a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
Death by vehicular locomotion is also introduced at the crux of ‘Details of a Sunset’ (June 1924), written shortly after Nabokov’s first story. Mark Standfuss, a young sales clerk, is radiantly happy about now being engaged to Klara, who has previously been involved with a dubious and handsome lodger at her mother’s house. Whilst he is en route to visit her, Mark’s happiness makes him more than usually conscious of the world around him:
The houses were as gray as ever; yet the roofs, the mouldings above the upper floors…were now bathed in rich ochre, the sunset’s airy warmth, and thus they seemed unexpected and magical, those upper protrusions, balconies, cornices (DS,p.22).
These architectural observations act as realistic details of the material world in which the narrative is set, but at the same time they form a significant element of its later plot development.
Not knowing that the handsome lodger has returned and Klara has in fact broken off the engagement, Mark jumps off a tram, almost gets run over, then goes on to Klara’s where many of his previous observations seem to be mysteriously repeated and transformed: ‘Klara’s green dress floated away, diminished, and turned into the green shade of a lamp…Mark was lying beneath it’ (p.25) – whereupon the reader realises that Mark is not at Klara’s at all but in hospital where he is dying from the injuries sustained when he was run over by the tram.
What Nabokov introduces here for the first time, trying out something he was to use extensively in his later work as a novelist, is one variation on the notion of ‘the double’. It is something he was aware of in Gogol (one of his favourite Russian writers) and Dostoyevski (not one of his favourites, but an influence nevertheless as later stories will show).
He makes clever use of the device by having one ‘version’ of Mark, the happy Mark who wished to live, comment on what he hoped would happen in returning to Klara – though the reader is alerted to the dubious status of the account when Mark is amazed by some of the very details he had noticed earlier: ‘Mark could not understand how he had never noticed before those galleries, those temples suspended on high’ (p.23).
But in fact the narrative had been signalling Mark’s accident almost from the outset by skilfully planted images of extinction and death: ‘Several moving vans stood there like enormous coffins…the heavy skeleton of a double bed’ (p.18). And he also keeps missing his footing – once on arriving home, when moving along the tram, and of course getting off it. These details combine the functions of both poetic leitmotifs within the story and subtle hints concerning its outcome.
Yet at the same time Nabokov teases the reader with ambiguous clues related to what will happen. Just after we have learned that Klara in fact never wants to see Mark again, Nabokov as narrator remarks ‘He had such a young face, had Mark…One would think that fate might have spared him’ (p.22) which someone reading the story for the first time is almost bound to interpret as a comment upon his romantic disappointment, but which is actually related more fatefully to his death.
But as Nabokov himself suggests ‘one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.’ That is, only on second, third, or subsequent readings of a text can the reader appreciate all the subtleties and the artistry of its composition.
Nabokov also deals rather cleverly with the difficult moment of Mark’s fatal slip from the tram. The reader is given a fair chance: all the impressionistic details of an accident are offered: ‘the shining asphalt swept upward like the seat of a swing; a roaring mass hit Mark from behind’ (p.23). But then comes the literary sleight of hand – ‘and then nothing. He was standing alone on the glossy asphalt’ (p.23). We are given every reason to think that Mark has survived the fall, especially when he says to himself ‘That was stupid. Almost got run over’ (p.23).
These are the first essays in narrative manipulation and the use of unreliable narrators which Nabokov was later to develop into cases such as the self-deceiving Smurov of The Eye and the paranoid liar Charles Kimbote of Pale Fire. But Nabokov always stays within the unwritten conventions of what is permissible in misleading the reader this way. The attentive reader is given just sufficient clues to avoid being taken in. For this reason Nabokov was surely right to change the original title of the story (‘Katastrofa’) which gave away too much at the outset.
Although Nabokov had not yet followed the practice of other modernist short story writers in eliminating any sense of plot or dramatic incident from his work (as Woolf and Mansfield had done by this time) he had, like them, realised that the careful organisation of detail – the harmonisation of motifs, the use of parallelism and poetic repetition as well as relating individual images to the theme – would have the effect of increasing what might be called the aesthetic density of the short story.
Here for instance the colour black is used to describe a number of everyday details (shadows, a fence, a wet roof, figures in the street) linking them to Mark’s imminent death; and the descriptive details of Klara at the outset ‘the red blaze of her hair’ (p.17) are echoed in Mark’s death-fantasy as ‘The russet tufts of her armpits’ (p.24).
It is also interesting to note, in connection with Mansfield and Woolf, that Nabokov was interested at this early phase in what they called ‘Moments of Being’ – those specially charged passages of experience in which the participant’s senses seem unusually heightened in such a way as to create a sense of spiritual euphoria.
Nabokov went on to develop these notions – especially the frisson of the largely aesthetic moment – but here in slightly comic form Mark’s ill-fated joy takes the form of a rapturous identification with the everyday objects around him:
Mark felt a sort of delicious pity for the frankfurters, the moon, the blue spark [of a tram] that receded along the wire, and, as he tensed his body against a friendly fence, he was overcome by laughter, and, bending, exhaled into a little round hole in the boards the words ‘Klara, Klara, oh my darling’ (p.18).
© Roy Johnson 2005