A Triumph of Individuality


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A number of his early stories were perhaps too experimental or esoteric to find a ready audience and so remained unpublished.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:

"I neither know nor wish to know who was wrong and who was right in this affair.... Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather, the play of shadow and light on live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way," concludes the narrator of "The Fight," in a manner that makes one wonder if the "joyous world" of aesthetic perception is available only to those possessing a rather detached and chilly temperament.

Nabokov's characteristic blend of passion and detachment appears even in his earliest works. "Sounds," written in 1923, previously unpublished, demonstrates his dazzling powers of description, his tender evocation of the past, and his ability to focus on odd angles of consciousness, in this case, the sense of hearing: "With a fresh, slippery sound, enormous silver spectres sped through the garden.... The drainpipe rattled and choked. You were playing Bach.... Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes."

The Nabokovian sense of whimsy, already evident in "The Wood Sprite," is employed more engagingly in his previously unpublished "The Dragon" (1924), featuring a shy, fire-breathing monster ill-prepared to cope with the perils of modern commercialism. On a more somber note, a story called "Revenge" shows the aspiring writer striving for shock effects in an icy little horror tale about a cold-hearted academic who suspects his gentle young wife of infidelity.

Perhaps the oddest of these early stories is "Wingstroke," a bizarre mixture of fantasy and social comedy-turned-tragedy set at an Alpine ski resort. The characters include a suicidal narrator; a fellow guest who is overly interested in the narrator's tendencies; a beautiful Englishwoman fond of daring ski-jumps; and a distinctly unspiritual, outsized angel whose thick, brown-furred wings exude an unpleasant damp odor.

Unsuccessful though it may be, this story contains elements that are combined more adroitly in Nabokov's maturer work.

"La Veneziana," the longest of these early stories, is in many ways the most successful.

The setting, once again, is stagily "high society": the castle of an English aristocrat, where host and guests are spending a country weekend. But along with the lawn tennis, the bridge games, the meals, and the semi-clandestine illicit love affair, there's the unexpected role played by an exquisite painting of a beautiful woman that appears to exert a nearly fatal attraction over one of the house guests: "pale as death, carefully closing behind him the silent door, he tiptoed up to Fra Bastiano del Piombo's 'Veneziana.' She greeted him with her familiar opaque gaze, and her long fingers paused on their way to her fur wrap, to the slipping crimson folds. Caressed by a whiff of honeyed darkness, he glanced into the depths of the window that interrupted the black background...."

This edition also restores two final paragraphs accidentally omitted from a previously published work, "The Assistant Producer," the first story that Nabokov composed in English. The additional paragraphs heighten the ingenuity of an already artful tale.

Nabokov's achievements as a novelist and autobiographer have understandably tended to overshadow his accomplishments as a short-story writer. By assembling the stories from the previous collections in a single volume and providing with the additional pleasures of these newly translated, previously unavailable stories, Dmitri Nabokov has illuminated this vital aspect of his father's apprenticeship and artistry.

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