February 26, 2008 at 7:14 pm (Book Books, Nabokov)

I’m probably going to lose all of my readers doing this, but rarely have I felt such clarity of purpose. I am going to examine and discuss all of Nabokov’s short fiction, story by story. The chance at citation in a half-assed, undergraduate examination on a short story is just too compelling to ignore.

For a small bibliography of relevant readings for his short fiction, check the forthcoming Nabokov page at the top after I get a couple stories into this. I’ll be sure to update (oh, and create) it as this project moseys along.

Update (11/13/01:01: I’m still planning on doing this!)

Update (6/4/09/11:46: Maybe not…)

Let’s start with an image: This unfortunate cover greets me every time I do one of these posts:

If you purchased this book, the gray and white you see there actually shines in ugly incandescence. The book publishers also saw fit to thieve away all a butterfly’s beauty by presenting its ugly contours instead of its beautiful style. Did they intentionally strip a butterfly of its style to focus readers to the question of form over content? But then the content is outside of form, if one peers closely…

But before I get to that, a more relevant question to my purpose: is this a scholarly or leisure pursuit? I can’t imagine studying Nabokov as less than fun, and I can’t imagine reading Nabokov in my leisure without formulating irritating annotations: Let’s say both! But probably avoid the bottom notes if pure enjoyment is sought!

These will not be the entirety of my output, and I’ll try to discuss comics a little less intermittently than before, as I’m sure the unencumbering energy of purpose will inspire more writing, but a college student with a large library and empty wallet has little recourse except borrowed Nabokov when a blog must be maintained!

What’s next, you say? I don’t know, maybe an issue by issue rereading of Seven Soldiers or Doom Patrol, maybe some Kirby or PKD: Roy Thomas is already taken. Oh, but enough of the future, let’s dive into the present!

The boy scout in me wants to prepare a couple of these so that some schedule can be attempted, but where’s the fun for future scholars when every work was produced in solemn, respectful silence? Let’s start things off simply, as Nabokov has, then, with his first:

The Wood Sprite

This is an unabashedly early story by the Nab. It is not Nabokov’s first publication*, but his first fiction, appearing in publication January 7, 1921. It is difficult to talk about the work microcosmically, because it is poor and not even three small font Vintage International pages long, but I will try to curb any discussion of Nabokov’s work as a whole, and try to discern why he fascinates rather than illustrate that he fascinates.

*That accolade belongs to “A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera,” an English language description of the Crimean setting and its flying, fleeting beauty written in October 1919, conspicuously five months after his family relocated to England, implying the notes were originally written during the Russian Civil War, during its more intense campaigns.

I can sum the story up in one sentence: A wood sprite enters a narrator’s house, vanishing as the sole luminary, a candle, is extinguished. The entire story is dialogue and description, besides that, and built around a clumsy metaphor for émigré existence, which requires a little context for this story’s resonance (forgive my digression). During World War I, radicals gained political momentum and after a failed year of attempted Democratic rule, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power, forcing many Russian aristocrats and other dissenters of what would become Soviet rule to flee the country or face harsh consequences. Along with many other Russians, poor and rich alike, the Nabokovs were part of this émigré community devoted to Russian cultural subsistence around the globe, but mostly in Europe. A Russian émigré journal published this story, to which we shall return.

The wood sprite’s forest was cut down, and he was forced into a marsh, where he found a wood. “A wonderful wood it was, thick, dark, and cool. Yet somehow it was just not the same thing.” “[His] abode was not a merry one,” despite the lovers that he saw frolic through the forest, the narrator and “some little white dress.” “At first, [the wood sprite] thought a fellow elf was lurking there… But no, those are not the sounds we make.” He even tries to “get them all moving,” but “to no avail.” “Long [he] wandered through different forests, but I could find no peace. Either it was stillness, desolation, mortal boredom, or such horror it’s better not think about it.” “At last [he] made up his mind and changed into a bumpkin, a tramp with a knapsack, and left for good: Rus’ adieu!” Addressing the narrator, he concludes with an odd strain of empathy “I know that you, too, are pining… but your pining, compared to mine, my tempestuous, turbulent pining, is but the even breathing of one who is asleep. And think about it: not one of our Tribe is there left in Rus’.”

I imagine Nabokov felt rather pleased at having written these words, which so plainly, if elves become Russians, forests the cities of Russia and Rus’ Russia, speak about an émigré’s life. But even then, the endlessly emoting literary relic of gothic literature suffers some mockery. If only he didn’t speak about emigration so bluntly…

The pining the narrator feels is as innocuous to the wood sprite as somnial respirations! How ridiculous! Even adding to the narrator’s poor outing so far, the wood sprite’s old tribe is even the inspiration for the narrator, further entrenching the elves as exploited people: “It was we, Rus’, who were your inspiration, your unfathomable beauty, your agelong enchantment!” (And then, to make the metaphor horrifically explicit, the final cue card reads, “We are all gone, gone, driven into exile by a crazed surveyor.”)

This short story had to resonate with the émigré community, who probably saw themselves in the wood sprite, but it is still a personal story despite the magnetic pull of expressing shared troubles as completely shared experiences, a similar hurdle to individual expression and development in abjectly minority artwork. Nabokov has a lot more in common with the narrator, the roué messing about with a girl during a solemn moment for the wood sprite, the opportunist exploiting the Russian experience for his personal gain.

To further add humorous to the elf’s position, Nabokov has inverted the two characters, revealing the wood sprite as a solemn tower of travail demanding sympathy to climb its arduous walls and the narrator (ostensibly an artist from the introduction’s allusion to the Raven and from the wood sprite’s accusation of exploited inspiration) a warm, contented person. Nabokov, who enrolled in Cambridge shortly after his personal Diaspora, must have felt removed from the languor of exile, and more similar to the narrator than the wood sprite. He had his studies to (sometimes not) do!

(It is worth mentioning that this piece was written and published more than a year before his father’s death, and is the only extant fiction written before that personal tragedy.)

The elf and human have two different, opposing responses to exile, the human seeking pleasure from everything, even his own exile, and the elf obsessed with the past (they are immortal, after all), and together they form a diptych of the mentality of exile, the inescapable tragedy of an event, and the zen/(not always unbearable) lightness of being/happiness able to be plucked from everyday life.

Luckily, the elf only appears in candle light, and the rest of Nabokov’s work occurs in radiant sunlight or wet darkness, for this is too hermetic a style and topic to continue exploring. Dichotomies are the toys of children, and soon Nabokov shall give us the puzzles of maturity!


A Few Notes on Individual Words in Nabokov’s Prose, all of which conveniently come from the same page:

Heave: Interestingly, (pg. 4 of the ubiquitous Vintage edition, as all parenthetical citations imply when a vintage edition of said text exists), Nabokov (or the assumed author of the piece, but these concerns are anticipatory) uses “heaved” when in The Defense, “there hove into sight the sawmill,” (22) “hove” being a rarely used past participial of heave used more commonly in the nautical sense, “ a. to move into a certain position or situation: to heave a vessel aback. b. to move in a certain direction: Heave the capstan around! Heave up the anchor!” (found here, as all definitions are from dictionary.com unless otherwise noted). This may be less than substantive, but it illustrates the development of his vocabulary as well as the quotidian language of his early work.

Undulations: This word reappears often, linking Details of a Sunset with his first novel, Mary, in one of many ways and presenting a central stylistic idea according to one critic in the later short story Torpid Smoke, but its peculiar recurrence is likely because the word means what it means with no authorial ballast: We’ll forgive the Nab an occasional lapse.

Tintinnabulate: I have never seen this word besides when “[the wood sprite’s] voice tintinnabulated” or its definition. It means “to ring like a bell.”

Bittern: This word has two definitions: “a bitter solution remaining in salt making after the salt has crystallized out of seawater or brine, used as a source of bromides, iodides, and certain other salts,” or “Any of several wading birds of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus, having mottled brownish plumage and a deep booming cry in the male.” If I were a skilled entomologist or could read competently in Russian, I might be able to illuminate the odd analogy, but as it stands I am forced to guess that the first is most likely correct: “Into the marshes they drove me, I wept and I howled, I boomed like a bittern,” but do not discount the sonorous howl of a salty wast product!


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