a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In ‘A Slice of Life’ (September 1935) Nabokov returns to the seedy and vulgar side of émigré existence to explore a part of it which is almost the polar opposite of the joys of literary creation – the world of shabbiness and moral squalor which he had touched on in An Affair of Honour and A Dashing Fellow.
All the characters in ‘A Slice of Life’ are horrendously degenerate, self-seeking and crude. In dealing with them Nabokov sets himself two problems in terms of narrative mode. First of all he chooses one of this vulgar company as first person narrator, and it is not easy to convey vulgarity via the mind of someone who is vulgar whilst at the same time being both logically and aesthetically coherent. The second novelty (a strategy he used only once in all of his work) is that the narrator is female.
Maria Vasilevna is a slattern (by her own admission) who has previously been enamoured of Pavel Romanovich, a crop-haired slob of a man whose behaviour becomes worse and worse as the story progresses. He is obsessed with the fact that his wife has left him for another man, and he enlists Maria’s help in a plan which purports to warn the wife of her folly.
Pavel drunkenly concocts the scheme in a mood which ignores Maria’s feelings for him and swings violently from braggadocio to maudlin self-pity. They arrange for Maria to bring his ex-wife to a bar for an ‘important discussion’ but when they arrive there Pavel pulls out a gun and wounds her. There is a fracas in the bar from which everyone is led away, leaving Maria to be picked up then abandoned by a complete stranger.
As an exercise in revealing squalid behaviour the story is very successful indeed and a typically Nabokovian study in the grotesque. But unfortunately its coherence is undermined by an unusual failure to control the narrative mode. He creates a reasonably credible female point of view: “Yes, I wear mourning, for everybody, for everything, for my own self, for Russia, for the fetuses scraped out of me” (DS,p.142). But problems arise when he confronts the difficulty of dealing with two aspects of the narrative which are essentially in opposition to each other.
First of all there is the problem of having this narrator reveal her own vulgarity: would such a person really confess herself honestly as being “in the rumpled dress of a slatternly after-lunch siesta, and no doubt still bearing the pillow’s imprint on my cheek” (p.141)? Even allowing a certain amount of suspension of disbelief for the poetic rhythms of her expression, surely one of the hallmarks of vulgarity is a lack of self-consciousness. It does not seem psychologically credible to have fictional characters aware of their own lack of judgement and taste. And though it is credible for a woman with little of either to be enamoured of a brute, Nabokov has not created a completely convincing manner to have her reveal this to us.
The second problem concerns fictions narrated from limited points of view. Smurov in The Eye is a liar who even tries to deceive himself – but at least he is reasonably well educated, so we could believe that a character like him could offer such a narrative. It is possible to circumvent the limitations of a naive or a simple narrator who must deliver an account of morally complex events, as Huckelberry Finn or Diary of a Madman show, and in ‘A Slice of Life’ it might have been possible to stay within the consciousness of a slovenly and presumably uneducated woman for such a relatively short span (3,000 words) without boring the reader.
Nabokov has certainly engineered this feat successfully on other occasions; but here he cannot resist the desire to stray outside that limitation and creep towards the intelligent and perceptive inventions of some of his other narrators. It is simply not possible to maintain suspension of disbelief when this supposedly stupid woman describes Pavel’s descent into drunkenness thus:
En passant, he managed to finish the decanter, and presently entered … the final part of that drunken syllogism which had already united, in keeping with strict dialectical rules, an initial show of bright efficiency and a central period of utter gloom’ (p.147)
Women like Maria do not, could not think in such terms. Nabokov is too clearly present in what is supposed to be someone else’s narrative at such points, and the thread connecting our credulity to the story snaps. This is a fairly rare lapse in what is normally one of his strong characteristics as a writer – the skillful control of narrative and narrators.
© Roy Johnson 2005