a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
‘The Vane Sisters’ (March 1951) is almost Nabokov’s farewell to the short story as a literary form. He created a specially difficult task for this last major experiment. It is the problem of having a first person narrator transmit to the reader information of whose existence he is himself unaware. As Wayne Booth commented shortly after the story was published
‘The Vane Sisters’ carries the pleasure of secret communication [between author and reader] about as far as it can go in the direction of what might be called mere cryptography (Booth,p.301)
The principal device used to achieve this effect is the deployment of yet another unreliable narrator. He is an unnamed Frenchman teaching literature at a girl’s college in America. One of the eponymous sisters, Sybil, is having an affair with another member of the college’s staff – D. The other sister, Cynthia, recruits the help of the narrator to stop the affair – but it is too late: Sybil commits suicide.
The narrator subsequently gets to know Cynthia better as she tries to enlist him in a circle of believers in the occult. He remains sceptical, she spurns him, and they drift apart. Some years later his colleague D reveals that Cynthia too has just died, and the narrator goes home at night full of presentiments that Cynthia might haunt him in some way.
He wakes up next day disappointed that she has failed to manifest herself, and in recounting this fact reveals as an acrostic hidden in his last words a message from her which concerns not just one but both sisters.
The trick is very neatly done, and is one which, as Nabokov himself suggests ‘can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction’ (TD,p.218). And it is not just a cheap cryptogram or a revelation of identity: the message has a significance which connects it to two other aspects of the story.
The first of these is Cynthia’s beliefs in manifestations from the afterlife. She believes that these will take the form of short moments in a person’s life which are influenced by another person’s spirit:
‘a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one’s usual day then shading off into vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded’ (p.228)
It is these beliefs about which the narrator is sceptical, yet the story opens with his sudden feeling of elation at watching icicles melting in the sunlight: ‘it only sharpened my appetite for other tidbits of light and shade’ (p.220). Following this he spots ‘The lean ghost, the elongated umbra cast by a parking meter upon some damp snow’ (p.220).
We also learn, in the course of his narrative, that his favourite painting (of Cynthia’s) is ‘Seen through a Windshield’…a windshield partly covered with rime, with a brilliant trickle (from an imaginary car roof) across its transparent part (p.226).
This elation of the narrator’s is precisely the sort of manifestation Cynthia’s theory has postulated, and this is confirmed by the acrostic of which he is unaware which reads, when extracted by the reader from his narrative “Icicles by Cynthia. Meter from me. Sybil.” (p.238).
The acrostic is also linked to the important feature of the narrator’s unreliability and lack of self-awareness. We are given two or three hints about him. The first two the reader is able to check as indicators of his lack of acuteness. Nabokov plants, partly as a joke from author to reader, his lack of consciousness regarding his own narrative:
‘I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed…a message’ (p.230)
Of course, this is the very story he is telling, but it does not occur to him to check his own last paragraph for messages. He is also unable to understand a very simply coded description of a chess set: ‘What seemed to be some Russian type of architectural woodwork (‘figures on boards – man, horse, cock, man, horse, cock’) all of which was…hard to understand’ (p.232).
The other hint is more difficult to disentangle from Nabokov’s own authorial control. For the narrator (as are many of Nabokov’s male protagonists) turns out to be something of a misogynist. He spends a whole page describing Cynthia in a very unflattering manner (thick eyebrows, coarse skin, hairy legs) and the widowed lady who is his neighbour he describes as ‘resembling a mummified guinea pig’ (p.235).
But there is another set of data within the account to suggest that Nabokov is deliberately planting information to cast doubt on his narrator’s reliability. For Cynthia accuses him of being ‘a prig and a snob…[who] only saw the gestures and disguises of people’ (p.234) – the implication being that she sees a lot more.
Our confidence in accepting this view is confirmed by the events of the narrative itself (Cynthia and Sybil are able to send their ‘message’) and we are offered extra assurance by such delicately and finely applied details as the fact that Cynthia makes her accusation ‘through pear-shaped drops of sparse rain’ (p.234) which echo the icicle drops of the signal between them.
One might argue that the trickery involved outweighs the importance of the subject, but the story is masterfully constructed nevertheless. What is the test for acceptability in such a case? Sean O’Faolain’s case against what he calls the ‘whip-crack ending’ is that there is less reason to re-read the story if everything in it depends upon some surprise revelation in its last lines (O’Faolain,p.159). But in the case of ‘The Vane Sisters’ we would re-read for the pleasure of seeing how subtly Nabokov has planted information in his narrator’s account, giving us the satisfaction of being able to work out what is going on behind the narrator’s back as it were.
It is in this sense that Nabokov is amongst the most successful of manipulators of narrative conventions: he forces his readers to pay especially close attention to what is being told and lays any number of traps to mislead their expectations – but always plants sufficient evidence within the text to enable them to work out the truth of the matter. In terms of the construction of its narrative if not the seriousness of its subject matter, ‘The Vane Sisters’ is amongst the greatest of Nabokov’s achievements as a writer of short stories, along with The Eye, Lik, Spring in Fialta, and The Return of Chorb.
© Roy Johnson 2005