a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In ‘Terror’ (January 1927) Nabokov returns to the theme of the double and explores that aspect of it which deals with the actual process of personality breakdown. A young man (unnamed) who calls himself a poet (but who is engaged on business trips) plunges us straight into his first person account – ‘Here is what sometimes happened to me’ (TD,p.113) – in a manner which is very reminiscent of Gogol’s Madman – ‘Something very peculiar happened today.’
He describes his feelings of dissociation from himself and the anxiety it induces: ‘I…stood considering my own reflection in the glass and failing to recognise it as mine’ (p.113). The more he worries about the phenomenon, the harder he finds it to reconcile the image with an identity he feels no longer belongs to him.
On top of this he has realised the inevitability of his own mortality and falls into soul-choking panics on recognising the inescapability of Death. And yet once he was happy, with a girlfriend, even though he sometimes could not stand the idea of another person in the same room with him. Even she represented Another.
He describes the girl as a ‘naive little maiden’ and mentions how he loved her ‘unassuming prettiness, gaiety, friendliness, the birdlike flutterings of her soul’ (p.116). Here is the Dostoyevskian note of this story writ large. For all his protestations against Dostoyevski, Nabokov often echoes him (particularly when dealing with this theme in works such as The Eye or Despair). The girl is very similar to many of Dostoyevski’s female innocents (one thinks of Notes from Underground) and indeed she is a common figure in classical Russian literature – from the younger Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection.
The narrator tells how he panicked on the eve of his last trip abroad. This is followed once he is on his own by his experience of what he calls The Supreme Terror. This is a form of incipient agnosia – a state in which objects become emptied of any significance or meaning, and the words which describe them become detached from their meaning. This state of being induces a feeling of horror in contemplating the thingness of things:
I was tortured by my efforts to recognise what ‘dog’ might mean, and because I had been staring at it hard, it crept up to me trustingly, and I felt so nauseated that I got up from the bench and walked away (p.120).
It was precisely these sorts of object and this tone which Sartre was to adopt in developing the notions of existential angst a dozen or so years later in La Nausée.
‘The Nausea hasn’t left me and I don’t believe it will leave me for quite a while … I was in the municipal park just now. The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it was a root. Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things.’
Nabokov reviewed Nausea rather dismissively when it appeared in America (Strong Opinions, p.228) and he does seem quite justified in his claim of having anticipated its ideas. (Tyrants Destroyed, p.112).
But then Nabokov goes on to integrate these metaphysical states of being with the fiction itself. The poet’s mood is interrupted by a message recalling him to his dying girlfriend, and her death ‘saves’ him. For when he appears to her at her bedside he feels his other self disappear: ‘there were two of me standing before her: I myself who she did not see, and my double, who was invisible to me. And then I remained alone: my double died with her’ (p.121).
The problem at this point is that the idea of the double has not been sufficiently well established by what has gone on before. The ‘poet’ has been slipping out of contact with the physical world, even with other people; but no credible notion of a double has actually been established. Nabokov was to do this much more successfully in later works.
But this is not the end of the story. For having recognised that his grief at losing the girl has temporarily filled his mind and distracted it from The Supreme Terror – ‘Her death saved me from insanity’ (p.121) – he then realises that as the memory of her fades he will once again be subject to its power: ‘I know that my brain is doomed…the helpless fear of existing, will sometime overtake me again, and then there will be no salvation’ (p.121).
Herein is revealed the significance of the narrative’s opening – which is couched in the past tense – ‘Here is what sometimes happened to me’. The story describes something which happened in the past, but at the time of relating it the man is waiting, helplessly in his own eyes, for the madness to overtake him again with a terrible finality. In his own terms, he is doomed.
Nabokov rescues the story from its slip over his use of the double by his strong sense of structure, form, and his control of narrative logic. This is another story whose dramatic closure occupies a place projected beyond the end of the narrative itself.
‘Terror’, like many of Nabokov’s other stories (and novels) seems to offer itself fairly plainly for a psychological reading in which the narrative is fictionalising a fear of sexuality and women. It is in bed that the narrator discovers his fear of mortality; although he has a girlfriend, he is occasionally ‘terrified by the very notion of another person’ (p.115); and when he dreams of his girlfriend she is sitting on a bed in a lacy nightgown, laughing. He finds the dream ‘hideous’.
He then feels his existential terror and tries to exorcise it by conjuring up a memory of childhood – but this is one in which his mother appears to him as ‘an incomprehensible face, noseless, with a hussar’s black moustache just below its octopus eyes, and with teeth set in its forehead’ (p.119). This is obviously someone being viewed upside down – but the compressed sexuality of the image certainly suits the ‘fear of woman’ reading.
And the girl’s death certainly does in a sense ‘save’ him. He no longer has to face the challenge that she represents. The ‘other self’ which feared her can die. He describes the memory of her in terms reminiscent of a Poe story: ‘her image within me becomes ever more perfect, ever more lifeless’ (p.121).
The story seems to reach simultaneously back to Gogol (the noseless face) and Dostoyevski (the first person angst) and reach forward, anticipating Sartre. What these connections demonstrate is the firm manner in which Nabokov is embedded within the traditions of European literary culture.
© Roy Johnson 2005