Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000316, Thu, 11 Aug 1994 09:22:49 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE. NABOKV-L will be "serializing" British Nabokovian Roy
Johnson's book manuscript THE SHORT STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV. Dr.
Johnson's Introduction was posted on the list on Aug. 5 along with an
explanation of how the project would work. There will be one story
analysis each week. In your comments on this material to NABOKV-L, please
use the E-mail subject heading "RJ:Chance" standing for "A Matter of
Chance" which is to be found in Nabokov's short story collection TYRANTS
DESTROYED. Next week's story will be the title story of the
collection, DETAILS OF A SUNSET. The author may be contacted directly at

In his earliest published story, 'A Matter of Chance' (June
1924), a Russian emigre, Aleksey Luzhin (whose name was later to
be given to the chess master of *The Defense*) is working as a
dining car attendant on the Berlin-Paris express. In a state of
terminal despair, he dreams of a lost St. Petersburg and a lost
wife Lena. He has become a cocaine addict, and meanwhile he
plans to commit suicide by putting his head between the buffers
of two coupling carriages. Unknown to him, his wife gets on the
train to join him in Paris and meets an elderly princess who is a
family friend of her husband. Luzhin just fails to put out the
dining car reservation slips (and thus recognise his wife's
name). He cannot remember who the princess is when he sees
her. His wife just fails to enter the dining car and loses her
wedding ring instead. When the dining car is disconnected for
cleaning Luzhin just fails to discover the ring, descends from
the carriage to commit his fatal act, and is run down instead by
a passing express.

Here we have the Nabokovian story *in esse*. The overt subject
matter is emigre life, which was to form the substance of so many
stories for the following twenty years. And the themes -
separation, loss, and death - flow out of this subject: Luzhin
is separated from his wife; he has lost his homeland; and he
meets death both as a willed plan and the result of an arbitrary
whim of fate (the passing train). The form of the story is
traditional - a small but dramatic incident from life, a compact
narrative with a very definite resolution; and it is told in a
manner similar to that adopted by many writers of short stories
after Maupassant and Chekhov - in a spare and understated style,
with carefully selected details.

Nabokov's inventiveness is well illustrated by the manner in
which he plays with the conventions of literary suspense to
subvert reader-expectation. Almost every one of the story's
details - the wife's chance appearance, the princess who is a
relative, the reservation slips, the loss of the ring - all act
as clues suggesting that a meeting between Luzhin and his wife
is likely to take place. But the 'chance' of it doing so is
transformed into an ironic failure of circumstances. [Brian Boyd
finds these ~a tiresomely Hardyesque chain of accidents~
(*Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years*, p.232) but they seem
perfectly consistent with the world of deracination, exile,
trans-continental movement and desperate isolation which Luzhin

The story is narrated in a traditional third person mode, and
sets out to be normally realistic in its depiction of the world:
'The brick rear walls of houses went gliding past; one of them
displayed the printed advertisements of a colossal cigarette
stuffed with what looked like golden straw' (TD,p.146). But even
at this early stage in his development there are signs of his
drawing attention to the conventions of fiction by his faux-naive
variation on traditional story-opening: 'He had a job as a waiter
in the international dining car of a German fast train. His name
was Aleksey Lvovich Luzhin' (p.143).

The cigarette advertisement also illustrates Nabokov's persistent
desire to render as strikingly as possible the nature of the
everyday world, particularly its surfaces and textures. And 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)