a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
‘Bachmann’ (October 1924) marks an enormous step forward in Nabokov’s mastery of narrative – particularly his exploitation of the combination and subtleties of third and first person mode. The story combines two of his favourite topics – Art and Death – in a subject which he treats many times throughout both his stories and novels – the artist-figure as a tormented eccentric, and a representative of the almost sacred belief Nabokov had in the value of individual human personality.
In many of his interviews and essays Nabokov expresses his horror of the general and the mass, and on the contrary his concern for the particular and the unique. It is an attitude which translated into artistic terms strongly reinforces his creation of a concrete and memorable world populated by credible and individualised characters.
Bachmann is a brilliantly gifted concert pianist and composer, but he is also eccentric and an alcoholic. Madame Perov, one of his admirers, follows him around Europe, sitting in the front row at every one of his concerts. They appear to become lovers, though Bachmann treats her badly. Yet on an occasion when Madame Perov falls ill he notices her absence, refuses to play, and absconds. She is summoned to the concert hall, wanders around all night in the rain looking for him, and eventually finds him in a hotel where they spend the happiest night of her life together, finding ‘words the greatest poets never dreamed of’ (TD,p.182). She dies the next day, and Bachmann subsequently goes to pieces.
The artist as comic Bohemian is a conventional enough literary figure. Bachmann has ‘short legs in baggy black trousers’ and whilst reading a newspaper at a party given in his honour ‘without taking his eyes off the paper he absent-mindedly checked the fly of his trousers with one finger’ (p.173). The relationship between talent (or genius) and eccentricity is something which many writers have treated, and Nabokov himself was to do so more extensively in his later novel The Defense where his chess master Luzhin is finally driven to suicide.
What is of prime interest here is the manner in which the story is told; for considering the fact that he was so young and had only been working in the short story form for less than two years, Nabokov took an enormous step forward in developing the complexity of his narrative.
The events are related in the first person by an unnamed narrator, and he is passing on an account of the incidents given to him by Bachmann’s manager, the impresario Sack. This oblique narrative method is somewhat reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, another Anglicised polyglot and Slav, on whom Nabokov lectured to his colleagues in the Russian émigré literary circle around the time of the story’s composition. The method enables Nabokov to do two things which were to fascinate him more and more as his work progressed – tease the reader and ring changes on the deliberate creation of unstable narratives.
When Madame Perov is invited to meet Bachmann at a friend’s house for instance, her attention is immediately drawn to the dominant figure at a piano entertaining some ladies grouped around him:
The tails of his dress coat had a substantial-looking, particularly thick silk lining, and, as he talked, he kept tossing back his dark, glossy hair, at the same time inflating the wings of his nose, which was very white and had a rather elegant hump. There was something about his entire figure benevolent, brilliant, and disagreeable (p.172).
Both Madame Perov and the first time reader can be forgiven for assuming that this is a sketch of Bachmann (complete with the Gogolian details of coat and nose). Nabokov is playing with the attractions of stereotypes – the conditioned expectations of both the Madame Perovs of this world going to meet piano-playing celebrities, and our expectations as the readers of fictions about them.
In fact this character is not Bachmann at all but the impresario Sack, and we then gradually learn from the account of events he gives and which is relayed to us by the outer narrator, just what an unsavoury person he is.
Sack is greedy and shallow, and he completely fails to understand both Bachmann and Madame Perov. Bachmann he calls an ‘absolutely abnormal individual’ merely because he is ‘cranky, capricious, grubby’ (p.174). That is, he does not conform to Sack’s own mediocre and conventional views of what is proper. And in describing Madame Perov he falls back on cliché, describing her after only their first meeting as ‘an extraordinarily “temperamental” as he put it, extraordinarily high-strung woman’ (p.174) even though she has done nothing whatever to warrant this description.
Even when Bachmann goes on alcoholic binges, Sack only bothers to search for him when it is necessary to get him in shape for a concert. And he cannot understand why Madame Perov could ever love the man whose talent he is exploiting: ‘The mystery of the female heart’ (p.177) he exclaims, speaking like something out of Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues.
Not only does he summon Madame Perov from her sickbed to search for Bachmann when he goes missing, but he is abusive to her when she arrives; he misdirects her into the slummy bar district; and then he abandons her. Finally, some years later, when he sees a shabby and unhappy Bachmann on a railway platform he ignores him because ‘I was with a lady, and there were people around…It would have been awkward’ (p.183).
What is of interest here is the fact that the outer narrator makes no comment at all on Sack: he merely relates what Sack tells him. Thus we are presented with a character who, whilst setting out to justify his actions, does exactly the opposite and reveals himself if we read closely enough as a shabby egoist. We are given Sack’s view of things, but in the presentation he releases information which does not correspond with that view, and Nabokov offers us enough information to make an objective judgement.
Viewed another way, the reader is given the opportunity to make a gradual ‘construction’ of Sack’s character as a moral vulgarian, enjoying what Wayne Booth calls ‘The pleasure of collaboration’ between reader and author. Of course such a complex strategy of delivering the story to us has its own problems. How can the outer narrator know what Madame Perov did or felt when nobody was with her?
Nabokov side-steps this potential trap with some very neat linguistic footwork. Statements of admitted invention are used as a subtle bridge into an account of what could be known or surmised. ‘I imagine for some reason that when she started pulling on her stockings the silk kept catching on the toenails of her icy feet. She arranged her hair as best she could’ (p.180). The transition here from surmise (‘I imagine’) to statement (‘She arranged’) is hardly noticeable. This is a very skillful manipulation of narrative mode in a twenty-five year old writer just embarking on his literary career.
© Roy Johnson 2005