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Very Pale Fire

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited by Dmitri Nabokov

Knopf, 655 pp., $35

There was always something of the whiz kid about Nabokov, and nowhere is this characteristic more obvious than in his short stories. They were written from the early 1920s until the middle 1950s, when Lolita liberated him from a form he must have known did not show him at his best. At their worst, Nabokov's stories are built around a twist worthy of O. Henry. In "Revenge," a mad professor, jealous on the slimmest (and as it turns out, misleading) evidence, kills his wife by putting her to bed with the "hastily cobbled skeleton of a hunchback" that he "had acquired abroad for the university museum." Those are the last words in the story--how nifty! "A Matter of Chance" tells of a couple of Russian emigrants, separated for years, whose reunion is thwarted by two cruel accidents; we don't feel much for the couple, not even when the husband commits suicide out of his desperate loneliness, but we do rub our palms together at the swell plot--if, that is, we happen to be science nerds, chess champions or idiots savants who may be savant about fate's dirty tricks but idiotic in what might appeal to an adult mind. In "La Veneziana," Nabokov toys with the notion of entering a painting, and along the way treats us to the perennially avant-garde reminder that art is not life but only artifice: the night watchman "traverses this narrative and rapidly vanishes into the misty domains whence he was evoked by a whim of the pen." Neat.

The fun continues. In "The Admiralty Spire," an irate man writes an author a letter that foreshadows Kinbote's raving in Pale Fire. He accuses the author of having stolen and leached of all color his own radiant love story, but when he begins to cite chapter and verse we see that the allegedly plagiarized scenes are nothing but the commonplaces of eau-de-rose novelettes, redeemed if at all by the freshness of sensuous detail in the letter-writer's memories. This is an idea for a story that started out, no doubt, as an "idea for a story," and it stays in the reader's memory in just that schematic form. And the story called "The Vane Sisters" ends with an acrostic. The first letters of all the words in the last paragraph spell out a rather uncrucial message to the alert, or alerted, reader. When The New Yorker's fiction editor Katherine White rejected the story in 1951, Nabokov wrote her a protest, explaining the device. As Michael Wood recounts in his sensitively analytical new book, The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, White replied that they'd certainly missed the acrostic, "that being rather out of The New Yorker's line." It is exterior, I might add, to most serious readers' tastes, too.

Details, of course, are at the heart of Nabokov's fiction. If he often relies on clumsy, too-paraphrasable and punchy plots, he does so because they function as the strong frame on which are cantilevered notations of color, sound, smell and touch, notations that are evocative but often static, especially when dwelled on at great length. In the earliest stories, we see his love of shimmering detail in its purest, least narrative form. In the appropriately titled "Sounds," an early love affair in Russia is brushed in, but it is scarcely visible against the indelible colors of what would ordinarily be called the background. This strange reversal of figure and ground is justified by a pantheistic pronouncement: "I realized that you had no power over me, that it was not you alone who were my lover but the entire earth."

This first sounding of the Nabokovian credo--the love of the world's detail--is echoed explicitly again and again in these stories, and implicitly it shapes Nabokov's artistic decisions sentence by sentence. In "A Guide to Berlin," he puts this taste into a long perspective of time and nostalgia:

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

Nabokov wrote of "A Guide to Berlin" that "despite its simple appearance" it is "one of my trickiest pieces." Wow. I love tricks.

One could almost say that Nabokov's art at its best thrives on hallucinatory evocations, that the only subjects that provide his work with the necessary intensity are childhood memories, love, certain exquisite experiences of nature and a few privileged moments of making or enjoying art. Exile rendered childhood places and people permanently unavailable to him, hence haloed. But in the stories, most of them written in Berlin, where he lived throughout the 1920s until the mid-1930s and wrote under the name "Vladimir Sirin" for emigre Russian periodicals, all Nabokov had to play against the perfection of lost Russia was the insufferable porkiness of the Germans--not quite the stuff of epiphany.

In "Cloud, Castle, Lake," for instance, a melancholy Russian wins a pleasure trip at a charity ball and is forced to go to the country with a terrifying band of German merrymakers, led by a blond giant "burned the color of a cockscomb" who had "huge brick-red knees with golden hairs" while his nose "looked lacquered." Everyone is forced to sing from sheet music handed out by the Bureau ("Stop that worrying and moping,/ Take a knotted stick and rise, /Come a-tramping in the open/ With the good, the hearty guys!"). In Lolita, by contrast, Nabokov is not appealing to a small band of impoverished and nearly extinct Russian exiles, as he was in his stories, but clowning in English before a potentially vast public of Americans who were at once confident enough politically and materially and yet sufficiently insecure culturally to shudder with pleasure at the pointed remarks of Humbert Humbert, a French-speaking Swiss intellectual (and a scoundrel, a criminal and a madman).

Through Humbert's eyes American readers see their own country from an odd, often uncomprehending, certainly satirical perspective. This defamiliarization (and the occasional shared sympathy between Nabokov and the reader at Humbert's expense) lend the descriptions of American folkways a joie de vivre absent from the earlier novels and stories. As the envoy of a superior if vanished Russia addressing a more naive but robustly present America, Nabokov is in much better form than when he's complaining about Germany to fellow Russian emigres.

Nabokov once observed that Freud got it wrong: we don't love a woman's silken hair because we are attracted to her sexually, we are attracted to her sexually because we wish to be connected somehow to her silken hair. In the same way, we could say that in his stories Nabokov doesn't invent details in order to realize a plot (as Aristotle proposed in the Poetics); the heavy-handed action in his writing is there to provide an occasion for the poetry.

When the details work properly, they're so light that they lift those heavy hands. Consider the conclusion of "Perfection," in which an ill and absentminded Russian tutor travels with his athletic young charge to a seaside resort. The boy runs into the surf and pretends to drown. The tutor stumbles after him, has a heart attack and dies. This is the last paragraph:

The dull mist immediately broke, blossomed with marvelous colors, all kinds of sounds burst forth--the rote of the sea, the clapping of the wind, human cries--and there was David standing, up to his ankles in bright water, not knowing what to do, shaking with fear, not daring to explain that he had not been drowning, that he had struggled in jest--and farther out people were diving, groping through the water, then looking at each other with bulging eyes, and diving anew, and returning empty-handed, while others shouted to them from the shore, advising them to search a little to the left; and a fellow with a Red Cross armband was running along the beach, and three men in sweaters were pushing into the water a boat grinding against the shingle; and a bewildered David was being led away by a fat woman in a pince-nez, the wife of a veterinarian, who had been expected to arrive on Friday but had had to postpone his vacation, and the Baltic Sea sparkled from end to end, and, in the thinned-out forest, across a green country road, there lay, still breathing, freshly cut aspens; and a youth, smeared with soot, gradually turned white as he washed under the kitchen tap, and black parakeets flew above the eternal snows of the New Zealand mountains; and a fisherman, squinting in the sun, was solemnly predicting that not until the ninth day would the waves surrender the corpse.

Everything is in this passage, from the lovely language ("rote of the sea") to the efficient evidence that David is alive and doomed to a life of regret for his prank, to the terrific to-and-fro-ing of a drowning, the Gogolian runaway sub-story about the veterinary (the very device that Nabokov would later comment on with such relish in his book about Gogol), the slow-motion, black-and-white fantasia on New Zealand, which is a superb rendering of the "bliss" of asphyxiation, to the final, unmistakable proof of death in the fisherman's superstitious prediction, illogical but necessary. Nabokov would again and again write such bravura paragraphs, full of synesthesia, half-buried narrative and sketchy portents. Perhaps the most remarkable is the long last paragraph of the first chapter of Speak, Memory, in which the writer's father is tossed high by peasants until his flying body turns into a sculpted angel looking down on a funeral bier that suggests the death of Imperial Russia.

When Nabokov gave himself enough room to develop characters about whom he could care, his twin method of fashioning a nifty plot and loading it down with sensuous detail worked well. The novels, especially Lolita and Pale Fire, are as fine as anything written in this century, and at least one story, "Spring in Fialta," transcends technique to become a memorable tale of lost love. It was written in 1936, when he was composing The Gift, his Russian masterpiece, and it is the ultimate emigrant story, since it is the tale of fifteen years' worth of brief encounters between a man and a woman. Most of the stories, however, are plagued by Nabokov's excesses and redeemed by none of his virtues. They are preening, almost automatically nostalgic about a lost Russia of privilege and aristocratic family love, as sepia-tinted as an old photo of posed family outings. Years ago I asked Nina Berberova about Nabokov, and she exclaimed: "I'm so tired of that sacred childhood of his!" It was a complaint she was richly qualified to make, having lived and lost a similar youth. All of Nabokov's imperiousness turns out just to be a magic fire guarding a sleeping child in patent leather shoes and tailored shorts. Responding to a brilliant essay written by Simon Karlinsky, the most incisive and erudite Russian scholar of our times, Nabokov expressed pleasure at being linked (as Karlinsky had linked him) to Chekhov, in a secondary Russian tradition that preferred aesthetic values to political sermonizing. Nabokov commented:

Mr. Karlinsky has put his finger on a mysterious sensory cell. He is right, I do love Chekhov dearly. I fail, however, to rationalize my feeling for him: I can easily do so in regard to the greater artist, Tolstoy ... but when I imagine Chekhov with the same detachment all I can make out is a medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps, and so forth; yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet.

In this uncharacteristic admission of an admiration that he can't quite defend, Nabokov missed the chance to understand that what made Chekhov great was not his strained originality of language nor his armature of dangerous details and tricky plots, but rather the doctor-writer's nearly scientific precision of observation, an unparalleled freedom from moralizing and a weary but genuine compassion for failed humanity. Chekhov once wrote a letter to Gorky complaining that his descriptions of nature were too ingenious, that he should replace them with simple statements such as "It was raining." One wonders what Nabokov would have made of such advice. In Lolita, Nabokov's drooping eye is fully open and observant. His harsh moral condemnation of Humbert never precludes a full imagining of the depraved child-molester's eloquence, nor the intensity of his desire. In that one book, Nabokov rivaled Chekhov and justified his entire enterprise.

But his stories never attain this perfection, though they are at their best when they read like condensed, speeded-up novels ("Spring in Fialta" is the prime example). More typically, as in a story such as "The Aurelian," the hero is a stay-at-home shopkeeper who longs to travel. He sells a rare collection of butterflies to an amateur and goes on a long trip to exotic places. Except, as we learn in the last line, Pilgram doesn't really travel: "So, in a certain sense, it is quite irrelevant that sometime later, upon wandering into the shop, Eleanor saw the checkered suitcase, and then her husband, sprawling on the floor with his back to the counter, among scattered coins, his livid face knocked out of shape by death." Get it? The trip was imagined in the instant before death. Cool....

Edmund White is the author most recently of Skinned Alive (Knopf) and, with the illustrator Hubert Sorin, Our Paris: Sketches from Memory (Knopf).

By Edmund White