a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
At the time of writing ‘The Admiralty Spire’, Nabokov read all of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and although he claimed not to like them, this claim is rather like that of not liking Dostoyevski. He may have felt an artistic antipathy – but he seems to have been influenced nevertheless.
‘The Admiralty Spire’ (May 1933) successfully combines a number of the themes and topics Nabokov had explored in his fiction in the previous decade – keeping the past alive; the relationship between art and life; an unhappy love affair; and fictions about fiction. And he pushes the conversational narrative mode a little further than he had done before by having his narrator ‘speak’ to someone else directly through the medium of a letter.
The narrator is unnamed and he is writing to the author of a cheap novel (The Admiralty Spire) to protest that fictional use has been made of a love affair he has had in his youth. The author of the novel purports to be Serge Solntsev, but the narrator claims that he can detect a female writer behind this nom de plume: ‘Every sentence of yours buttons to the left’ (TD,p.126).
First of all he criticises the authoress for her literary style, then he gives his own account of the love affair, which he had with a girl called Katya. The year was 1917, and against the backdrop of a provisional government (that is, during the summer of that year) he recounts the joy with which they loved each other. He also corrects the authoress for what he considers her novelistic blunders in portraying the couple discussing the political events going on around them. He points out that they were too happy and too absorbed in each other to notice.
But then the affair comes to an end in the autumn and winter of that year (that is, after the October revolution) when he suspects that she is losing interest and may have someone else. Desperately unhappy, he asks to meet her one last time and then they part forever. All this is related in a manner which mixes a lyrical evocation of his lost happiness with some amusing buffoonery:
‘Do you wish to know what happened? Glad to oblige. As you lay massively in your hammock and recklessly allowed your pen to flow like a fountain (a near pun) you, Madam, wrote the story of my first love’ (p.127)
He then reveals that he imagines the authoress to be Katya herself, and he wonders how she could so abuse the memory of their affair by turning it into such cheap fiction: ‘there was no point in rejoicing and suffering … only to find one’s past besmirched in a lady’s novel’ (p.139) – ‘lady’s’ here being pejorative. He appeals to her to stop writing fiction, and just in case he has made a false identification, apologises to the ‘colleague Solntsev’ the purported author (p.139).
He is an amusing enough narrator, but it is possible that he is also unreliable. For we have two differing accounts of the end of the affair from which to choose. In his own account, he walks around St Petersburg with Katya quite silently, kisses her hand, and then leaves her. But in her novel he passionately entreats her not to go and even threatens her with a gun in front of her future husband. Which of these two accounts are we to believe?
Somehow this second version fits more credibly with what we know about him already from his own account:
‘Sobbing and moaning as I walked, I would try to persuade myself that it was I who had stopped loving Katya … for the hundredth time I tried to make her tell me with whom she had spent the previous evening’ (p.136)
It is open to us to believe that she has become irritated by his jealousy and possessiveness (as is the case with so many of Nabokov’s other fictional couples) and that the stoic endurance of his younger self facing disappointment is itself a wish-fulfilment, a re-writing of history.
Against this it might be argued that the narrator’s other observations concerning Russia and its culture are realistic and historically accurate – and that he should therefore be regarded as reliable. But there is no shortage in Nabokov’s work of narrators who are intelligent, cultivated, and well-informed – and yet emotionally unhinged in some way: they range from the neurotic Smurov of The Eye to the university teacher-cum-madman Kimbote of Pale Fire, and of course to the greatest of all his creations, Humbert Humbert of Lolita.
But any unreliability in ‘The Admiralty Spire’ does not affect the essential stability of the story, which is principally concerned with a recording of the past and an assertion of the value of memory. Nabokov is using the fictional framework to write another passage (albeit an amusing one) in the sad account of his relationship to Russia, and especially its culture.
When the narrator and Katya are in their happy phase he recounts how they tried to store memories against the possible extinction wreaked by time:
‘we were preparing in advance for certain things, training ourselves to remember, imagining a distant past and practising nostalgia, so that subsequently when that past really existed for us, we would know how to cope with it, and not perish under its burden’ (p.131)
Nabokov packs the story full of literary references drawn from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and Blok are all mentioned – and that alongside European writers such as Louis Bouillet and Verlaine as if to show the contiguity of these as a cultural heritage (though the choice of French writers is curious). He also has the narrator explain to Katya the sham of phoney culture in the form of what were popular fads at the time:
‘this was no longer authentic Gypsy art such as that which enchanted Pushkin … but a barely breathing, jaded and doomed muse; everything contributed to her ruin: the gramophone, the war, and various so-called tzigane songs’ (p.130)
On top of this there emerges, reinforced by the descriptions of Petersburg during the period, a picture of Nabokov’s opposition to the revolution and his feeling of sadness and betrayal as well as loss at having this culture swept away. And it is one of many instances in his work in which the loss or betrayal of his country is paralleled with the betrayal of a woman. Katya betrays the narrator, so does Russia: he even calls them ‘two traitresses’ (p.138)
This is the serious thematic core of the story, but it should not obscure the lighthearted fictional construct in which it is contained. ‘The Admiralty Spire’ is a story which itself offers a critique of story writing as did The Passenger. In addition to that, it toys with the philosophic relation between one fiction and the meta-fiction that contains it. The narrator complains about the lady’s novelistic clichés – although we do not have many quoted examples to judge independently the validity of his claim. But he makes more telling jibes concerning her prose style:
‘How dare you write, “The pretty Christmas tree with its chatoyant lights seemed to augur to them joy jubilant”? You have extinguished the whole tree with your breath, for one adjective placed after the noun for the sake of elegance is enough to kill the best of recollections’ (p.119)
And it is because the narrator’s own style is so lively, supple, and amusing that we are persuaded to trust his judgement on this matter.
© Roy Johnson 2005