a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
‘Perfection’ (1932) re-uses the material of the 1924 story Details of a Sunset – the sudden arrival of death into an otherwise happy existence. In this instance it is that of Ivanov, a poor geography graduate who is forced to give private lessons to survive. Once again we have the down-at-heel but this time sympathetically portrayed petty bourgeois struggling to maintain appearances: ‘Some sort of flannel entrails were trying to escape from his necktie, and he was forced to trim off parts of them’ (TD, p.188).
His pupil is a young boy, David, for whom he feels a tender affection. At one point he even imagines him as the son he once lost when a lover suffered a miscarriage and died. Ivanov maintains an inner dignity, and the reader is invited to admire his poetic sensibility and delicacy of feeling. Despite the embarrassment of having socks ‘so full of holes that they resembled lace mittens’ (p.198) he persists in taking delight in his perceptions of the world around him.
When a young boy makes fun of him by imitating his odd gait in the street, Ivanov thinks that something is being pointed out to him overhead and looks up to see
‘three lovely cloudlets, holding each other by the hand … the third one fell slowly behind, and its outline, and the outline of the friendly hand still stretched out to it, slowly lost their graceful significance’ (p.189)
He is in fact a dreamer, but he posits this attitude as an imaginative insurance against the possibility of worse things to come and against the decay of Time: ‘Ivanov foresaw he would often appear in David’s dreams, thirty or forty years hence’ (p.187). We are back amongst those elements of which Nabokov composed so many of his stories – elements which are philosophic universals and of course all closely related to each other: individual consciousness, memory, the passage of time, and death.
He is asked by his employers to take David to the seaside and there suffers further humiliations at the exposure of his poor clothes and his city-dweller’s lack of ease on the seashore. He also has a weak heart, and when David shouts for help whilst swimming Ivanov is forced to overcome his loathing of the cold sea to save the boy.
At this point Nabokov brings off a very skillful twist in the narrative, which up until then has been consistently from Ivanov’s point of view. First of all Ivanov realises that he has failed to save David and he begins to feel sympathy for the bereaved mother. But then he senses that something is wrong about such thoughts and understands that ‘if David was not with him, David was not dead’ (p.201).
The narrative then takes us back to the shoreline where David is looking out to sea, regretting the trick he has played of pretending to be in trouble – and we realise that it is Ivanov who has drowned. The narrative goes back on an expansive note to describe the beauties of everyday life which he had so much appreciated:
‘and the Baltic Sea sparkled from end to end, and, in the thinned out forest, across a green country road, there lay, still breathing, freshly cut aspens; and a youth, smeared with soot, gradually turned white as he washed under the kitchen tap, and black parakeets flew above the eternal snows of the New Zealand mountains; and a fisherman, squinting in the sun, was solemnly predicting that not until the ninth day would the waves surrender the corpse’ (p.201).
Ivanov’s impending death is signalled all through the story by references to his weak heart, but the resolution to the story is deft nevertheless. As in the case of Mark Standfuss in ‘Details of a Sunset’ we are taken, by adhering to his point of view, close to the boundary between life and death; but then by exploiting the flexibility of the third person mode, we are taken by sleight of hand back into the logical framework of the narrative.
The only weakness in the story is that there is no distinction made between the poetic dreamings attributed to Ivanov and those offered by Nabokov himself as narrator. In this respect therefore he stands between himself and his creation throughout, and a reader could object that he fails to provide convincing evidence of Ivanov’s independent ability to produce the images he does.
© Roy Johnson 2005