a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In ‘Music’ (1932) Nabokov brings his own regretted atonality into play as the background to another variation on the topic of adultery, and he uses as his narrative strategy yet another version of ‘the expected meeting which does not take place’.
The protagonist Victor arrives late at a piano recital being given in someone’s home. He is more or less tone deaf as far as the performance is concerned: ‘any music he did not know … could be likened to the patter of a conversation in a strange tongue’ (TD,p.62). Feeling bored, he glances round the room and sees his former wife in the audience. Throughout the remainder of the recital he relives his short but painful relationship with her.
It is evident that he was besotted with her, but she lacked sensitivity and eventually cuckolded him. He has spent the last two years struggling to forget her, and now feels that he will have to start all over again. But eventually, as his memories and surging emotions are reflected by the music being played, he feels that he can pardon her: ‘I’ll forgive you everything because some day we must all die’ (p.67). When the recital ends she leaves the room and he converts what has been painful into a positive experience: ‘Victor realised that the music, which before had seemed a narrow dungeon … had actually been incredible bliss, a magic glass dome that had embraced and imprisoned him and her’ (p.68).
The suspicion that this is Nabokov’s variation on one of Tolstoy’s most famous stories is confirmed when another guest (who knows even less about music than Victor) tells him that the piece just played could have been ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. Beethoven’s composition is actually for violin and piano, but we have no way of knowing if the mistake is the guest’s or Nabokov’s own – though the latter seems unlikely.
The narrative moves skilfully between the fictional present and past in a manner which he was to bring to its highest stage of development in ‘Spring in Fialta’ a few years later. Apart from ‘How long ago it all seemed!’ (p.64) the transitions are barely perceptible, and into them are woven Victor’s hesitant responses to the music, which he likens to his feelings about the woman and the sexual history of their relationship:
The music must be drawing to a close. When they come, those stormy, gasping chords, it usually signifies that the end is near. Another intriguing word, end … Rend impend … Thunder rending the sky, dust clouds of impending doom. With the coming of spring she became strangely unresponsive’ (p.66).
In a sense one might argue that the account of the non-meeting is a Chekhovian outer narrative – there is a nod to him within the text: ‘a pince-nez on a Chekhovian ribbon’ (p.63) – containing the more dramatically passionate Tolstoyan inner account of the relationship. Certainly Field’s biography gives details of Nabokov’s participation in mock trials of Tolstoy’s story which would give credence to such a reading.
Once again, Nabokov subverts the obvious plot device (the meeting which the reader anticipates does not take place) and offers as closure to the story the more subtle resolution of Victor’s epiphany as he digests his unexpected experience. His doing so unites the two major elements of the story content – the music and his previous love. Art and imagination are brought to bear as antidotes to the sadness and the transience of life.
© Roy Johnson 2005