Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000324, Fri, 19 Aug 1994 10:26:57 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE: The second weekly installment of Roy Johnson's study of VN's
short stories follows. Please give any comments the Subject Heading
"RJ:Sunset". The story for next week is "Bachmann".


In fact death by vehicular locomotion is also introduced at the
crux of Nabokov's next story, 'Details of a Sunset', written
shortly afterwards (June 1924). Mark Standfuss, a young sales
clerk, is radiantly happy about now being engaged to Klara, who
has previously been involved with a dubious and handsome lodger
at her mother's house. Whilst he is en route to visit her, Mark's
happiness makes him more than usually conscious of the world
around him:

The houses were as gray as ever; yet the roofs, the
mouldings above the upper floors...were now bathed in
rich ochre, the sunset's airy warmth, and thus they
seemed unexpected and magical, those upper
protrusions, balconies, cornices (DS,p.22).

These architectural observations act as realistic details of the
material world in which the narrative is set, but at the same
time they form a significant element of its later plot

Not knowing that the handsome lodger has returned and Klara has
in fact broken off the engagement, Mark jumps off a tram, almost
gets run over, then goes on to Klara's where many of his previous
observations seem to be mysteriously repeated and transformed:
'Klara's green dress floated away, diminished, and turned into
the green shade of a lamp...Mark was lying beneath it' (p.25) -
whereupon the reader realises that Mark is not at Klara's at all
but in hospital where he is dying from the injuries sustained
when he was run over by the tram.

What Nabokov introduces here for the first time, trying out
something he was to use extensively in his later work as a
novelist, is one variation on the notion of 'the double'. It is
something he was aware of in Gogol (one of his favourite Russian
writers) and Dostoyevski (*not* one of his favourites, but an
influence nevertheless as later stories will show). He makes
clever use of the device by having one 'version' of Mark, the
happy Mark who wished to live, comment on what he hoped would
happen in returning to Klara - though the reader is alerted to
the dubious status of the account when Mark is amazed by some of
the very details he had noticed earlier: 'Mark could not
understand how he had never noticed before those galleries, those
temples suspended on high' (p.23).

But in fact the narrative had been signalling Mark's accident
almost from the outset by skilfully planted images of extinction
and death: 'Several moving vans stood there like enormous
coffins...the heavy skeleton of a double bed' (p.18). And he also
keeps missing his footing - once on arriving home, when moving
along the tram, and of course getting off it. These details
combine the functions of both poetic leitmotifs within the story
and subtle hints concerning its outcome.

Yet at the same time Nabokov teases the reader with ambiguous
clues related to what will happen. Just after we have learned
that Klara in fact never wants to see Mark again, Nabokov as
narrator remarks 'He had such a young face, had Mark...One would
think that fate might have spared him' (p.22) which someone
reading the story for the first time is almost bound to interpret
as a comment upon his romantic disappointment, but which is
actually related more fatefully to his death. But as Nabokov
himself suggests 'one cannot read a book: one can only reread
it.'(LL, p.3) That is, only on second, third, or subsequent
readings of a text can the reader appreciate all the subtleties
and the artistry of its composition.

Nabokov also deals rather cleverly with the difficult moment of
Mark's fatal slip from the tram. The reader is given a fair
chance: all the impressionistic details of an accident are
offered: 'the shining asphalt swept upward like the seat of a
swing; a roaring mass hit Mark from behind' (p.23). But then
comes the literary sleight of hand - 'and then nothing. He was
standing alone on the glossy asphalt' (p.23). We are given every
reason to think that Mark has survived the fall, especially when
he says to himself 'That was stupid. Almost got run over' (p.23).
These are the first essays in narrative manipulation and the use
of unreliable narrators which Nabokov was later to develop into
cases such as the self-deceiving Smurov of *The Eye* and the
paranoid liar Charles Kinbote of *Pale Fire*. But Nabokov always
stays within the unwritten rules and conventions of what is
permissible in misleading the reader this way: the attentive
reader is given just sufficient clues to avoid being taken in.
For this reason Nabokov was surely right to change the original
title of the story ('Katastrofa') which gave away too much at the

Although Nabokov had not yet followed the practice of other
modernist short story writers in eliminating any sense of plot
or dramatic incident from his work (as Woolf and Mansfield had
done by this time) he had, like them, realised that the careful
organisation of detail - the harmonisation of motifs, the use of
parallelism and poetic repetition as well as relating individual
images to the theme - would have the effect of increasing what
might be called the aesthetic density of the short story. Here
for instance the colour black is used to describe a number of
everyday details (shadows, a fence, a wet roof, figures in the
street) linking them to Mark's imminent death; and the
descriptive details of Klara at the outset 'the red blaze of her
hair' (p.17) are echoed in Mark's death-fantasy as 'The russet
tufts of her armpits' (p.24).

It is also interesting to note, in connection with Mansfield and
Woolf, that Nabokov was interested at this early phase in what
they called 'Moments of Being' - those specially charged passages
of experience in which the participant's senses seem unusually
heightened in such a way as to create a sense of spiritual
euphoria. Nabokov went on to develop these notions - especially
the frisson of the largely aesthetic moment - but here in
slightly comic form Mark's ill-fated joy takes the form of a
rapturous identification with the everyday objects around him:

Mark felt a sort of delicious pity for the
frankfurters, the moon, the blue spark [of a tram]
that receded along the wire, and, as he tensed his
body against a friendly fence, he was overcome by
laughter, and, bending, exhaled into a little round
hole in the boards the words 'Klara, Klara, oh my
darling' (p.18).