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6 x 9 in.
416 pp., 18 b&w photos

Out of print


The World of Nabokov's Stories

By Maxim D. Shrayer


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Table of Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Transliteration, Dates, and References
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1. Writing and Reading the Otherworld
  • Interlude: Mapping Narrative Space in Nabokov's Stories
  • 2. Testing Nabokov's Paradigms
    • The Creative Laboratory in "The Return of Chorb" (1925)
    • Memory, Pilgrimage, and Death in "The Aurelian" (1930)
    • Entering the Otherworld in "Cloud, Castle, Lake" (1937)
    • Poetry, Exile, and Prophetic Mystification in "Vasiliy Shishkov" (1939)
  • 3. Nabokov's Dialogue with Chekhov: From "Lady with a Lap Dog" to "Spring in Fialta"
  • 4. Nabokov and Bunin: The Poetics of Rivalry
  • Coda
  • Appendix: A Complete Annotated List of Nabokov's Short Stories
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index


Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) left a corpus of some seventy short stories, written between 1921 and 1951 and revised thereafter. The vast majority of the stories were created during his Russian period-in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and France-and appeared first in the leading émigré periodicals (Rul', Sovremennye zapiski, Poslednie novosti, etc.); many were later collected in the three volumes Vozvrashchenie Chorba (The Return of Chorb, 1930), Sogliadatai (The Eye, 1938), and Vesna v Fial'te (Spring in Fialta,1956). Beginning with 1943, Nabokov wrote short stories in English while also "Englishing" the Russian stories. (He composed his last Russian story in 1939.) A sampling of English and Russian short stories was published as an English-language collection, Nine Stories (1947) and later expanded into Nabokov's Dozen (1958). In the early seventies, when he was already in Switzerland, Nabokov revisited his Russian stories: two-thirds of them were translated into English by the author's son, Dmitri Nabokov, in collaboration with the author. Four other original collections of short stories appeared in English: Nabokov's Quartet (1966), A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973), Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975), and Details of a Sunset and Other Stories (1976). The appearance of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, a volume of sixty-five short fictions edited by Dmitri Nabokov, in 1995 gave readers an opportunity to put in perspective Nabokov's contribution to the genre: it is an impressive and truly bilingual body of short stories by one of the major literary figures in the twentieth century. Nabokov's stories frequently appear in anthologies of short fiction and are widely taught in universities.

The study of Nabokov's short stories is no longer the virgin territory that it was in the 1960s when Slavicists and Americanists were beginning to rediscover Nabokov's pre-World War II gems. Scholars began to turn their attention to his short stories in the 1960s for several reasons, including the 1956 publication of the collection Spring in Fialta, one of the best collections of Russian stories ever to appear; the gradual translation of the Russian stories into English and their publication in leading periodicals (The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, etc.) and in separate American and British editions; and the success of Lolita (1955) and the subsequent heightened interest in anything by Nabokov. Few among the early workers in the field of Nabokov's short stories had been aware of the vast pre-World War II literature about him, dispersed throughout numerous Russian émigré publications. The rich materials included reviews of Nabokov's individual stories or entire collections (the third collection was announced as forthcoming in 1939 but was published only in 1956). Seminal articles by the leading Russian émigré critics and writers of the time, including Georgii Adamovich, Iulii Aikhenval'd, Al'fred Bem, Pëtr Bitsilli, Zinaida Gippius, Vladislav Khodasevich, Pëtr Pil'skii, Gleb Struve, Vladimir Veidle, some full of praise, others bilious and skeptical, were preparing "native grounds" for a unified scholarly inquiry into the poetics of Nabokov's short stories. Had it not been for the peripeties of World War II and the disintegration of Russia Abroad, as well as Nabokov's "disappearance" from Europe and his subsequent place as a recluse in postWorld War II Russian émigré culture, a study of his stories might have been born directly out of the rich émigré context of the 1920s-1930s. History made other arrangements.

With a few exceptions, Nabokovians of the 1960s-1970s had to start essentially from scratch. The vast émigré culture--both the substratum and the milieu for Nabokov's Russian stories--had been buried in the collective graves of libraries and archives, all but forgotten. The very sense of the literary and cultural contexts for Nabokov's achievement in his Russian short stories was difficult to restore. The undertakings of Nabokovians in working the post-World War II field of the short stories were a heroic effort and deserve both admiration and gratitude. A monograph, several doctoral dissertations, and sections of books and some fifty articles analyze Nabokov's short stories. Notable attention has been given to narrative structure. A case in point is Pekka Tammi's monumental Problems of Nabokov's Poetics (1985). Tammi's study provides an exhaustive narratological analysis of Nabokov's entire corpus of texts, considering novels, memoirs, plays, and many Russian and all English short stories as compendia of narrative devices. Tammi's examination of the short stories is limited to a number of literary devices (types of narrator, framing, irony, etc.) also to be found, albeit in a different proportion, in other literary texts, both Russian and non-Russian. Such a narrative approach to Nabokov's works is therefore device-specific, not Nabokov-specific. It seeks neither to make value judgments about his contribution to the genre of the short story nor to link the structure of his stories with their implied philosophical outlook or cultural contexts. It might help one see how Nabokov is like other writers, but not how he is unlike them.

In addition to studying narrative poetics, critics in the West have produced exemplary thematic readings of Nabokov's short stories, focusing largely on such topics as memory and exile, love and adultery, madness, self versus other, and the artist in the modern world. Although these themes enjoy a prominent status in Nabokov's oeuvre, they by no means distinguish him from his great Russian coevals, such as Isaak Babel' and Andrei Platonov, to name but two, or his stories from his novels. Overall, while post-World War II studies have introduced a significant frame of structural and cultural references, they have not answered the two questions--separate albeit interconnected--which the Russian émigré critics had begun to tackle in the 1930s when they hailed Nabokov as the new star of Russian prose: What makes Nabokov's short stories unique as compared to the other short stories of the great Russian tradition, from Aleksandr Pushkin to Lev Tolstoi and from Anton Chekhov to Ivan Bunin? and What places Nabokov the writer of short stories in a peerless position on the map of Russian modernism? These questions still remain largely unanswered.

The year 1993 was marked by the appearance of A Small Alpine Form, the first collection of scholarly articles devoted entirely to Nabokov's short fiction, both Russian and English. The biggest achievement of the collection lies in its insistence on recognizing Nabokov's "smaller butterflies" not merely as footnotes to his novels but as deserving a place among the world's finest short stories. The recent surge of interest among both scholars and readers signals a need for an approach to the short stories based on searching for poetic paradigms that are solely Nabokovian.

The World of Nabokov's Stories is the first examination of Nabokov's entire Russian career as a major writer of short stories. My goal is to highlight Nabokov's original contribution to the Russian tradition, to the genre of short story, and to modernism. My main concern is to map out the dynamics of the interaction between his growing mastery of the short story and his worldview, also in the process of development. To accomplish my task, I will trace Nabokov's ripening literary practices from the apprentice stories of the early 1920s to the masterpieces of the 1930s. The reader will note my insistence on using the term "originality" when speaking of his threefold contribution. Nabokov's short stories belong, as do such celebrated works as Gustave Flaubert's Three Stories (1877) and James Joyce's Dubliners (1914), to the main line of a major writer's developing career. The Russian stories are indispensable for understanding Nabokov's entire life in letters, including the Russian and English novels, especially given his literary bilingualism and his experience as an exile in Europe in the 1920s-1930s. My particular interest in these stories also stems from a belief that the short story as genre is the ultimate test of a writer's perfection. A superb writer of short stories is likely to become a great novelist (as did Lev Tolstoi or F. Scott Fitzgerald), while a fine novelist is not necessarily equipped to write short stories (Ivan Goncharov or Samuel Beckett). to quote one of this century's foremost writers of short stories, Nabokov's contemporary and fellow-exile Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), "[the short story] constitutes the utmost challenge to the creative writer. Unlike the novel, which can absorb and even forgive lengthy digressions, flashbacks, and loose construction, the short story must aim directly at its climax."

Three principal contexts have facilitated my understanding of Nabokov's short stories: the world of Russian exiles between the two world wars; the history of modernism in Russia; and the history of the short story as genre.

The events depicted in Nabokov's stories resulted from historical and sociopolitical cataclysms during the first half of the twentieth century, chiefly the pre-1917 turmoil in Russian society, the October 1917 Revolution and the Civil War of 1918-1922, the influx of Russian exiles into Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the emergence of Weimar Democracy, and the rise of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Additionally, any discussion of Nabokov's stories would be unthinkable without reference to the history and culture of the Russian diaspora in the 1920s and 1930s. This also entails outlining his contacts with other Russian émigré authors and his reception by Russian émigré critics. Having left Russia in 1919 as a young man, Nabokov emerged as a writer in exile, and for nearly twenty years he supported himself as a contributor to emigre publications. A society within society, for nearly twenty years Russia Abroad provided outlets for publishing his short stories (and honoraria, however meager), a demanding reading audience, and, last but not least, the raw existential material that informed his fictions. The majority of Nabokov's Russian stories feature Russian émigré protagonists, are set in interwar Europe, and address issues of the exiles' spiritual and physical survival.

Nabokov occupies a problematic position in the realism-modernism line of development in the history of Russian and European letters during the first third of the twentieth century. In the 1980s-1990s large-scale interpretations of his career have negotiated his unique status as a Russian writer. In particular, Vladimir E. Alexandrov has argued in Nabokov's Otherworld (1991) that the otherworld--both a sui generis core of metaphysical beliefs and a structural and thematic foundation--underlies Nabokov's writings and makes them so distinct from much else in twentieth-century Russian letters. In Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism (1993) John Burt Foster Jr. has demonstrated that Nabokov was truly at home in European literatures. His polylingual and polycultural works point to European modernism, notably such great masters as James Joyce (1882-1941) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

While Nabokov's masters of the novel might have lain outside the Russian literary tradition, his short stories were forged in the course of a dialogue with his predecessors in russkii rasskaz (the Russian short story). Based in part on archival materials, my study makes a case for understanding Nabokov's career as a triangular dialogic relationship with his Russian masters, Chekhov and Bunin. Both Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) are recognized as supreme masters of the Russian short story. More than once, Nabokov recorded his great admiration for Chekhov's art of short story writing. Even more than such Western masters as Rudyard Kipling, Guy de Maupassant, or Edgar Allan Poe, Chekhov truly defined the modern short story as a major, self-sufficient generic form. He brought representational short fiction to a point of stylistic perfection and precision that signals a covert modernist war against narrative conventions, an offensive against linear time and traditional structure of closure. The short stories of Bunin, Nabokov's senior contemporary, an émigré, and the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize (1933) embody a modernist obsession with poetic absolute language that focuses on the linguistic material itself. At the same time, Bunin's stories employ traditional love triangles as their structural foundation and probe the artistic limits of depicting desire. A growing tension between the language, communicating its own preoccupation with verbal artistry, and the narrative structure, revealing--like a palimpsest--layers and layers of narrative topoi, lies at the core of Bunin's short fiction. The unprecedented harmony of Nabokov's stories--language, narrative, and world vision--was his answer to the great masters. His stories obtain much of this harmony from their metaphysical dimension, which warrants their artistic longevity and popularity with both Russian and non-Russian readers.

This book also continues the work of dismantling a popular critical myth about Nabokov's nerusskost' (non-Russianness). Rather than regard Nabokov, as have notable critics, both émigré and Western, as a Russian literary anomaly--a foreign genius somehow accidentally working in the Russian language, I will treat his career in short fiction as being at once an exile's gradual farewell and a unending tribute to his Russian masters. I will place the Russian short story tradition, especially Chekhov and Bunin, at the root of Nabokov's art. Only in perspective, by reading along and against the grain of the Russian tradition, can one see his artistic innovations clearly.

Nabokov certainly had in mind exemplary Russian short story subtexts, such as Chekhov's "Gusev" (189o), "Ionych" (1898), and "Dama s sobachkoi" (Lady with a Lap Dog, 1899) or Bunin's "Lëgkoe dykhanie" (Light Breathing, 1916), "Petlistye ushi" (Loopy Ears, 1916), and "Gospodin iz San Franstisko" (Gentleman from San Francisco, 1915). An anxiety of influence gave Nabokov impetus to eclipse the finest achievements of Russian realism and modernism by leaning upon his native tradition and refashioning it from without, from the vantage point of being a Russian exile in Europe and America.


Several generic and methodological aspects of my approach need to be explained. In this study I will adhere to a rather traditional and transparent definition of the short story as literary form and genre. By "short story" I will mean here a relatively short work of fiction that centers on a limited number of protagonists (often on one protagonist), focuses on a singular concurrence of events which is localized both temporally and spatially, and creates, develops, and undoes an intrigue much less diversified than that of a novel. To quote Isaac Bashevis Singer once again, "[The short story] must possess uninterrupted tension and suspense. Also, brevity is its very essence. The short story must have a definite plan; it cannot be what in literary jargon is called 'a slice of life.' The masters of the short story, Chekhov, Maupassant, as well as the sublime scribe of the Joseph story in the Book of Genesis, knew exactly where they were going. One can read them over and over again and never get bored."

Additionally, as an astute connoisseur, prolific author of short stories, and Nabokov's editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, pointed out, "stories read better one at a time. They need air around them. And they need thinking about, since they tend to have both an explicit and an unspelled-out meaning."

In an 1971 interview with Stephen Jan Parker, Nabokov said: "In relation to the typical novel the short story represents a small Alpine, or Polar, form. It looks different, but is conspecific with the novel and is linked to it by intermediate clines." Critics have inquired into the meaning of Nabokov's statement and the light it sheds upon the study of his short stories. By "conspecificity," I believe, Nabokov meant most of all that his "short stories are produced in exactly the same way as [his] novels and informed by their [a]uthor and his subtexts [italics added]." Nabokov's working and somewhat tentative definition, based primarily on the criterion of textual length, lacks a second criterion related to the structure of composition. When working on his "small Alpine forms," I experienced a need to draw a line between the short stories and the transitional or hybrid forms. The latter include two short novels, Sogliadatai (The Eye, 1930) and Volshebnik (The Enchanter, 1939, published 1986) and two chapters of an abandoned novel ("Solus Rex," 1940, and "Ultima Thule," 1942) which appeared in periodicals and collections in the guise of separate short fictions. I have decided to exclude them from my analysis. At the same time, I could not leave several of the early plotless fictions out of my study. Virtually eventless, "Groza" (The Thunderstorm, 1924) satisfies the criterion of length, but not of structure, as I have conceived of it in this study. A few, like the very early "Nezhit"' (The Woodsprite, 1921) or "Slovo" (The Word, 1923), correspond to the genre of creative nonfiction. Finally, there is also the exhilarating case of "A Guide to Berlin," which is not a short story but a sequence of five vignettes of the type that Ernest Hemingway inserted between his short stories in the collection In Our Time (1925).

The second methodological issue concerns the shape of narrative closure. Ever since Aristotle's Poetics, to quote the narratologist Gerald Prince, critics have "pointed out that the end occupies a determinative position because of the light it sheds (or might shed) on the meaning of the events leading up to it. The end functions as the (partial) condition, the magnetizing force, the organizing principle of narrative: reading (processing) a narrative is, among other things, waiting for the end, and the nature of the waiting is related to the nature of the narrative." My interest in the composition of the ending in Nabokov's short stories stems from two factors. First, as I hope to demonstrate, Nabokov deemed crucial the structure of the ending in a literary text: much of his dialogue with his Russian masters, Chekhov and Bunin, focused on the relationship between the raw material of fiction and the way a story comes to a closure. Second, in current literary studies the notion of an open/closed ending, while commonly used, remains loosely defined. To quote a recent overview of Nabokov's short stories, "Most of the short stories... are open-ended, expansive rather than circuitous." My survey shows a nearly 40 percent /60 percent breakdown between the "open endings" and "closed endings" in his Russian stories. Clearly, the authors of the overview and I operate with different formal criteria of what constitutes an "open ending" and what qualifies as a "closed ending."

Hereafter I will employ open ending and closed ending as narratological concepts that describe how a short story comes to an end, resolves its plot, and completes its action. An open ending allows the reader to project narrative action in several directions, thereby creating a sense of indeterminacy since the reader is likely to speculate about "what is going to happen?" A good example of an open-ended short story is Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog." Chekhov's reader is left speculating--beyond the physical ending of the story--whether or not Anna and Gurov will get married, break up, or continue their adulterous relationship. A letter to Chekhov from his admirer S. S. Remizova in October 1903 illustrates a typical reader's response to an open-ended short story: "You have abandoned your readers, so to speak, in the most critical time of their lives, when a decision should be made, but what kind? There is a difficult question. You will probably choose not to write a continuation of this story, so will you be so kind as to drop a few lines about what you would do in Gurov's place... how you would resolve this complicated situation..." (Chekhov 10:426).

Conversely, upon finishing a closed-ended story, the reader is unlikely to speculate about what happens beyond the closure. A closed ending offers a resolution of the actions in the story. The shapes of resolutions may vary and include solving a mystery (Honoré de Balzac's "Sarrasine"), finding the saint (O. Henry's "The Last Leaf"), locating the missing object (Poe's "The Purloined Letter"), killing off the protagonist (J. D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"), and so forth. A closed ending makes the outcome of the story's action determinate for the reader. In some cases, as in Bunin's "Loopy Ears," it may be said about a closed-ended story that its narrative potential has been exhausted and the action calls for a resolution. In other cases, however, the narrative conflict may be shown to be unresolvable. For instance, many stories dealing with a murderer's confession during a trial possess such closed endings. In Bunin's "Delo korneta Elagina" (The Affair of Cornet Elagin,1925), the narrative pieces together all the evidence--the prosecutor's remarks, witnesses' testimony, and the protagonist's confession of murder--thereby captivating the reader. Once Elagin has finished his confession, and all his motives have been disclosed, the story is over, leaving no potential for the reader's quest beyond its ending.

The third and final issue centers on the model of the act of reading that I will advocate in this study. This issue entails three separate albeit interconnected problems: Nabokov's own view of reading, the distinction I will make between "textual memory" and "reader's memory," and, finally, the notion of the "ideal reader," also stemming from Nabokov's discursive writings. In his provocative lecture "Good Readers and Good Writers," Nabokov stated that, "curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader" (LL, 3). Such a singular understanding of the act of reading as a series of continuous rereadings/recollections relates to the distinctive role memory plays in the functioning of Nabokov's texts. Research over the past decade has broadened our understanding of his art of memory from the domain of the novels and memoirs to that of the short stories, both Russian and English. In addition to Nabokov's discursive statements in Speak, Memory (1966) and elsewhere, his short stories themselves signal his self-awareness as an artist of memory. Several of his Russian stories, especially "Govoriat po-russki" (Russian Spoken Here, 1923), "Rozhdestvo" (Christmas, 1924), "Pis'mo v Rossiiu" (A Letter That Never Reached Russia, 1925), "Britva" (Razor, 1926), "Pamiati L. I. Shigaeva" (In Memory of L. I. Shigaev,1934), and "Sovershenstvo" (Perfection, 1932), foreground a distinction between two kinds of memory operating in the process of reading. A need for such a distinction is manifest in a seminal passage from the story "Putevoditel' po Berlinu" (A Guide to Berlin, 1925): "I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade" (Stories, 157). Speaking about the "fragrant tenderness" which "our successors" ("nashi potomki"; VCh, 97) would sense in the ordinary objects of the past recorded by the text, Nabokov thereby suggests a distinction between the text of a given short story as produced by its creator and the text of the same story as perceived by its future readers, removed from the moment of creation by the passage of time. Such a distinction between the author's text and the reader's text is familiar in modern critical theory. For instance, Wolfgang Iser writes that "the literary work has two poles, which we might call the artistic pole and the aesthetic: the artistic pole is the author's text, and the aesthetic is the realization accomplished by the reader." However, Nabokov's concern was not so much in defining the boundaries of text per se, but rather in exploring the nature of textual memory. Nabokov links his experience as a writer concerned with immortalizing memory via language to that of a reader to whom the recorded memory of his story is ultimately addressed.

By the "textual memory" of a short story I mean the totality of information that its text encodes. In several respects, my notion of textual memory is kindred to Wolfgang Iser's useful notion of textual "repertoire" as it appears in The Act of Reading (1978): "The repertoire consists of all the familiar territory within the text. This may be in the form of references to earlier works, or to social and historical norms, or to the whole culture from which the text emerged-in brief, to what the Prague structuralists have called the 'extratextual reality.'" The information stored in textual memory includes facts of a plot, as they inevitably refer to specific (if fictionalized) events, as well as the structure of a given narrative. As opposed to the self-reflecting textual memory, an all-absorbing, spongelike depository of the text's various contexts, the reader's memory of the text is selective. By the "reader's memory" of the text I mean the selections from the textual memory which have been recorded in the reader's individual memory and become part of it. During the initial act of reading, the reader becomes privy to textual memory. What will be selected and etched in the reader's memory is dependent upon many factors, pertaining both to the individual qualities of the reader and to her or his time and milieu. While the textual memory is, in a manner of speaking, unalterable so long as the text remains intact, the reader's memory is mobile and undergoes alterations. Rereading/revisiting the text constitutes one of the sources of alteration of the reader's memory. The reader's memory could also be altered due to changes in the contexts of the reader's time or in the reader's awareness of these contexts. Also, the mere duration of the reader's life can be the main reason behind an alteration of the reader's text: coming of age often compels the reader to reevaluate the earlier perception of a given work. The reader's memory not only records portions of the textual memory and shapes them according to historical and personal time, but also reflects the reader's responses to the text as accumulated over the duration of the acts of rereading. While the textual memory is the text's memory of itself, the reader's memory is the reader's memory of the act of reading. Finally, one might posit a hypothetical situation where the textual memory nears the reader's memory. This situation, in some respects ideal for a reception of the text, may take place when the author serves as the reader of her or his own text.

I realize that both the notion of a semiotic totality stored in the textual memory and my tendency to approach the reader's memory of the text as a determinate entity may elicit criticism. However, I am not the first and most certainly not the last student of literature to risk opening a theoretical can of worms. In fact, several scholars, including Wolfgang Iser, E. D. Hirsch Jr., and Umberto Eco, have raised similar problems of interpretation and introduced similar distinctions as essential to our understanding of the poetics of a literary text. For instance, in Validity in Interpretation (1967), Hirsch sets up a decisive opposition between "meaning" (as the author's view/intention) and "significance" (as the reader's construction). No matter how one reads a given text, it is bound to contain both determinacies and indeterminacies. Given that all perceptions are mediated, I do not see a way around this hermeneutic problem. How can a critic ascertain some distinction between the text as such and the textual imprint it leaves on the perceiver (in my terms, between "the textual memory" and "the reader's memory") without being accused of having a deterministic view of reading? As I hope to demonstrate in this study, the notions of the textual memory and the reader's memory are not merely a part of some theoretical agenda of mine but rather stem from Nabokov's aesthetic practices. One hopes that a critic may share her or his subject's dose of determinism.

Nabokov's understanding of the role the reader plays during the act of reading was indeed deterministic, as becomes apparent from his unpublished notes, entitled "Lectures on Style and Short Stories." Presumably, he prepared these notes for a course on creative writing, a version of which he taught at Stanford University in the summer of 1941. The lectures are handwritten and in places employ a telegraphic style and abbreviations. They must have been planned for a course that would combine intense reading and discussion of selected short texts with the students' own creative work. The short fictions covered in the course included Wilkie Collins's "[The Traveler's Story of] a Terribly Strange Bed" (1852), Henry James's "The Special Type" (1890), Thomas Hardy's "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" (1890), R. L. Stevenson's "The Sire de Malétroit's Door" (1878), Joseph Conrad's "The Inn of the Two Witches" (1913), Saki's "The Reticence of Lady Anne" (1910), and Anton Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog" (1901). The last lecture of the course, entitled "Great Overture. The Philosophy of Fiction," contains Nabokov's version of reader-response criticism. His statement articulates-in more precise and plain terms than elsewhere in his discursive writings-the problem of the text's bearing on the model of its own reading:

The material of fiction necessarily includes the mind of the reader. Of the human relationships with which a work of fiction may deal, that of the reader is the most important and the controlling relationship.... Any attempt to construe material apart from the reader, as if fiction were produced in a vacuum and uttered in a void, must result in failure.... A writer has an idea of a reader, and in this respect the idea of a reader may be said to be one of the characters of the book. But this ideal reader is really the author's double-and has nothing to d0 with any of the readers an author can imagine in terms of definity [sic] presumably, time, race, local interests, etc. In other words the reader an authentic writer imagines is himself or a man like himself that is with the same capacity of receiving impressions as he has."

This passage was written soon after Nabokov's arrival in the United States and sums up his formal quest in almost sixty Russian short stories and eleven novels. Rendered in a newly adopted language and addressed to future American fiction writers, his remarks attribute great significance to the author's virtual presence during the act of reading. For Nabokov, the author constructs the text with a reader in mind by encoding in the text a set of reader-response expectations. These expectations take the form of various "signs and symbols"-to adapt the title of the 1948 story-and manifest themselves to the reader during the act of rereading. When Nabokov speaks of an ideal reader who is like his own double against the text of a given short story, he wishes for a reader who would succumb to the text and allow it to perform in its full capacity.


I have divided Nabokov's stories into four periods, the Early period (1921-1929), the Middle period (1930-1935), the High period (1936-1939) and the American period (1940-1951). The criteria employed in devising this system of periodization are not merely chronological, historical, or philological. It is certainly true that each of the three Russian periods centers on the stories included in Nabokov's three Russian collections of short stories, The Return of Chorb (1930), The Eye (1938), and Spring in Fialta (1956; it would have come out in 1939 had it not been for the outbreak of World War II). In addition, the temporal boundaries between the Early and Middle and the Middle and High periods correspond to natural intervals in Nabokov's creative work. Prior to writing "Pil'gram" (The Aurelian,1930), he had not produced a single short story for over a year, in contrast to the steady yearly output of the 1920s. Such a hiatus marked a transition to a decidedly new understanding of the structure of the short story in "The Aurelian" and the subsequent works of the 1930s. "Mademoiselle O" celebrates the beginning of Nabokov's High period for two reasons: it was written in French and already bespeaks his shifting linguistic orientation (eventually resulting in his permanent switch from Russian to English), but also his forthcoming move to France, preempting a second emigration. My periodization takes into account the maturation of Nabokov's poetics. The stories of the Early period exemplify his artistic laboratory. During the Middle period, he developed an innovative poetics while also perfecting his skills as a professional belletrist. The High period, the briefest of all, produced a series of absolute masterpieces that receive the highest score in Nabokov's dialogic competition with Chekhov and Bunin. This period yielded his best stories, wherein the writer's philosophical outlook dovetails with his craft in the most harmonious fashion.

A division into three periods also corresponds organically to the distribution of Nabokov's novels over the Russian years. The Early period produced Mary (1926), King, Queen, Knave (1928), The Defense (1929), and The Eye (1930); the Middle, Glory (1931), Kamera obskura (1932-1933), Despair (1934), and Invitation to a Beheading (1935-1936); the High, The Gift (1937-1938), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1939; 1941), and The Enchanter (1939;1986). For the American period, the language of the stories was an obvious criterion. Although in the course of this study I will make occasional references to several of the ten American stories, I have chosen not to engage in a full-length discussion of their poetics. The main reason behind this decision is that all ten stories of the American period have elicited much more attention than their Russian counterparts.

While working with Nabokov's short stories, I faced a need to examine not only the texts included in his collections, but also the original publications in the Russian émigré periodicals. When the latter were unavailable--as in the case of "Paskhal'nyi dozhd"' (Easter Rain), until recently believed to have been lost, or in the case of the Russian stories still unpublished in the original--I went back to the surviving original manuscripts and corrected typescripts. While it would be impossible to account for every single variant in the known versions of each short story, I have tried to incorporate a series of observations dealing with Nabokov's methods of reworking his short stories, from drafts to final versions, as well as the textual discrepancies between the different published versions. In several cases, especially that of "The Aurelian," I will provide a detailed account of the significant changes from first draft to fair copy to the journal version to the collected text. Since many of the Russian stories exist as a nearly bilingual body of works, I was compelled to examine and compare all the parallel Russian and English versions. In many cases, I have consulted the manuscripts of Nabokov's translations in order to understand the kind of linguistic and stylistic choices the writer opted for after his second glance at his Russian works.

Finally, brief comments on the structure of this book are in order. Chapter 1 examines in chronological fashion the parallel evolution of Nabokov's sui generis metaphysical outlook and the poetics of his short stories. The chapter traces the evolution of a number of devices paradigmatic of Nabokov's stories, including his use of various forms of markedness (prosodic, iconic, etc.) to signal to the reader that she or he has approached a privileged textual passage. Viewing Nabokov's entire oeuvre as a single aesthetic and philosophical continuum, I will also demonstrate that he frequently used his expertise in versification to introduce devices of poetry into prose.

Interlude considers the techniques Nabokov devised and employed in order to depict the space where the events of his short stories occur.

Chapter 2 includes four case studies of exemplary short stories from the Early, Middle, and High periods of Nabokov's career. Each section anatomizes a short story in light of paradigms outlined in Chapter 1 against the backdrop of the entire corpus of his short fiction. The first section negotiates the status of the author in the text of a remarkable early short story, "The Return of Chorb." The second focuses on the way Nabokov's view of fate and death structures the narrative closure of a fine butterfly story, "The Aurelian." The third section considers "Cloud, Castle, Lake," one of the best achievements of the Russian short story, as a culmination of Nabokov's pre-World War II metaphysical quest. Finally, the fourth section analyzes his last Russian short story as a metaliterary testament regarding its author's place in Russian poetry, as well as his pronouncement on the future of Russian culture in exile.

Chapter 3 discusses Nabokov's apprenticeship to Chekhov. The second half focuses on Nabokov's multilevel dialogue with "Lady with a Lap Dog" (1899), an emblem of Chekhov's poetics. The case of Ivan Bunin, Nabokov's fellow-exile, gave me an opportunity to elaborate the notion of the poetics of rivalry. Chapter 4 thus explores the impact of the writers' personal and literary relationship on the dynamics of their poetics and shows that the two masters, the older Bunin and the younger Nabokov, challenged each other to a fierce competition in the genre of the short story.

Coda inquires into the generic mutability of Nabokov's short stories and explores the relationship between his short stories and his epistolary and autobiographical heritage. The short stories, perhaps more than the novels, elucidate the equation between Nabokov's life and his art. The applicability of Poststructuralist theory to his writings is questioned.

My chief theoretical interest in this book is to arrive at a theory of reading Nabokov's short fiction that bridges his life and his art by negotiating between biography and poetics. Several overarching themes or theoretical leitmotifs recur throughout this study. Each section not only offers another perspective on the short stories, but also reconsiders the conclusions of the earlier sections in a different hermeneutic tonality. If the following pages have captured some of the poetic melodies and prosaic harmonies of Nabokov's short stories, my efforts have not been in vain.


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