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A Sad Encounter with A Great Writer
on March 18, 2016
Along with a great many of my favorite writers, including John Updike and Jeffrey Eugenides, I am a lover of Nabokov's work, especially his later novels -The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Lolita, Pale Fire - and perhaps best of all his superb autobiography, Speak Memory. This makes it hard to understand why his collected stories stood on my shelf practically unread for many years, until I bought the Audible version and started listening to them, while consulting the print version from time to time. But now I know why I didn't read them: it's because I don't like most of them. First off, the collection is complete, or nearly so, and arranged chronologically, so that his early efforts - from his mid-twenties on - are encountered first. These were of course written in Russian, and though they have been carefully translated by Nabokov himself in some instances, and by his son Dmitri in others, they lose some of the stylistic brilliance they probably had in the original. A stylist plays delightfully with words, and such wordplay is often untranslatable, as puns and other verbal effects are lost when translated into a different language with different homonyms, etc.
Secondly, they were written in a depressed period of Nabokov's life, when he was a poor refugee living in a Berlin that was itself struggling to regain its prosperity after the loss of WW I, and was preparing for Hitler's takeover. A dispossessed, homesick stateless person, he saw the sorry state of Berlin, and the sorrier state of the Russian emigres, in whose circle he moved, and recorded them accurately, at least in some of his stories. Joyce's Dubliners takes a similar view of sad existences, but Joyce was steeped in the history of his unhappy land, while Nabokov was merely a visitor. He sees many kinds of failure and discouragement in his fellow Russians, but is rarely compassionate. Rather, in the tradition, perhaps, of Gogol, a writer Nabokov greatly admired, he satirizes them. But satire works best when its targets are the well-fed and complacent. These characters of Nabokov's are more down-and-out than he himself was, and his ridicule of them is unkind and unnecessary. Even when his protagonist is not Russian, as in "The Potato Elf," he can't resist making fun of deformity - always a weakness in his fiction (Laughter In The Dark, for instance, recounts the sexual humiliation of a blind man).
This leads us to my final and greatest criticism.: Nabokov is cruel. Strikingly, his son in an introduction goes out of his way to argue that his father was inveterately compassionate, and never cruel. This I think must be in anticipation of the kind of criticism I am making, for Nabokov may have been kind as a person, but his imagination was invariably cruel. Time after time these stories create a character in order to steer him or her to some sort of failure or comeuppance, sometimes with a shrug of the shoulders - "what did you expect?" - sometimes with a surprise ending like those in de Maupassant and O. Henry - The Potato Elf ends with a heart attack that is merciful compared to the shock of further discoveries that awaited the midget had he lived.
There are brilliant passages of descriptive writing, in these stories, as one would expect of someone who at this time in his life was principally a lyric poet, but fiction depends on plot and character, not on lovely description. Eventually, after he came to America and started writing in English (his first English novel was Sebastian Knight in 1940) his stories take on more of the manner of his American novels, which are better than the Russian ones, if only because Nabokov continued to grow and get better as a writer of fiction. Also he became happier, and more secure. A late story, "The Vane Sisters" is a puzzle-story with a hidden meaning that the reader will probably miss unless he works over it like the Sunday crossword, but has a consoling message when solved. Nabokov eventually discovered how to create and mock unreliable narrators who embody his own flaws of cruelty, superiority, and detachment. He started satirizing himself, in other words, and this was a more fitting object of satire than the sad sacks who inhabit his earlier fiction. But then he gave up writing short stories, except as memoir pieces that he gathered together as Speak, Memory, which may come to seem, even more than Lolita or Pale Fire, his masterpiece. One of these pieces, a portrait of his French governess back in Russia, is probably the best story in this entire collection, though it is not properly speaking a story at all, and is even better when read as a chapter of his autobiography.