A Triumph of Individuality
THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOVSkip to next paragraph
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Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
Alfred A. Knopf
640 pp., $35
Like the lepidoptera that fascinated him all his life, Vladmir Nabokov (1899-1977) underwent an astonishing metamorphosis, transforming himself from a Russian writer into one of the masters of mid-20th-century English prose. Yet throughout a life colored by vast changes in his external circumstances, he retained his core identity: a refined (rather than rugged) individualist and elitist par excellence, with a spirit perpetually open to the joy and wonder of human consciousness itself.
Following a childhood and youth of wealth and privilege, Nabokov spent the second two decades of his life in European exile. Most of these years were spent in Berlin, where the aspiring young author managed to live almost entirely within the circle of his fellow Russian emigres: a kind of linguistic and cultural cocoon in which he was able to develop his skills as a Russian writer, contributing poems and stories to emigre journals like Rul (The Rudder).
All but 11 of the 65 pieces in Dmitri Nabokov's new collection of his father's stories were originally written in Russian, products of this period of exile. Many were later translated into English and gathered into three collections that appeared late in his career: "A Russian Beauty" (1973), "Tyrants Destroyed" (1975), and "Details of a Sunset" (1976). Most of the stories originally written in English appeared in "Nabokov's Dozen," which came out in 1958, three years after the novel that made his fortune: "Lolita."
Dmitri Nabokov, who previously translated most of the Russian stories into English in collaboration with his father, has continued the task on his own. His new collection, "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov," boasts 13 stories that he has translated into English, none of which has ever before been published in book form.
These 13 stories include some of Nabokov's earliest efforts, starting with his first published story, "The Wood Sprite" (1921), a rather fey effusion on the fate of a Russian forest elf forced to flee his native soil in the wake of revolutionary upheaval. Exile, however, is but one of the many themes that Nabokov would make his own.
A number of his early stories were perhaps too experimental or esoteric to find a ready audience and so remained unpublished. "Gods," written in 1923, shows the young author in the process of formulating one of his central ideas: "A half century from now no one will know the smells that prevailed in our streets and rooms. They will excavate some military hero of stone, of which there are hundreds in every city, and heave a sigh for Phidias of yore. Everything in the world is beautiful, but Man only recognizes beauty if he sees it either seldom or from afar ... listen ... today we are gods! Our blue shadows are enormous. We move in a gigantic, joyous world." Capturing these moments, directing attention to them, are the tasks this writer has set himself.
"The Port," "The Beneficence," and "The Flight" (written in the years 1924-25) are stories that capture and celebrate the unsuspected power of seemingly banal experiences: an afternoon spent wandering a seedy Mediterranean city; a lover's anxious hours awaiting his mistress; a bystander's account of a squabble that breaks out at a tavern: