a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
There appears to be confusion over the date of first publication of ‘Spring in Fialta’ (April 1936) but general agreement that it is the highpoint in Nabokov’s achievement as a writer of short stories.
As Barbara Heldt Monter justly claims ‘It is as clear a masterpiece among Nabokov’s short stories as Lolita and Pale Fire among his novels.’ (Appel,p.129). It combines a number of his favourite and well-tested themes – recapturing the past, the Double, amorous yearning, Russia and The Woman – and to tell the story he combines several narrative devices – circular construction, absence of ‘plot’, scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator.
Victor, the first person narrator, is a businessman who recounts the events of a brief visit to Fialta in the early 1930s where he bumps into Nina, a woman he had known since they were both teenagers in Russia in 1917, and with whom he has been in love ever since. He recalls to himself their first meeting and the fact that they have only met very sporadically since.
These meetings are recollected in flashback and woven very skilfully around his account of the day that they spend together in Fialta. Both of them have since married, and Victor is acquainted with Nina’s husband Ferdinand. They all lunch together, and Victor is invited to join them for a drive; but he declines. Some days later he reads in a newspaper that the car was involved in an accident that very afternoon, killing Nina.
The large scale parallels between Nina and Russia are obvious enough in the light of Nabokov’s earlier stories. Victor meets Nina in the fatidic years of 1917 and every time they subsequently meet he wishes to lead her back into the past before discussing what they have done since they last met. He even draws a comparison between this process and the narrative strategies employed in Russian fairy tales, wherein ‘the already told is bunched up again at every new twist of the story’ (ND,p.5).
This is an approach to story telling which exactly describes the narration of ‘Spring in Fialta’ itself. Victor throws loops into the past in his efforts to recapture memories of the enigmatic and illusive Nina, and these loops are thrown from a very slowly moving account of the day they meet for the last time.
What hold together these fragments of memory and the events of the narrative present are a series of cleverly arranged details which echo and connect with each other. The story is a ‘mosaic’, as is hinted at in the text itself, rather than a conventional tale with linear chronology. There scenes which repeat each other; characters who act as links; colours which act as leitmotives; and a series of visual clues which plot the way to Nina’s death. All these details and devices are so closely packed together that several careful readings of the story are necessary before their significance and the connections they have with each other become apparent. To illustrate this point, these few lines come from the opening of the story:
‘I found myself, all my senses wide open, on one of Fialta’s little steep streets, taking in everything at once, that marine rococo on the stand … and the dejected poster of a visiting circus, one corner of its drenched paper detached from the wall, and a yellow bit of unripe orange peel on the old, slate-blue sidewalk, which retained here and there a fading memory of ancient mosaic design’ (p.1)
Every one of these statements and details has a significance or a connection with what is to follow in the story. The pieces of marine rococo are seaside souvenirs, one of which Ferdinand buys later in the story. It is a small piece of marble imitating a local mountain ‘showing a black tunnel at its base … with a compartment for pens in the semblance of railroad tracks’ (p.19).
This description itself echoes Victor’s account of his journey to Fialta by an express train which ‘with that reckless gusto particular to trains in mountainous country, had done its thundering best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible’ (p.2). This link also helps establish the Double theme between Victor and Ferdinand, of which more in a moment.
The circus poster is one of a number which are mentioned like motifs throughout the account of the day they meet, and in the last few moments of their time together Victor and Nina actually see some of its performers sent ahead as an advertising pageant. This carefully plotted line of clues leads ultimately to Nina’s death – as it is one of the circus trucks into which the car crashes.
The car itself is coloured yellow, as is Nina’s scarf, the Russian church wax mentioned in one of Victor’s most lyrical memories of her – and of course the unripe orange peel on the sidewalk.
These are the sorts of repetitions and links which give such elegant form to what superficially appear to be unconnected reminiscences in the narrative. Victor on entering the town notices someone selling lollipops – ‘elaborate looking things with a lunar gloss’ (p.3) – and it is one of these – ‘a long stick of moonstone candy’ (p.17) – which Nina’s husband is eating when they all meet later in the day.
Victor notices an Englishman in plus fours, and it is this man’s lustful glance towards Nina which leads Victor to see her. Later, the Englishman reappears in the restaurant where Nina, Victor and Ferdinand are lunching. This time his gaze is attracted to a moth which he catches in a pill box. Similarly, a young girl appears briefly at the beginning of the story ‘with a string of beads around her dusky neck’ (p.2) and then later in the day Victor notices ‘a swarthy girl with beads around her pretty neck’ (p.18).
These are some of the small details which form the pattern of the ‘mosaic’. But they are not just simple structural echoes or walk-on-walk-off parts for secondary characters which in themselves would make the story no more than choreographically interesting. They also tell us something about Victor’s reliability as a narrator. In the first of these examples it seems that he misjudged the Englishman, and in the second it is evident that he himself fails to recognise the little girl on the second occasion of seeing her. Are his senses as wide open as he originally claimed they were?
Almost all other commentators on this story take Victor at face value. He purports to be telling us of a love affair with this tantalising and somewhat promiscuous woman which has lasted on and off for fifteen years. Andrew Field, conflating Victor and his creator, discusses Nina in terms of Nabokov’s taste for ‘acerbic women’ (Field, VN, p.163). Monter describes it as ‘a love story’ (Appel, p.133) and thinks the Englishman is Nabokov in disguise just because he is a lepidopterist. And Lee only begins to suspect an element of the Double in the relationship between Victor and Ferdinand (Lee,p.32).
In fact Victor is one of the most cunningly presented of all Nabokov’s unreliable narrators. He thinks he is telling us the truth, but the reader is given just enough information within his account to recognise that he is failing to understand the world he is in, deluding himself regarding Nina, misrepresenting people and their motives, and often behaving in a gauchely insensitive manner.
We begin with his own claim to be sensitive, which he repeats for emphasis: ‘how gratefully my whole being responded to the flutter and effluvia of that grey day saturated with a vernal essence which itself it seemed slow in perceiving’ (p.3). Quite apart from the florid vanity and the absurd anthropomorphism of this claim, all the subsequent evidence he offers proves that on the contrary he responds inappropriately to just about everything – but most of all to Nina.
He cannot find a term precise enough to define the nature of the relationship he has with her – and inattentive readers are given every opportunity to assume that it is of a conventionally romantic nature. Yet right from the outset we are also offered clues that it is at the very least a one-sided affair. ‘Every time I had met her … she had not seemed to recognise me at once’ (p.4). In fact on all the occasions he describes except one he is put out by the fact that she either ignores him or has forgotten him.
On the first occasion that they meet, even though he knows that she is engaged to be married, he makes a physical advance to her which she reciprocates very briefly: but then for the remainder of the meeting she ignores him.
Then on the second meeting – and this is quite some time later – he assumes a degree of intimacy which could not possibly be justified, and he even imputes knowledge of it to others: ‘at once it became clear to everyone, beginning with her, that we had long been on intimate terms’ (p.9). He does this knowing that the one brief kiss they have exchanged is not sufficient basis for such a claim. And in addition he is physically importunate yet again: ‘when that night I happened to be seated beside her at supper, I shamelessly tested the extent of her secret patience’ (p.10).
This pattern of behaviour is repeated on each of the subsequent occasions he recalls, with the added twist to his erotomania that he becomes absurdly jealous and possessive of her. When years later he bumps into her as she is being seen off at a railway station, he describes her as being ‘in the midst of a group of people she had befriended without my knowledge’ (p.10). Later, when he meets her with her husband and his friends he says that ‘doubtless two or three of the lot had been intimate with [her]’ (p.16).
He has absolutely no evidence for these suppositions, but he goes on making them nevertheless. Even when she is in the presence of her husband, Victor is still physically demanding and insensitive: ‘seizing the opportunity when Ferdinand … stopped at the post office, I hastened to lead her away’ (p.19).
All these clues are offered in the smallest scraps of gesture and movement. When they are walking together, it is Nina who is forced to adjust her stride to Victor’s (p.4) and when he asks her if she can remember when they last met he wilfully misunderstands her reaction: ‘the shake of her head and the puckered brow seemed less to imply forgetfulness than to deplore the flatness of an old joke’ (p.7).
Victor’s grossness and lack of sensitivity are brought to an impressively dramatised finale just before the fatal crash. Having prised Nina away from her husband for a moment, he makes a declaration to her which is simultaneously clumsy and insultingly phrased. When it is met with what are obviously horror and embarrassment, he retracts in bad faith and makes another gauche gesture:
‘I said (substituting for our cheap, formal ‘thou’ that strangely full and expressive ‘you’…) “Look here – what if I love you?” Nina looked at me … something like a bat passed swiftly across her face, a quick, queer, almost ugly expression … “Never mind, I was only joking”, I hastened to say, lightly circling her waist’ (p.29)
This is Nabokov at his very best in terms of subtly narrative – absent from the picture, letting the character reveal his own inadequacies. The choice of second person plural address is completely inappropriate to such a declaration; ‘what if’ is hedging his bets; Nina is clearly disgusted; and the retraction is both quite insincere and underscored by the possessive arm in a manner which seems designed to produce embarrassed squirming in the reader.
Throughout the story Victor is embedded in a comfortable bourgeois marriage, so his rhapsodies concerning Nina are romantic at best and more probably just wish-fulfilments. For they are based upon no evidence of reciprocity. There is only one occasion when we are given anything other than signs of Nina’s being either merely friendly or disattentive towards him. They are in a hotel together when she tells him that her husband has gone fencing and takes him to her room: ‘when the door had been locked … a little later I stepped out onto the diminutive cast-iron balcony’ (p.12)
These are the only clues we have: there is no evidence of any other sexual connection between them in the story – and plenty of Nina’s lack of interest in him. There are thus two possibilities: either Nina is generous and lighthearted and does give herself to him this once, but takes no serious interest in him at all, or Victor is wishing this reciprocation into being. This is not an easy crux to unravel – but there is further evidence in the text to help.
There are several other instances of Victor’s stupidity and contradictions in his own narrative. In addition to his failure to recognise the little girl and his misinterpretation of the Englishman’s attentions, he describes a holder of the legion d’honeur as ‘some Frenchman [who] for some reason or other [had] a little red ribbon or something on his coat lapel’ (p.17). And when he meets Segur, a friend of Nina’s husband, he complains that he raises the weather as a subject of conversation – even though the opening of Victor’s account centres on precisely the same topic: the story begins ‘Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp’ (p.1).
Victor’s account of Ferdinand, Nina’s husband, also raises doubts about the reliability of his judgement. He is quite clearly jealous – ‘I would rather not dwell upon him’ (p.13) – and yet the description of his technique as a writer is clearly designed to let the reader see him in a favourable light: ‘Having mastered the art of verbal invention to perfection, he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words’ (p.13)
Victor’s judgement of this skill is peevish and philistine: ‘I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books’ (p.13). He later pours scorn on certain literary techniques, and even though he subsequently admits that none of it is relevant to Ferdinand, the smear sticks.
There are in fact elements of the Double at work here – reflected in the fact that they dress in very similar clothes and their prose styles are not unalike. We are given a brief extract from one of Ferdinand’s stories:
‘Her face … was rather nature’s snapshot than a meticulous portrait … all he could visualise were fleeting glimpses of disconnected features: the downy outline of her pommettes in the sun’ (p.20)
There is an additional complication in the fact that Ferdinand is also something of a portrait of Nabokov himself. He is given the same appearance, he writes in a foreign language and enjoys puns, and he has the same lofty and mocking literary manner. But this detail is best left to those like Field who wish to read biographical significance into it (Field-VN,p.163).
‘Spring in Fialta’ is without doubt Nabokov’s finest achievement as a writer of short fictions, and it bears all the qualities and characteristics of the very greatest short stories. It has a flawless unity of time, place, and action, and its flashbacks are very elegantly and unobtrusively woven into the narrative. It has a dense verbal texture full of echoes, poetic repetitions, and leitmotives which are firmly related to its themes. And it has one of the most subtly concealed of all Nabokov’s unreliable narrators.
© Roy Johnson 2005