a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
‘An Affair of Honour’ (September 1927) was originally called ‘Podlets’ (‘The Cur’ or ‘The Scoundrel’) which signals the topic more directly, but without the irony of its present title. For the affair is anything but honourable. The story is in fact a grotesque variation on the subject of duels, which occur so often in Russian literature. Nabokov acknowledges his debt to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and ‘The Shot’, and to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time by mentioning them in the text, and he cites in his editorial note ‘Chekhov’s magnificent novelle Single Combat‘ as a romantic theme on which his own story is a ‘belated variation’.[RB,p.82]
The setting is yet again Russian émigré Berlin, and the topic which provokes the duel is one to which Nabokov returns over and over again throughout his work – adultery. Anton Petrovich (who with the same forename and initials, is a second nod to Chekhov) returns home unexpectedly early from a business trip to discover that he is being cuckolded by his associate Berg. He immediately challenges him to a duel: ‘He pulled off the glove with a final yank and threw it awkwardly at Berg. The glove slapped against the wall and dropped into the washstand pitcher. “Good shot”, said Berg’ [RB,p.86].
This squalid little scene encapsulates the whole story. For Anton Petrovich is clumsy and cowardly: he is also fat, self-satisfied, and utterly conventional. Berg on the other hand is a big man with broad shoulders, full of insouciance and physical confidence. More importantly he is a former White Army man who has killed more than five hundred Reds.
Anton Petrovich compounds the farce by choosing as seconds Mityushin and Gnushke, two drunken fools who come from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern school of malevolent funsters – one of many such grotesque duos which crop up in Nabokov’s work: [two similar but more sinister thugs will appear shortly in The Leonardo]. He then goes back home, congratulates himself on his sangfroid – ‘Extraordinary, how this man retains his composure – does not even forget to wind his watch’ (p.92), then vomits all over the carpet with anxiety.
He tries to shed personal responsibility for what has happened – ‘all that talk about duels had started’ (p.93) (which he had started himself) – and he hopes that the seconds will not make the arrangements for the duel. But they do, and Anton Petrovich is seized by the terrible realisation that he may be killed. His mind is in a whirl of fear, half-baked superstition, and idées reçues: ‘when the duel starts, I shall turn up my jacket collar – that’s the custom, I think’ (p.102). He is even worried by such irrelevancies as the fact that his suit may be ruined if he is shot.
Overwhelmed by his own cowardice, he sneaks away from the appointed place and rushes back into the centre of Berlin to hide in a hotel room. Nabokov then uses the technique he employed in Details of a Sunset and takes him back home, where he discovers that Berg has run off too and his ordeal is therefore over: ‘everything is now just dandy. And you come out of it honourably, while [Berg] is disgraced forever’ (p.115).
But of course as even Anton Petrovich himself realises, ‘such things don’t happen in real life’ (p.115). He is in fact still in the hotel room, cowering, not knowing what to do. The story closes with him ‘woolfing gluttonously at a ham sandwich on which he immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging margin of fat’ (p.115).
This is another example of inventive use of traditional material – a variation which presents the duel-which-doesn’t-take-place. The story is open-ended. As in The Return of Chorb we are not told ‘what happens next’ because this is not important. Nabokov’s purpose is to offer a character study of vulgarity, incompetence, and moral cowardice and to ring the changes on a traditional subject.
There are also some finely developed examples of Nabokov’s skill in organising structural details to hold together the story. When Anton Petrovich visits Mityushin he declares “I want you to be my second” (p.89) and when he sneaks off from the duel at the other end of the story he does so by pretending to go to the lavatory: “Excuse me a second” (p.109). These are the sort of echoes, poetic repetitions, and ironic counterpoints (even when used for comic effect, as here) which were being used by writers such as Mansfield, Woolf, and Nabokov (all of whom were admirers of Chekhov, one notes) to develop the short story as a more condensed and tightly organised literary form.
When Anton Petrovich escapes back to the city centre he meets an old colleague Leontiev – something of a polite bore, and also a fellow cuckold. Leontiev dogs his steps for a while in a manner which increases the suspense as we wonder if the escapee will be caught. But we eventually realise that he wishes to ask Anton Petrovich’s advice and talk something over with him – and when he mentions his wife’s name we realise that we have encountered her very briefly earlier in the story – lying in a drunken stupor in Mityushin’s apartment.
We perhaps view Leontiev in a more sympathetic light (the fellow cuckold seeking help) but more importantly we see two minor characters connected symmetrically across the pages of the story to reinforce two of its themes – adultery and moral squalor. Both Leontiev and his wife appear to be superfluous to the story until their significance is brought into focus by this one deft touch.
What ‘An Affair of Honour’ illustrates is Nabokov’s ability to take a subject deep from the stockpile of Russian cultural history and to ring inventive changes upon it. He first ironically inverts it: the duel is initiated by an abject coward. Then he subverts it: the duel does not take place. And then instead of the conventional ending to duel stories (somebody being shot, or as in the case of Pushkin’s ‘The Shot’, demonstrating the skill they could have used and thus illustrating a point of honour) he produces an open-ended narrative with the protagonist in mid-flight from his rival and his own cowardice.
We have no idea what will happen to him afterwards, and this is anyway not important. As closure to the story Nabokov offers Anton Platonov’s negative epiphany as he slides hopelessly into his spiritual abyss – rather in the same manner as the narrator of ‘Terror’.
Thus, as a substitute for the traditional requirement of plot resolution we are presented with character revelation. As the short story writer Eudora Welty observes, this is what often distinguishes the modern from the traditional short story: ‘the plot of a short story in many instances is quite openly a projection of character’.
© Roy Johnson 2005