a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In ‘A Dashing Fellow’ (early 1930s) Nabokov uses a similar character to the vulgar Smurov of The Eye, but he employs a different narrative approach by depicting him using the form of the Russian Skaz which had been popularised by Leskov in the nineteenth century. Skaz is a form of narrative one part of which ‘creates the possibility of characterising the fictitious narrator through speech peculiarities [and] the use of sub-standard expressions’ (DRL, p.360).
However, a vulgar narrator will think in a vulgar manner, and the risk in such an approach is that the author imprisons his story in that vulgarity. After all, vulgar minds do not create graceful works of art. Nabokov surmounts this problem by having his narrative shifting very subtly between first and third person modes, and by oscillating between omniscient narrator and interior monologue – along with some delicately shaded transitional statements which could be either.
The story begins in a type of mock-intimate first person plural mode: ‘We are alone in a third-class compartment – alone and therefore bored’ (DS, p.131). This simultaneously implies a proximity between author and character (‘we’) whilst the implied criticism in the semantic content does just the opposite, creating an ironically generated distance.
The narrative then moves into the indirectly reported thought of the character, who is speculating on amorous adventures: ‘Even more delicious, however, might be the elegancies of a chance encounter’ (p.131). From this it then switches directly into conversations he imagines himself having with a girl he picks up: ‘your profile reminded me of the girl for whose sake years ago…’ (p.131). Following this there are brief passages of normal third person omniscient mode – ‘Ten minutes later he was deep in conversation with the passenger in the opposite window seat’ (p.133) – after which the narrative moves fluently between all of these modes.
The story concerns one of his most nauseating characters, Konstantin, a commercial traveller who is obsessed with thoughts of seduction and picks up a somewhat disreputable woman on the train.He trots out cliches – ‘Yes, we Russians … can love with the passion of a Rasputin’ (p.137) – to which she responds by showing him some holiday photographs. He breaks his journey to stay overnight with here, and on arrival it is debatable which of them behaves worse: ‘What’s that on your lip’ she asks. ‘Just a cold sore. Hurry up.’ he replies (p.139).
Whilst she is out buying something for them to eat, a neighbour calls to say that the woman’s father is dying, but when she returns Konstantin withholds the information so as to make the sexual connection with her as quickly as possible. This is done, but in a completely ineffectual manner, whereupon he immediately goes out himself on the pretence of buying a cigar, gets back onto the train, and sits back wondering how much the encounter has cost him. He feels out of sorts, but comforts himself: ‘When we have fed and slept, life will regain its looks’ (p.143) – and the story ends with a stunning last line – ‘And then, sometime later, we die’ (p.143).
Andrew Field assumes that this “nonchalant” use of the first person plural automatically means that Konstantin is himself the narrator (LA, p.334) – and it must be said that Field was reading these stories in their earlier, unrevised versions. Nevertheless, he quotes this ending to suggest that it is Konstantin’s point of view. But the opening of the story has Nabokov’s critical point of view hiding behind the plural pronoun. Konstantin would not say of himself ‘We breathe hard through our nose as we try to solve a crossword puzzle’ (p.131). The startling last sentence therefore clearly carries Nabokov’s dismissive suggestion – ‘Such is the sum total of this creature’s life’.
© Roy Johnson 2005