a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
Part II – The European Master: Stories 1930 – 1939
There was a gap in Nabokov’s production of short stories during the years 1927-1930 occasioned by his growing success as a novelist: he published both King, Queen, Knave and The Defense during this period. And it is perhaps significant that in his next story, ‘The Eye’ (February 1930) he expanded the possibilities of the short story form to a point just short of it becoming a novella.
In fact Nabokov himself called it a ‘little novel’ – and he may well be right. But arguments of categorisation apart, it has many of the features of his short stories and it is a work in which he made several leaps forward in his manipulation of narrative conventions at the same time as combining a number of his favourite themes. The story has a protagonist straight from the pages of Gogol or Dostoyevski – a psychologically tortured petty-bourgeois who is seeking but failing to make his mark on those people of a higher class amongst whom he mixes. It also has elements of pre-Sartrean existentialism, a variation on the double theme, and one of the most daring feats of narration since Melville’s Benito Cereno or James’s The Turn of the Screw.
At the outset of the story the first person narrator is a private tutor to the sons of a Russian émigré family in Berlin – a job he finds quite humiliating. He is having an affair with a married woman, Matilda, but is bored with her. Indeed, from the description he gives – ‘this plump, uninhibited, cow-eyed lady with a large mouth’ (E,p.14) – it is quite clear that either he feels ashamed of her or does not like her. In addition, he feels lonely, is full of self-pity, and is neurotically self-obsessed:
I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought of not being able to stop being aware of myself (p.17).
Here Nabokov is harking back to Dostoyevski’s underground man:
Compared to them [the successful] I was a fly, a nasty obscene fly – cleverer, better educated, nobler than any of them, that goes without saying – but a fly … humiliated and slighted by everybody.
and he is in a sense anticipating by almost a decade (just as he did in ‘Terror’) Sartre’s Roquentin:
I exist by what I think … and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment – this is terrible – if I exist it is because I hate everything.
When Matilda’s husband uncovers the affair he thrashes the narrator in front of his pupils. Feeling that this is his most complete humiliation, the narrator decides to commit suicide.
There is, even at first reading, something slightly peculiar about this narrator. What Nabokov is doing is to exploit the attractiveness and the immediacy of the first person narrative mode. He is also exploiting the fact that readers have a conditioned tendency to believe what a first person narrator says. As Somerset Maugham observes, in admitting his own penchant for this strategy in telling stories:
Its object is of course to achieve credibility, for when someone tells you what he states happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth … it has beside the merit … that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact, and can leave to your imagination what he doesn’t or couldn’t know.
But Nabokov’s objective (more experimental and more modernist than Maugham’s) is to present the reader with the challenge of discriminating between different types of ‘truths’ offered by a rather unreliable narrator. At least three types are identifiable: statements he makes which are true because they can be ratified by other evidence he gives us in the narrative; statements he makes which are intended to deceive or mislead us; and statements from which we draw conclusions different to his own.
For instance, the narrator is setting out to give a good impression of himself, but he keeps doing the opposite. In describing his embarrassment at smoking in front of his two pupils for instance, he reveals his own gaucheness:
I kept spilling ashes in my lap, and then their clear gaze would pass attentively from my hand to the pale-grey pollen gradually rubbed into the wool (p.13).
We notice that he fails to recognise the voice of Matilda’s husband over the telephone, even though he has met him several times. Then when confronted by him, he behaves in a cringing and cowardly manner, trying to hide physically behind his own pupils. He also hides behind his own lies – ‘Enough, I have a weak heart'(p.24) – and behind what to the reader is an ugly but amusing form of mauvaise-foi: ‘I personally could never bring myself to hit anyone…especially if that fellow were angry and strong.’ (p.23)
What we have is certainly an unreliable narrator, but also a comic-grotesque form of the Dostoyevskian neurotic who brings about his own humiliation: ‘A wretched, shivering, vulgar little man in a bowler hat … This is the glimpse I caught of myself in the mirror’ (p.26).
But how is a first person narrator going to commit suicide a quarter the way through his own narrative? He does so by arranging to fail: ‘I drew away my awkwardly bent arm a little, so that the steel would not touch my naked chest’ (p.28) and after recovering from the gunshot wound he speaks of himself as if he had lived beyond death, and is now observing himself from the outside. This begins a variation on the Double theme. He speaks of himself as if he were someone else: ‘In respect to myself I was now an onlooker’ (p.35).
He then begins to mix with a family who live above him, where his attention is focused on two people. The first is a woman who has been given a boy’s name, Vanya, who he describes as looking like a bulldog, with thick black eyebrows and big hands with large pink knuckles. The second is Smurov, an enigmatic young man who he describes in a very flattering manner: ‘everything he said was intelligent and appropriate’ (p.40).
Smurov makes such a good impression that the narrator feels Vanya is bound to fall in love with him. Yet when Smurov begins to speak he makes a complete fool of himself, and in giving an account of how he narrowly escaped death fleeing from Russia, he is discovered in a blatant lie.
By now the attentive reader has enough information to realise two things. First that the narrator and Smurov are the same person. He is speaking about himself in the third person mode. Second that he is not only very unreliable but an outright liar. Nabokov’s skill in manipulating this mode is in making Smurov principally unreliable to himself, but giving us enough information via his narrative to work out the truth. We realise for instance that he is in love with Vanya, and the remainder of the story is built around his clumsy and embarrassing attempts to pay court to her and to discover if she reciprocates his feelings.
To do this he snoops in his neighbour’s rooms and reads other people’s mail. Everything he finds out confirms our belief that Vanya is engaged to somebody else, and that the whole group of people with whom Smurov is mixing actually dislike him. Even his pretence of standing outside himself begins to slip when he recounts his own rapture for Vanya: ‘She was so enchanting … Her downy face, near-sighted eyes…her short bright dresses: her big knees’ (p.73). The unlovely nature of his two love objects Vanya and Matilda is linked to a secondary theme running as an additional mystery throughout the story – the exact nature of Smurov’s sexual psychology.
Right from the start we are given hints that Smurov is sub-consciously homosexual. His descriptions of women are grotesque, whereas even the memory of an old male university friend leaves him with a ‘knowing, faintly dreamy expression’ (p.20). When he intercepts somebody’s letter it describes him as a homosexual who chooses to admire women he hardly knows, confident that ‘he will not be compelled to perform that which he is neither capable nor desirous of performing with any lady, even if she were Cleopatra herself’ (p.86). Everything we read in the letter confirms what we already suspect about Smurov. He makes one last clumsy assault on Vanya, is repulsed, and takes himself off, completely humiliated.
The story ends with two brief episodes. In the first Matilda’s husband turns up again, begs his forgiveness, and offers him a well paid job. In the second Smurov tells us how happy he is – and in doing so reveals that he is not: ‘What more can I do to prove it, how to proclaim that I am happy? Oh, to shout it so that all of you believe me at last, you cruel, smug people’ (p.103).
Both passages are further lies on Smurov’s part: the first is a fantasy of wish-fulfilment which confirms any suspicions regarding Smurov’s sexual orientation. When the husband accosts him Smurov ‘feels an odd weakness’ (p.100) and hides girlishly behind a bunch of flowers he is carrying, pretending to be angry. ‘I pouted a little while longer. All along I had to restrain a desire to say something nice’ (p.101).
His final statement has all the characteristics of the Gogolian or the Dostoyevskian tale – a first person narrator who is at the borders of sanity, disorientation, and self-deception. ‘I am invulnerable … what do I care if she marries another?’ (p.103). This is a close echo of Gogol’s diary-keeping madman – ‘Didn’t go to the office today. To hell with them! No my friends, you won’t tempt me now’ – or of Dostoyevski’s underground man – ‘The swine! It isn’t as if I can spare seven roubles. Perhaps they’ll think … Oh hell! I don’t grudge seven roubles! I’ll leave this minute! But of course I stayed.’
This is a dazzlingly clever manipulation of the first and third person narrative modes. Even when, early on in the story, the reader has guessed that Smurov is himself the narrator, Nabokov plays amusingly with the device by posing an artificial difficulty to himself as author. At one point of Smurov’s narrative a secondary character arrives at a gathering and asks to be introduced to everyone. This would seem certain to expose the identity of the narrator. But Nabokov cleverly solves the problem he has set himself- and does so with a literary double somersault by having the character recognise just Smurov, greet him ‘palpating Smurov’s arms and shoulders’ (p.70) and then pass on to the others. This allows Smurov to stay within his fictional ‘cover’ and Nabokov to maintain the narrative logic.
Smurov all along claims that he is a complex personality, a mystery to others, a multiplicity of masks. But the truth, which we can extract from his own account, is that he is a seedy, shabby individual, a small-minded petty thief who is grossly insensitive and terminally self-absorbed. What Nabokov has done is devise strategies for having a first person narrator condemn himself by his own account whilst giving the reader the pleasure of slowly making this discovery – what Wayne Booth call ‘Secret communion of the author and reader behind the narrator’s back.’ And no matter how early in the story the discovery is made, we enjoy the amusement of the grotesquely embarrassing situations the narrator creates for himself.
© Roy Johnson 2005