Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000328, Fri, 26 Aug 1994 10:43:45 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third installment of Roy Johnson's book
manuscript on VN's short stories. Please reference all NABOKV-L responses
"RJ:Thunderstorm". Next week's story is "Bachmann". DBJ

In his next story, 'The Thunderstorm' (July 1924), Nabokov took
as his central idea the Russian folk belief that the Old
Testament prophet Elijah rode his chariot in the sky during
thunderstorms. He pushed the element of narrative ambiguity to
a point which makes it difficult for the reader to understand
exactly what has happened in any realistic sense. This particular
type of ambiguity, and the fact that the story involves a
character from the Bible, are features which Nabokov did not
repeat in any of his subsequent stories.

A first person narrator called Elisha, speaking to an unnamed
'you', describes a gathering storm one night in west Berlin. The
wind, which he personifies as 'a blind phantom, covering his face
with his sleeves' (DS,p.119) develops into a full blown storm -
'a white-haired giant with a furious beard' (p.120). But then
this giant, the prophet Elijah, loses a wheel of his chariot and
on falling to earth asks Elisha to help him find it. Elisha
locates a rusty pram wheel amongst a pile of rubbish in the
courtyard, whereupon Elijah reascends into the heavens and Elisha
rushes off into the dawn to tell his story to the unknown 'you'.

Obviously we are being invited to read the whole incident as a
product of Elisha's excited mind. The reader has every reason to
think that this is an imaginary episode. Immediately before the
incident Elisha falls asleep, and just before the prophet departs
Elisha closes his eyes, reopening them to find the courtyard
empty. This is a conventional device for suggesting that the
events in between have taken place in the narrator's imagination
whilst asleep. But if this is the case, the fabrication rests at
the level of mere fantasy: it is not shown in relationship to
anything else, and it does not tell us anything about the

There is a curious correspondence between the two figures which
might lead us to expect a further variation on the theme of the
double. Quite apart from the similarity of their names, they are
dressed in the same clothes. Elijah wears a 'drenched robe and
sandals' (p.122), and Elisha has 'soaked bedslippers and a worn
dressing gown' (p.123). But we are given no further information
to make sense of these clues.

What the story seems to be is an early, not so successful
exercise in the incorporation of Gogolian influence. For certain
elements of Gogol are strongly present. A dreamy Elisha runs into
the street in his 'bedslippers and *worn* dressing gown' (p.123
- my emphasis) so much like one of the petty clerks of Gogol's
tales. The story is an 'as if' fantasy, built upon the sort of
unrealities which characterise 'The Nose'. And Elijah in 'his
fiery chariot, restraining with tensed arms his jet-black
steeds...[which] tossed their blazing manes and rushed on ever
more violently, down, down along the clouds' (p.120-121) recalls
vividly the poor clerk invoking an imaginary troika at the
desperate close of 'Diary of a Madman': 'Give me a troika with
horses swift as the whirlwind! Climb up, driver, and let the
bells ring! Soar away, horses, and carry me from this world!'

We might also note here, *en passant*, two of Gogol's stylistic
devices much used by Nabokov: the narrator addressing his own
fictional creations (the coachman, the horses) and his use of
semantic parallelism ('Climb up ... Soar away').

It is not a particularly convincing blend of realism and fantasy
[Andrew Field is justified in calling it ~the least successful
of all [Nabokov's] short stories~, *Nabokov: His Life in Art*,
p.43.] but viewed in the context of the other stories he was
writing at this time (to say nothing of the poetry, plays, and
theatre sketches) it seems quite clear that Nabokov was casting
round and experimenting until he found that approach to narrative
which suited him best. As Brian Boyd observes, a propos of
Nabokov's interest in different levels of reality, he was 'still
searching for ways to fit a world beyond into the world of the
human, but he had not found his own way yet.'[*Vladimir Nabokov:
The Russian Years*, p.234.]