a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
‘The Potato Elf’ (1929) brings together the themes of adultery and death in a story which hovers a little uncertainly between fantasy and realism. The Elf – ‘Actually his name was Frederick Dobson’ (RB,p.221) – is a circus dwarf who feels somewhat humiliated by his job and his lack of sexual fulfillment. He becomes assistant to a magician, Shock, and is taken home by him to be adopted, since Shock’s marriage is childless.
Shock’s wife Nora seduces the Elf next day as a deliberately vindictive act against her husband, even though she thinks the Elf is ‘a nasty little worm’ (p.237). But Fred is transformed with happiness by the incident and imagining that she reciprocates his enthusiasm for her, he immediately gives up his circus job and tries to confess what has happened to Shock – without apparent success.
When Shock returns home, Nora is eager to triumph over her husband with the secret, but Shock reveals that he already knows of her betrayal and takes poison in front of her. As he is dying she blurts out her hatred of him in a rage of frustration – whereupon Shock reveals that the poison was a trick.
Disappointed by Nora’s rejection of him, the dwarf retires into provincial obscurity and lives as a recluse, getting older and developing a heart complaint. Eight years later Nora visits him to reveal that she had a son by him. Fred is radiantly happy at this news and fails to see that she is in mourning, which suggests to the reader that the child has died. When she leaves, Fred chases after her but dies of a heart attack at her feet, whilst she disowns any knowledge of him to onlookers.
Andrew Field considers this Nabokov’s greatest story on the basis of its ‘compressed action’, and Brian Boyd ‘One of [his] poorer stories’. The story is essentially in three parts. Part one tells of the dwarf’s history and how he comes to be taken home by the magician. Part two – and this is where the action certainly is compressed – deals with the events of one day: Nora’s seduction of the dwarf; his confession to Shock; and Shock’s confrontation with Nora. Part three deals with the subsequent eight years and Nora’s visit to the dwarf.
In this sense – of a balanced triad – the story is harmoniously structured. But there are problems with the eight year gap. First of all it destroys the fine unity of time strongly generated in the centre of the story (into which the first part could easily have been incorporated). And the other problem arises from a question of either credibility or consistency of motivation.
Quite apart from the semi-arbitrary gap of eight years (which could just as easily have been two, or twenty) and our doubts concerning the dwarf’s source of income in all that time, the principal problem is centred in the character of Nora. If she dislikes the dwarf so much, why has she sought him out after all this time? The obvious answer is to tell him about their child.
She does restrain the announcement of its death out of sympathy for the dwarf’s ‘tender and joyful radiance’ (p.248) at the news. But then why does she repudiate him publicly when he dies at her feet in the street? Nabokov’s extreme hostility towards Nora throughout the story (consistent with his attitude to other adulteresses) sits uneasily with her actions in this ending.
Andrew Field is on stronger ground when he points to the structural and thematic strengths of the work:
The affair with Nora began with Fred sitting at her feet, and it is there where he dies…the form of the story precisely matches his life, which in essence has only two moments, and it is at both these moments that he feels he is no longer a dwarf.26
The story is set (rather unusually for Nabokov) in an England which he knew well enough from his years as a student at Cambridge, but it comes across as a rather improbable mixture of Toytown and comic book stereotypes which sit rather uneasily with the realistic manner in which the dwarf’s emotional experiences are depicted. Nabokov is never at his best when moving uneasily between fantasy and realism, and moreover this is a story which despite (or maybe even because of its strongly cinematic elements is moving away from the restraints of the short story proper and becoming more a tale.
Ian Reid makes this distinction between the short story and the tale or yarn, pointing to the loser structure and the lack of traditional unities (time, place, and action): ‘The term ‘tale’…usually…designates a fairly straightforward, loose-knit account of strange happenings’.
There is also some doubt about the date of this story. Some sources locate it as his earliest (1923 or 1924) – which would be consistent with Nabokov’s other early experiments with quasi-fantasy. And even if its true date is 1929 (as given by Nabokov himself) it might be something he brought out of the bottom drawer for publication around the later date. After all, he was becoming a professional writer, trying to make a living in a hostile economic environment.
© Roy Johnson 2005