bulk of the stories in the most complete collection (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov) were written in Russian during the period after Nabokov left Russia but before he came to America, and many of them unashamedly depict his nostalgia/longing/sense of loss for the pre-revolutionary Russia of his youth (the content of some of these stories ended up in Speak, Memory). We see a childhood filled with governesses and coachmen, birches and bicycles, and later, a diaspora of nobles and generals carrying their vestigial titles and ranks with them between various European capitals and seaside resorts.

Fascism and totalitarianism appear in more or less recognizable form in many of these stories - memorably in "Cloud, Castle, Lake", where the thuggish brutality of emergent Nazism transforms a train holiday to the country into an absurd Josef K-like nightmare situation where freedom, as represented by the title tableaux, can be glimpsed but not attained. I don't think Lenin or Stalin are ever mentioned by name (except in some of Nabokov's notes on the stories), but they are the unseen villains, the recipients of Nabokov's exquisite ire in stories such as "Tyrants Destroyed".

While the stories are a significant body of fiction, Nabokov is first, foremost, and unquestionably a novelist. It was to the novel that he devoted his greatest efforts and the years of his maturity as a writer, and, to me, the best of his stories are those that most recall the novels. Perhaps the best stories in the collection are "Ultima Thule"/"Solus Rex", a linked pair that are the only surviving chapters of an unfinished novel. They read like (brilliant, somewhat Borgesian) rehearsals for Bend Sinister and Pale Fire (affinities noted by Nabokov in his notes). Based on these two stories, the novel would likely have been a major work had it not become literary kindling.

Reading the stories in chronological order allows the reader to trace the development of the Nabokov's dazzling language play, something he and his son and translator Dmitri clearly took pains to preserve and convey in their English translations. Has anyone done a good, readable study comparing the original texts with the translations? It's common to be curious about the experience of reading a great writer in the original language, but the particular inaccessibility of Russian for most English readers perhaps heightens this feeling with Nabokov, despite the obvious quality of the translations.

By the way, those new covers are not bad, eh?

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