Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000314, Fri, 5 Aug 1994 10:52:07 -0700

VN Stories: Author's Intro (fwd)


The Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, by Roy Johnson




Part I Apprentice Years Stories 1924 - 1929
Part II The European Master Stories 1930 - 1939
Part III American Notes Stories 1940 - 1951


The work of Vladimir Nabokov as a writer of short stories falls
into what for the sake of convenience can be called three
separate periods. During the first - the 1920s - he was
developing his reputation as an emigre author living in Berlin,
writing poetry, plays, reviews, film scripts, and novels as well
as stories, meanwhile supporting himself by giving lessons in
tennis and English. During the second - the 1930s - having
established that reputation with his early novels written in
Russian, he produced what are probably his finest stories.
Towards the end of the decade however, he was forced to move to
Paris and then to America where, feeling that he had lost his
audience of the post-1917 Russian emigration, he began writing
in English. During the final period - the 1940s - he produced
only a few more stories, and following the establishment of his
international reputation as a novelist with the publication of
*Lolita* in 1955, he seems to have effectively stopped writing
short fictions from that time.

It is the purpose of this study to trace the development of his
skill in the creation of short fictions through the whole of his
sixty published stories, and in particular to examine his
manipulation of traditional narrative modes.

Nabokov offers readers a challenging instance of multi-cultural
influences. He was, to quote his own description of himself, 'An
American writer, born in Russia and educated in England, where
[he] studied French literature before spending fifteen years in
Germany' (SO,p.26). The fact that he actually lived in all those
countries and absorbed their cultures through both daily life and
their literary heritage makes the task of fully appreciating his
work difficult enough; but when added to this one confronts the
fact that he thought, spoke, and wrote in Russian, French, and
English (though not, through personal antipathy, German) the task
can become even more daunting. As George Steiner has observed

this polylinguistic matrix is the determining fact of
Nabokov's life and art ... To be specific: the
multilingual, cross linguistic situation is both the
matter and form of Nabokov's work.

A Note on Sources

Nabokov's short stories first appeared in Russian emigre
newspapers and magazines published in Germany in the 1920s and
1930s. Some stories were later collected and published in volume
form in Berlin and Paris in the 1930s. Following his emigration
to the USA he began to publish stories in the *New Yorker* and
*The Atlantic Monthly*, and there was a collection in volume form
in 1958 - *Nabokov's Dozen*. However, some of the stories exist
in two and sometimes three versions. Quite apart from the fact
that the earlier stories were written in Russian and the later
ones in English, the process of translating the earlier works has
variously involved other people, Nabokov himself, or Nabokov in
collaboration with others. And at each stage of translation or
re-publication of his work, Nabokov was much given to polishing
and embellishment of what he had written, which usually resulted
in additional layers of linguistic complexity.

It is significant in this respect that there have already been
several attempts to establish a bibliographical description of
his work. Fortunately for the English-speaking reader, Nabokov
before his death managed to re-translate (in collaboration with
his son, Dmitri) the bulk of his stories. These are now
available along with his editorial prefaces and bibliographical
notes, in the following English editions (all published by
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, except where noted):

*Nabokov's Dozen* (Heinneman) 1959
*A Russian Beauty and Other Stories* 1973
*Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories* 1975
*Details of a Sunset and Other Stories* 1976

In the Foreword to *Details of a Sunset* Nabokov offers his own
bibliography with the remark 'The collection is the last batch
of my Russian stories meriting to be Englished' (DS,p.11) which
lightly underlines the fact that other untranslated or
uncollected stories do exist (some of them are paraphrased both
in Andrew Field's *Nabokov: His Life in Art* and in Brian Boyd's
biography *Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years*). But until the
literary archaeological work is done which will bring these
stories into general circulation, both scholars and general
readers alike have every reason to feel confident that the pieces
in these four volumes represent the large majority of Nabokov's
oeuvre, issued with his authority, as a writer of short stories.
It is for this reason that they will be used here as basic
sources, and reference made to them by the initials of their
NOTE. This study was written largely in the late 1980s, and I am
aware that since that time a number of further items have been
added to whatever will eventually be the *Complete Works* of VN.
There are also differences of opinion regarding the exact dating
of some of the texts, and alternative versions will no doubt
emerge as archives are mined and research continues. These
advances are very welcome, and if they throw up information which
impacts on the arguments of this study, I will be happy to
incorporate them.

A Key to abbreviations

*A Russian Beauty and Other Stories* (RB)
*Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories* (TD)
*Details of a Sunset and Other Stories* (DS)
*Nabokov's Dozen* (ND)
*Strong Opinions* (SO)
*Lectures on Literature* (LL)
*Lectures on Russian Literature* (LRL)
*Speak, Memory* (SM)
*The Eye* (E)
*Lolita* (L)
The first reference to each separate story is given by
abbreviations of volume title and page reference. Subsequent
references are page reference only.


Part I - Apprentice Years: Stories 1924 - 1929

Following the revolution of 1917, Nabokov's family left Russia
and settled in Berlin, which was one of the two principal centres
of emigration along with Paris. Nabokov was sent to Trinity
College Cambridge in 1919, and after graduation he rejoined his
family, supporting himself by giving private English lessons and
coaching tennis. After having written mainly poetry in his youth,
his first short stories appeared in the Russian language emigre
newspapers printed in Berlin - notably Rul' (*The Rudder*) which
had been edited by his father. The variety of narrative modes and
strategies adopted in the first dozen or so stories suggest that
he was casting around to locate the most comfortable approach to
this particular literary genre - and he was at the same time of
course also writing the first of his novels. Amongst the stories
there are simple realistic narratives, prose poems, character
sketches, *contes*, fantasies, and short meta-fictions which bring
the conventions of fictional narrative itself into question.

Many of the experiments he made, influenced not only by the
narrative devices of his favourite Russian authors - Pushkin, Gogol,
Chekhov - but by immediate predecessors such as Bely, bring him obliquely
into line with other modernist writers and conscious prose stylists
of the period (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) who, similarly, were
seeking to intensify the expressive power of prose by bringing
to it the devices and tropes of poetry. But at the same time it
is interesting to note how skilfully he deploys the traditional
devices of narrative prose, ringing the changes upon them to
divert and engage the reader.

Nabokov is by now of course celebrated as a writer whose prose
is full of puns, word games, and a variety of literary tricks:
yet the early stories, for all the glitter and artfulness of his
style, deal with themes which are both serious and universal. The
three most important and regularly recurring of these are the
relationship between life and death; the function of memory and
its relation to the passage of time; and the nature of individual
personality. To these might be added a fourth which runs
throughout the whole of Nabokov's work until the late baroque
inventions - the nature and the materiality of the objective
world whose sensual qualities he takes great delight in
recording. It sometimes seems as if he is observing such details
in fear that they might otherwise be lost forever.
This concern meshes significantly with that of separation and loss in
the sense that whilst vigorously trying to recapture his own past
Nabokov offers as an antidote to the impossibility of ever doing
so a joyous apprehension of the everyday world in Berlin -
something which did not make him at first popular with his fellow
Russian emigres, who felt that this attitude was a form of
cultural betrayal. Yet there beneath the surface of German life
as seen from the dining car of the *schnellzug* lies cultural
continuity in his allusion to one of the greatest Russian novels
(Anna's death beneath the wheels of a train in *Anna Karenina*,
if not her period of drug addiction) a novel for which Nabokov had
profound admiration, rating Tolstoy as 'the greatest Russian
writer of prose fiction.'(LRL, p.137)