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Showing 1-10 of 35 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 57 reviews
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.
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on March 10, 2014
This volume of Nabokov's complete stories has been put together by the man's son, who also did most of the translations of the older, Russian ones. Most of these stories were previously published in volumes of 'dozens', except the earliest ones, which are new to the light of day.
I have previously read most, if not all of them in the excellent German edition by Dieter Zimmer with Rowohlt. Coming back to the stories after many years, and in a new, English shape, gives me the same great pleasure that hooked me on Nabokov long ago.
(Long ago I made the frivolous pledge to learn Russian at age 60, so that I could read Nabokov and others in the original. Alas.)

I enjoy VN's prose sentence by sentence. The short story was a form that suited him well. While he over-constructed at times in his longer works (think of Ada!), few of the short stories deserve any blame. They are perfect. The time span of their writing is 1921 to 1958, if I am not mistaken. The very first story is a gem of the genre: a forest ghost, a wood-sprite, presumably something like a leprechaun, tells our narrator, a student in English exile, late at night, how he ran from the Bolshevist revolution... Don't even think of assuming that hints at Poe's Raven are accidental. Even Lolita is essentially a Poe reference.

The stories have many subjects, but many are in some way related to the experience of exile. Even when they go back to memories of the old days, the political context is always there, under the surface. Example: 'Sounds' deals with a nostalgic memory of an adulterous summer love. Our narrator addresses his lover, a married neighbor, as if he were telling her the story how all was perfect until it broke. If you are an inattentive reader, you might even miss the reason. World War 1 has started (we get just one hint at this, when she asks him, while she reads the newspaper: where is Sarajewo? The also present schoolmaster says: in Serbia.)
In consequence of the unspoken, her officer husband sends her a message that he must come home earlier because plans have changed...

Teju Cole just said in a New York Times interview, that the novel is much overrated as a literary form. Right he is.
Short stories never get better than this.
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on November 29, 2011
About halfway through this collection, you will encounter a story called "Perfection." Read it carefully. It introduces the mature writing of this master craftsman of poetic imagery and what can only be called shimmering, gorgeous nightmares. Nabokov does not build stories or plots. He wills them into existence with a playful murderousness. He examines his creations -- and the processes with which he creates them -- from a variety of perspectives, seemingly holding back nothing, disclosing all, yet finally disclosing nothing but the fact that the story is over and the reader is left with the very real responsiblity to examine his own psyche for signs of damage or inspiration.

One sentence of Nabokov is worth a library of DeLillos or Murakamis...
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on July 7, 2015
I think Nabokov is a much better writer of books than stories. But others may disagree.
The stories were written earlier than his more famous work, and are not in the detailed type of very visual language readers might be familiar with. Translations are fine. Good introduction.
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on May 20, 2017
Nabokov is a somewhat "difficult" writer - there's often no closure in his stories, they are enigmatic. If that will bother you, you might not like his work. However, he is, without a doubt, brilliant. Excellent <3
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on November 16, 2015
If you haven't already, read Nabokov's short stories. You will very quickly realize that his worlds are much broader and his landscapes are crazier and more colorful than you ever would have imagined. There are many surprises in this collection that will stun, amaze and intrigue the reader. If you like things such as: intricate imagination, complexity, individual thought, electric prose, being rewarded as a careful reader, surrealism, treasure hunting, among others, then this book is definitely for you.
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There is undeniable value in having the complete stories of Vladimir Nabokov collected in one volume, but there are far too many to be tasted, let alone digested, in a few days. This is a book to be sampled, then set aside for something else, then sampled again.

This collection contains all the stories previously published in NABOKOV'S DOZEN and the three volumes that followed it, a round dozen in each. To these about have been added about enough for a further volume, making 68 stories in all. One thing that surprised me (not being a Nabokov scholar) is that the stories do not evenly cover the writer's career. Roughly half his novels were written in English, but the great majority of the stories, though published in his American period, are translations from earlier works in Russian, mostly by his son Dmitri, who also edits this volume. There is comparatively little, for instance, that matches his extraordinary vision of America as seen in LOLITA. Mostly they deal with the rootless lives of émigrés in the twenties and thirties, or memories of pre-revolutionary Russia. All are well-written; that goes without saying; quite a few are politically incisive. But having sampled about a quarter of the stories in the book, selecting from all periods, I have to say I have been left with an almost physical depression. I am sure I will return to read others, but I have no desire to do so soon.

Still, let me give some examples of things that I did enjoy. There is "Music," in which a man with no ear for music goes to a salon recital, and sees his ex-wife there, the music providing a capsule of suspended time in which he can ponder their changed relations. "Mademoiselle O" is essentially a memoir of his privileged childhood and the triple-chinned French-Swiss governess who stayed with them for seven years; a hitherto unpublished story, "Easter Rain," is a sad extension of the governess character into old age, treasuring memories of Russia that nobody will share.

One interesting thing about the governess story is its metafictional frame. Nabokov enters the memoir mode as giving back their life to real characters that he had pilfered for his fiction. This theme occurs again in "Recruiting." An impoverished elderly émigré attends a Russian funeral in Berlin, then sits on a bench in a public park. A man comes to sit next to him, who turns out to be the author, who has "recruited" this old man (who may not even be Russian at all) as a character in his fiction. A similar trick is also seen in "Terra Incognita," whose narrator, a butterfly hunter in the remote tropics, is feverish with malaria. But it is not clear whether he is hallucinating about his living room in the jungle, or if the whole jungle sequence is an hallucination from some illness he suffers at home.

Perhaps the most striking story I read was "The Vane Sisters." It begins with a description of thaw in a New England college town, wonderfully detailed even in its depiction of garbage cans in the alleys between clapboard houses:

"I remarked for the first time the humble fluting -- last echoes of grooves on the shafts of columns -- ornamenting a garbage can, and I also saw the rippling upon its lid -- circles diverging from a fantastically ancient center. Erect, dark-headed shapes of dead snow (left by the blades of a bulldozer last Friday) were lined up like rudimentary penguins along the curbs, above the brilliant vibration of live gutters."

The story goes on to contain one of the most brilliant suicide notes on record, then segues to an account of the narrator's old relationship with the suicide's sister, abandoned by him when he could no longer keep up with her interest in spiritualism and the occult. And so the story ends -- or does it? For the final paragraph, another piece of colorful description, is in fact an acrostic, the first letters of its words spelling out a message from beyond the grave that ties back to that opening description and mocks the narrator's skepticism. I did not notice this myself -- few people would -- but had to have it pointed out to me. But I am not in bad company; apparently the New Yorker also rejected the story until Nabokov wrote to the editor explaining the trick. The whole story has become emblematic for me: brilliant writing, even more brilliant cleverness, but also self-regarding -- the story as art rather than story as simply story.
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on February 13, 2011
Reading Nabokov is to understand precisely what the art of writing and storytelling should be, but frequently isn't. There is an unparalleled poignancy and flow of imagination to his work that most writers are never able to achieve in a lifetime, yet he pulls it off flawlessly, with nearly every story. There is nothing of this quality being published today.

Nabokov not only had a mastery of language that makes reading him almost like reading poetry, but also a skill in crafting unique plots that often stole my breath upon coming to the end of each. Sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally darkly humorous, practically everything in this book exceeded my expectations and left me in awe of the author's talent. This is as worthwhile a read as I can imagine.
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on December 25, 2014
This book is a must-have for anyone who enjoys Nabokov. A comprehensive collection of short stories, this hefty compilation contains stories that range greatly in length and topic -- with anywhere from a few lines to a few paragraphs of notes on each story at the back of the book to provide context. Arranged from earliest to most recent story, it's riveting to experience his evolution in writing.
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on January 22, 2015
Important read for those who only know of Lolita and think it was Nabakov's only important book. A superb writer who captures essences, details, and paints word pictures that are on a par with the best Russian and French writers of any era. Beautiful, beautiful writing.
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