a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
In ‘The Doorbell’ (April 1927) he deals again with his favourite themes of loss, separation and exile; and at the same time he takes a couple of paces forward in his development of narrative manipulation – that is, teasing the reader’s expectations, laying traps, and offering us the chance to participate in some delicious dramatic irony. The story also offers one of his first severely negative protagonists.
Nikolay Galatov joins the Red Army, then the White, travels in Africa and Italy, joins the Foreign Legion, and ends up in Germany. Nabokov as narrator mockingly comments ‘It was pure Jack London’ (DS,p.103). In this he rather typically takes a swipe at third rate fiction at the same time as appearing to use some of its clichés. From time to time Galatov remembers Olga Kind, the woman he left behind in Petersburg, and eventually after seven years decides that he must find her amongst the other émigrés of Berlin. We have every reason from the conventions of fiction to believe that he is retracing a romantic attachment.
He locates a Dr Weiner who he takes to be his old family dentist, but the man turns out to be only a namesake. Nevertheless Olga Kind is one of his patients – and it is revealed at this point that she is in fact Galatov’s mother. Galatov remembers her (with difficulty): ‘her dark hair with streaks of grey at the temples…the tired, bitter expression of an ageing woman’ (p.106).
But the woman he goes to meet appears different: ‘Her dark hair had been bleached a very light strawlike shade…And her face was made up with excruciating care’ (p.108). She is waiting in semi-darkness for someone’s arrival, and it is quite apparent to the reader (but not to Galatov) that she is nervously anticipating the arrival of a young lover. The table is only set for two, and on it there is a birthday cake with twenty-five candles.
At this point Galatov’s grossness become fully apparent. He observes that she is expecting company but nevertheless invites himself to stay. He even counts the candles on the cake and fails to grasp their implication in a manner which reveals his egoism: ‘Twenty-five! And he himself was already twenty-eight’ (p.111). He asks his mother about her life, but then starts talking about himself instead.
Galatov is one of the first of Nabokov’s gallery of obnoxious, insensitive egoists from whose own point of view a story is told. The reader has been led to accept this point of view as being reasonably neutral or not particularly biased – because Nabokov brings us close to him by interspersing a form of interior monologue into the third person omniscient narrative: ‘he was running out of funds. Oh well, he would get there one way or another’ (p.102 – my emphasis).
Clare Hanson, speaking of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield in this respect, observes that they
were amongst the first to develop, initially in their short fiction, the ‘indirect free’ style of narration in which the voice of the narrator is modulated so that it appears to merge with that of a character of the fiction. The author thus avoids direct omniscient commentary and remains more closely within the orbit of particular characters and their experience.
Nabokov certainly uses this device a great deal, withholding any comment of his own and thus forcing the reader to do extra work constructing an independent viewpoint from which the character can be judged. And there are other tasks too, for like other modernists Nabokov eliminates a great deal of direct explanation, demanding that readers supply this information for themselves.
When the doorbell rings announcing the arrival of the lover, Galatov offers to answer it; but his mother, anxious with embarrassment at the possible revelation, forbids him to do so. The lover leaves, and Mme Kind collapses in tears: ‘I’ll be fifty in May. Grown up son comes to see his aged mother. And why did you have to come right at this moment’ (p.114). At this Galatov simply puts his overcoat back on and leaves, with no indication that he has understood anything or felt any sympathy for his mother’s plight. The moment he has gone, she dashes to the telephone – presumably to explain to the young man.
Just like the undramatised argument in The Return of Chorb Nabokov is here exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the-meeting-which-does-not-take-place. The reader is allowed to deduce the mother’s touchingly romantic expectations (her make-up, the table setting) and to feel with her that an embarrassing confrontation will take place. But it does not – and the subject changes from her fear to the disappointed realisation that she may be missing one of her last chances of romance.
She may present an image of pathos with her bleached hair and the lights dimmed to conceal her age [rather as Blanche Dubois would do some years later] but this does not ameliorate or excuse the gross behaviour of her self-centred son.
The reader is in fact teased or misled on three counts. We have no reason to believe, for almost half the story, that the woman Galatov seeks is anything other than his own romantic connexion. Her true relation to him is deliberately concealed, and she is even given a different surname (although we do know that she has been married twice). Then Dr Weiner is not the dentist Galatov thinks he is, but (double twist) he does know Olga after all. And finally the visitor does arrive at the wrong moment, and he does ring the bell – but the meeting between the three of them does not take place.
The story is thereby charged both with the most exquisite dramatic ironies and reversals of what we might expect. What Nabokov is doing here (and went on doing for the fifty years which followed) is to devise playful and inventive variations upon the conventions of plot, character, and presentation of information which generations of readers have absorbed from the traditions of European literature.
Following his early stories dealing with topics which later became part of existentialism (anxiety, alienation, the Absurd) it is interesting to note that Nabokov’s next story deals with another aspect of that philosophy – the notion of mauvaise-foi. Bad faith – hiding from the truth behind a screen of conventional attitudes, or refusing to accept responsibility for the freedom to choose – comes close to what Nabokov calls poshlost (philistine vulgarity) and it features in a number of stories written around this time.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Vladimir Nabokov web links
Vladimir Nabokov greatest works
Vladimir Nabokov criticism
Vladimir Nabokov life and works