a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
PART III Stories 1941 – 1959
Following Nabokov’s emigration to the United States in 1940, he was faced with three major difficulties as far as being a writer was concerned. He was forced to earn his living as a teacher; he had lost the small audience and reputation he had established in the émigré circles of Paris and Berlin; and he had already realised that he would have to abandon his mother tongue and start writing in another language. He chose English – having briefly toyed with the idea of French.
It is also obvious, looking at his publications record for the 1930s, that he had come to regard himself principally primarily as a novelist. His relationship with the short story in the next two phases of his life therefore is understandably more tenuous. Whilst living in America between 1940 and 1960 he wrote only ten more stories, and following his return to Europe until his death in 1977 he appears to have written none at all. The last two decades of his life were devoted to writing his later novels and to translating into English the bulk of his earlier work produced between 1924 and 1940 which had been written in Russian.
It is interesting to note that for his first story in English, Nabokov did not invent a fiction, but re-told a well known incident from émigré life in Europe – but in doing so presented it as a cheap B-movie scenario, reflecting his long-term interest in the cinema and his acquaintance with émigrés who had earned their livings as film extras in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s.
‘The Assistant Producer’ (January 1943) is both a character sketch of the Russian singer Plevitskaya (La Slavska) and an account of an incident in 1938 amongst the émigré Whites in which she was involved. The first part of the story gives details of her career and how she came to be kidnapped by then married to General Golubkov, an officer in the White Army. All this is done in a manner which mockingly imitates cinematic cliches:
‘A White soldier’s dead hand is still clutching a medallion with his mother’s face. A Red soldier near by has on his shattered breast a letter from home with the same old woman blinking through the dissolving lines’ (ND,p.74)
During the period of emigration, Golubkov becomes a triple agent, and La Slavska keeps patriotic feelings alive with recitals of tasteless songs. The latter part of the story recounts the details of Golubkov’s plot to kidnap in Paris the leader of the Whites-in-exile and his own subsequent disappearance when exposed. The story ends with La Slavska in jail, dying during the German occupation.
This is another good example illustrating the difference between a tale and a short story. As Ian Reid observes in his definition of the differences, the tale abandons the compactness of the short story proper and offers instead ‘a fairly straightforward, loose-knit account of strange happenings’ (Reid,p.32).
There is far too much heterogeneous material in ‘The Assistant Producer’ for the demands of tonal and thematic consistency made by the story. The subject hovers uncertainly between character sketches of the two principals and the plot in which they are both involved.
There is also too much historical and political information given on the Whites for the demands of restraint and understatement made by the genre in its modern form. This information may be necessary to explain the plot. Indeed Nabokov is conscious of the fact – ‘I want your attention now, for it would be a pity to miss the subtleties of the situation’ (p.77) – but the background details are further excrescences inhibiting the unity of the piece.
There is also a sense in which the story seems to have been written as a memoir of the place and period – Nabokov putting on record the double-dealings of this doomed right-wing group in Paris of the late 1930s, dealings which as he mentions in the story itself had been largely misunderstood or ignored at the time:
‘The French police displayed a queer listlessness in dealing with possible clues as if it assumed that the disappearance of Russian generals was a kind of curious local custom, an Oriental phenomenon, a dissolving process which perhaps ought not to occur but which could not be prevented’ (p.90)
This sort of explanatory note brings the story closer to journalism than to fiction. But in terms of Nabokov’s development as a writer the principal point of interest here is that the story shows a point of transition between his Russian and his English periods.
He switched over to writing in English with a confidence and a flourish which rivals Conrad’s similar feat made sixty years earlier, though there are one or two small uncertainties – ‘a central-heated Hall’ (p.72) ‘her magic appearance’ (p.73) – which indicate that he was still not completely at ease with his adopted language.
What the story does show is the further advances he had made in the chatty virtuosity of his first person narrative mode. These are the fluent switches between story and addresses to the reader or character, the ellipses and changes of topic, which are like a word-conjurer constructing his narrative from a number of juggled modes. The story after its title begins with an immediate interrogative:
‘Meaning? Well, because life is merely that – an Assistant Producer. Tonight we shall go to the movies. Back to the Thirties, and down the Twenties, and round the corner to the old Europe Picture Palace. She was a celebrated singer’ (p.71)
The first sentence he imputes as a query on the reader’s part. The second, with its conversational ‘Well’, offers an authorial response and explanation. The third speaks directly to the reader and offers an accompanying hand in the first person ‘we’. The fourth speaks from the New World (USA) and points back to the old (Europe) and its culture. And the fifth, with no warning or transition, abruptly switches to the principal character of the story.
This is the sort of narrative mode of rapidly switching forms of address and points of view which Nabokov would work on until it reached the amusing heights of Humbert Humbert in Lolita – ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’ (L,p.1) – and ended in the rococo self-indulgence of Ada.
© Roy Johnson 2005