NABOKV-L post 0003281, Sun, 9 Aug 1998 17:29:01 -0700

Barabtarlo on "A Russian Beauty" [Krasavitsa]
EDITOR's NOTE. Below, Gennadi Barabtarlo responds to Igor Fridman's query
about Nabokov's story "A Russian Beauty." Gene is the author of
two books on Nabokov and many articles.
I would like to remark that Mr. Fridman's query got rather
extended responses from not just one but two leading Nabokov scholars. My
special thanks to both.

From: Gene Barabtarlo <>

Prompted by the inquiry, I have reread the story both in English and in
Russian. I think that it belongs to the sort whose *other meaning* cannot
be understood from within, without the scaffolding of an auxiliary
consideration. Here such a consideration may be *Bunin* and VN's difficult,
and somewhat veiled relation to that singular writer. On several occasions,
VN endeavored to do what [he thought] Bunin did best - painterly writing,
the shock of a precise and utterly fresh yet utterly recognizable detail,
well-couched, unspoiled Russian diction ‹ and outdo him at all of these.
It is as if VN felt, a few times during the 1930s, an urge for that
strangely keen one-sided competition, and applied himself to show that he
could do all these things better than the renowned master ‹ who was, on the
other hand, helpless in the departments where VN excelled - the art of
structural composition, esp. of the larger kind, let alone the art of
thematic patterning and golden egg-hunt and the manifold distribution of
philosophical content. The only aspect in which he could not match Bunin
the prose writer was the Russian village and peasantry and their speech and
customs, which VN knew only in passing, as he shows in his "Bad Day" (while
Bunin knew them first-hand, and besides, *made a point* to learn, having
Tolstoy and Chekhov as his models).
Many things in "A Russian Beauty" ‹ the quality of portrait detail,
the strangely "inclusive" and familiar tone of the narrator, or better to
say "story-teller" ("nechego nos vorotit'" ‹ "no use to turn up your nose"
‹ which is not an exact translation, by the way), the special sadness of it
all, the submerged sexual ballast (e.g. Ol'ga seems to have told Vera that
she is a virgin, which causes Vera to burst out laughing in disbelief) and
the mention of "soft breasts" [Bunin had a dreadful, life-long predilection
for this trite phrase and its variations], even the title of the story ‹
strike me as characteristically and specifically Buninian. But Nabokov's
parodies (in the true Greek sense of the word) were usually delivered, like
certain sardine cans, with an opener attached. The ending ("unexpected", he
calls it in his send-up) appears to be such a key. Bunin's stories were
almost always open-ended, unidirectional, life variously sliced, so that
the note of sadness would ring out after the all-important last sentence
has been read ‹ but there is no urge, nor need, to re-read the story, for
the enchantment and sadness will be repeated but not amplified by a new
discovery. So VN abruptly cuts off the story thread but makes a hasty
nabokovian knot at the end: the narrator does not know a continuation but ‹
"guess what" ‹ the arrow of his parody has hit its target and thus will be
in flight until " at least one poet's left under the moon." Bunin did not
do such things (and detested such "trickery"), and that was the point.
VN dedicated his "A Bad Day" to "Ivan Alexeevich Bunin" and the
story is an intricate combination of "flattery eo ipso" and contest. But
there are other Bunin-like charges deliberately planted in The Defence and
elsewhere. (I admit I haven't read Shrayer's essay on the topic, he
probably puts some of these to study). In his memoir, the famous episode
with Bunin at a restaurant happens at the same time as VN inscribed a copy
of Despair (I think) to Bunin, and this most reverent and humble
inscription ‹ which I saw in Cornell's rare book library and which I hope
will be on display in September ‹ is in sharp clash with the anecdote in
Conclusive Evidence. By the way, the Russian version of that latter pays a
special tribute to Bunin, who had died shortly before the publication of
Other Shores, by parodying his style in the strong solution of the last
paragraph of that chapter (absent in either English version), the very
paragraph in which Nabokov regrets that their conversations never turned
into anything serious, and it's too late now etc.
Why could not "A Russian Beauty", written I think around the time
Bunin received a Nobel Prize (1934?), the first among Russians, be a
congratulatory yet polemical tribute?