Rhetorical surprise, multilayered memories
Most of these stories are simple, more or less obvious tales of slight emotional impact, but constructed artfully and with exceptionally rich vocabulary and phrasing. They merit frequent re-readings — not because they are at all difficult to understand or complex (which they are not) but because the flowing rhythm of their sounds and images is so pleasing, making re-reading like listening again to a favorite symphony. A couple are total fantasies, barely brushing any real lived experience, one in the imaginary resort of “Fialta”, another, “Lance,” in a hallucinatory and multilayered time (several millennia hence?) and deep outer space, overlapping with the here-and-now of mid-twentieth century mid-America. Even these are occasion for wry social commentary, on adultery, frustration and lost opportunity in “Spring in Fialta” and on the craft of commercial fiction in “Lance,” where I especially liked this remark by the narrator as he tries and fails to recall a particular face:
“All I manage to glimpse is an effect of melting light on one side of her misty hair, and in this, I suspect, I am insidiously influenced by the standard artistry of modern photography and I feel how much easier writing must have been in former days when one’s imagination was not hemmed in by innumerable visual aids, and a frontiersman looking at his first giant cactus or his first high snows was not necessarily reminded of a tire company’s pictorial advertisement.”
This was written in 1952! How much more insidious has become the effect of all the imagery that bombards us today.
It’s hard to write fresh, perhaps even impossible to escape all the trite phrases and images stored in our memory. Nevertheless, and knowing this, Nabokov tries harder than most popular authors, resorting to rhetorical surprise to force his readers to look again. He accomplishes this by his use of unexpected and unusual adjectives and nouns that require us to stop, if only for a nanosecond, to think on what is truly being invoked.
Nabokov wrote and published several of these stories originally in Russian, and at least one (“Mademoiselle O”) in French, to later translate them into English (in the case of “Mademoiselle O” with the acknowledged assistance of Hilda Ward), while the others were written and published originally in English; he also had more than a passing acquaintance with German (he lived in Berlin for 15 years, as you might guess from the stories “Cloud, Castle, Lake” and “The Aurelian”). Thus his linguistic resources and appreciation of the peculiar virtues of each language were quite exceptional.
There are two stories here that I have already read more than once and will surely enjoy reading again, the only two which “are (except for a change of names) true in every detail to the author’s remembered life,” as he tells us in a Biographical Note: “Mademoiselle O” and “First Love.” Nabokov tells us he was 6 when Mlle. O arrived at his parents’ house, some 50 miles from Saint Petersburg, which would have been 1905, a year of revolution. “First Love” takes place only four years later, and recounts a marvelous train voyage all the way from Saint Petersburg to the beach at Biarritz. The remembered first sensations of a child, not yet contaminated by all the influences of custom and advertising, make these stories seem truly fresh, and the tentative and contradictory emotions of the child rhyme with my own, and thus sound truly authentic.
(On Nabokov’s knowledge of German, see “What about Nabokov’s German?” by his German translator, Dieter Zimmer.)