a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In “The Aurelian” (1931) Nabokov returns to his theme of the unexpected arrival of death, and he indulges himself slightly by giving the principal character his own interest in lepidoptery (for which ‘aurelia’ is a now old-fashioned term).
Pilgram is a pathetic old German who has inherited a not very successful shop from his father. He sells butterflies, but most of his meagre earnings come from the odd bits of stationery he sells to schoolboys. He has developed a reputation for his entomology without ever having travelled beyond Berlin, but for years he has nurtured a secret desire to go on a collecting expedition so as to actually see some of his prey in their natural and (to him) exotic surroundings.
When an old lady asks him to sell a collection on her behalf, he cheats her and decides to make his wish come true as quickly as possible. He leaves his wife a curt note saying he has gone to Spain, but when she returns from a wedding later that day she finds him in the shop, dead from a stroke.
Pilgram is one of a number of Nabokov’s characters who meet death unexpectedly – either at a point of happiness (Mark Standfuss in Details of a Sunset) or as a grotesque surprise (Quilty in Lolita). The problem with Pilgram’s case as far as the reader is concerned is the somewhat ambiguous manner in which he is portrayed.
His scientific idealism and his desire to travel are rather utopian, but we are nevertheless invited to sympathise with the dreams in which “he … visited the islands of the Blessed, where in the hot ravines that cut the lower slopes of the chestnut- and laurel-clad mountains there occurs a weird local race of the cabbage white” (ND, p.103). But he is a rather unpleasant character, and is offensively rude to his wife, to the point that when she annoys him by crying he “toy[s] with the idea of taking an axe and splitting her pale-haired head” (p.106). He cheats the old lady, and he prepares to leave knowing the family will have debts and unpaid taxes.
Germans are not generally portrayed very sympathetically in Nabokov’s work, but Pilgram is particularly unappealing. It seems that it is not his death we are being invited to contemplate so much as its ironic timing – just as ‘the dream of his life was about to break at last from its old crinkly cocoon’ (p.106).
The neat structural division of the story into four distinct sections certainly reinforces this impression. The first describes the pathetically humdrum nature of Pilgram’s daily life; the second his enthusiasm for lepidoptery and his yearning to travel; the third his double-dealing and his preparations for the trip; and the fourth his wife’s return from the wedding.
This last section presents a switch in viewpoint which allows the revelation to be concealed until the last lines of the story – although it has been hinted at in signals beforehand. Earlier in the story Pilgram has felt the first [to us premonitory] tremor ‘like a mountain falling upon him from behind just as he had bent towards his shoestrings’ (p.96).
‘The Aurelian’ illustrates a point made over and again by Nabokov in his critical writings – that it is not the overt subject matter which constitutes the beauty in a work of art so much as the manner in which the details of its composition are arranged.
Paul Pilgram is a nasty old man with unrealistic dreams, but Nabokov does not arrange the story to engineer sympathy for his death so much as to invite our admiration for the manner in which it is told. One small and typically Nabokovian detail demonstrates this point. When an irritating visitor to the shop has been looking at some butterfly specimens
‘It might happen … that some open box, having been brushed by the elbow of the visitor, would stealthily begin to slide off the counter – to be stopped just in the nick of time by Pilgram, who would then calmly go on lighting his pipe; only much later, when busy elsewhere, he would suddenly produce a moan of retrospective anguish’ (p.102)
The threatened accident which doesn’t quite occur: this is a device Nabokov uses regularly in his work (one thinks of Pnin’s dropping nutcrackers onto a glass bowl – which doesn’t break). The reader breathes a sigh of relief with Pilgram. But later when he returns to the counter to grab petty cash for his escape: ‘Pilgram perceived something almost appalling in the richness of the huge happiness which was leaning towards him like a mountain” (p.109). This of course is his final stroke, approaching in the repeated simile of the mountain, and then –
‘catching sight of the hazy money pot … [he] reached quickly for it. The pot slipped from his moist grasp and broke onto the floor with a dizzy spinning of twinkling coins; and Pilgram bent low to pick them up’ (p.109)
So something does fall from the counter after all, and Pilgram bends down just as he did at his first stroke. But this time he does not get up, and that is how his wife finds him: ‘his back to the counter, among scattered coins, his livid face knocked out of shape by death’ (p.111).
These are the sorts of carefully orchestrated details which Nabokov so frequently commended in the work of other writers: ‘This capacity to wonder at trifles … these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest form of consciousness’ (LL,p.374) They are probably the reason why he called his own critical approach ‘a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures’ (LL,p.1).
© Roy Johnson 2005