Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000318, Sat, 13 Aug 1994 14:07:08 -0700

Miscellaneous Notes on VN's "A Matter of Chance"
1) Although Roy Johnson
restricts his work to the Englished (and English) stories, "Chance" is far
from VN's first published story. It is, I think, the 10th, and there are a
couple more-never published ones. (See Juliar, Dieter Zimmer's
bibliography of the short stories in vol. 14 of his German edition of the
Collected Works, and Boyd.) There is, incidentally, an unnoticed oddity in
"Chance"'s publication history. VN deleted several of his weaker stories
that had appeared in emigre papers when he compiled his first short story
collection THE RETURN OF CHORB (1930). Only what he felt to be the better
were included; the 1924 Sluchainost' [Chance] was omitted. Rather oddly,
VN backtracked and picked the story for inclusion in his second
collection, SOGLYADATAI, [The Eye] in 1938. Did VN perhaps re-evaluate the
story between 1930 and 1938? He also included it among the
stories to be Englished for the 1975 TYRANTS DESTROYED collection. There
he thanks Andrew Field for "rediscovering" the original publication in the
Riga paper SEGODNYa of 22 June 1924. Only the original publication had
been lost, however, since VN had a copy for inclusion in his 1938
SOGLYaDaTAY collection.
2) Roy Johnson sees the story's theme as that of separation, loss, and
death--all flowing from the exile experience. I would remark that this is
nicely encapsulated on the first page with Luzhin's job which entails an
endless train journey: Paris-Berlin, Berlin-Paris ad infinitum with no
final destination. (Cf. the opening of MARY with the two characters
trapped in the dark elevator.) It seems to me, moreover, that another
theme is the dominant--one more central and enduring in VN's work:
contingency vs necessity (or free will/determinism). Note that Luzhin
makes brilliant, detailed plans, first to find his wife, and (having
failed to do so), then, how to end his life. Neither scheme works out as
PLANNED. The reader is programmed (pre-determined?) to expect that L. WILL
blunder into his wife and will NOT commit suicide. The readers'
"deterministic" expectation is thwarted by the whims of fate. Logic loses
to chance. This is a very prominent theme in all of VN's work, as Boyd
points out (although he does not remark upon the presence of the theme in
this particular story.) It surfaces in "The Passenger," THE DEFENSE (which
is genetically related to "Chance"), the anti-determinist screed in THE
EYE, in PALE FIRE, etc, etc.
3) One more general comment for those who plan to read a story every
week. The most detailed discussions of many of the early "Berlin" stories
may be found in Marina Naumann's BLUE EVENINGS IN BERLIN: NABOKOV'S SHORT
STORIES OF THE 1920s. Several of the early stories are also examined in A
Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo. There are also several doctoral
dissertations devoted to VN's stories. These plus your own views afford a
context for reflecting on Roy Johnson's readings.
Don Johnson

P.S. I trust you all noticed that Luzhin's scheduled demise coincides not
only with his plan, but also with the date inscribed inside his wife's
lost wedding band.