Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000331, Mon, 5 Sep 1994 17:09:26 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a part of a continuing weekly series on
VN's short stories. The material is from a book manuscript by Roy
Johnson. Responses may be directly either to Roy.Johnson@MCRI.GEONET.DE
or to NABOKV-L. All comments should carry the subject heading
RJ:Bachmann. The story for next week will be "Christmas".

'Bachmann' (October 1924) marks an enormous step forward in
Nabokov's mastery of narrative - particularly his exploitation of the
combination and subtleties of third and first person mode. The story
combines two of his favourite topics - Art and Death - in a subject
which he treats many times throughout both his stories and novels -
the artist-figure as a tormented eccentric, and a representative of
the almost sacred belief Nabokov had in the value of individual
human personality. In many of his interviews and essays Nabokov
expresses his horror of the general and the mass, and on the
contrary his concern for the particular and the unique. [See in
particular *Strong Opinions* and the extracts from letters quoted in
Boyd's *Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years*.] It is an attitude
which translated into artistic terms strongly reinforces his creation
of a concrete and memorable world populated by credible and
individualised characters.

Bachmann is a brilliantly gifted concert pianist and composer, but
he is also eccentric and an alcoholic. Madame Perov, one of his
admirers, follows him around Europe, sitting in the front row at
every one of his concerts. They appear to become lovers, though
Bachmann treats her badly. Yet on an occasion when Madame
Perov falls ill he notices her absence, refuses to play, and absconds.
She is summoned to the concert hall, wanders around all night in
the rain looking for him, and eventually finds him in a hotel where
they spend the happiest night of her life together, finding 'words the
greatest poets never dreamed of' (TD,p.182). She dies the next day,
and Bachmann subsequently goes to pieces.

The artist as comic Bohemian is a conventional enough literary
figure. Bachmann has 'short legs in baggy black trousers' and whilst
reading a newspaper at a party given in his honour 'without taking
his eyes off the paper he absent-mindedly checked the fly of his
trousers with one finger' (p.173). The relationship between talent
(or genius) and eccentricity is something which many writers have
treated, and Nabokov himself was to do so more extensively in his
later novel *The Defense* where his chess master Luzhin is finally
driven to suicide. What is of prime interest here is the manner in
which the story is told; for considering the fact that he was so young
and had only been working in the short story form for less than two
years, Nabokov took an enormous step forward in developing the
complexity of his narrative.

The events are related in the first person by an unnamed narrator,
and he is passing on an account of the incidents given to him by
Bachmann's manager, the impresario Sack. This oblique narrative
method is somewhat reminiscent of Conrad, another Anglicised
polyglot and Slav, on whom Nabokov lectured to his colleagues in
the Russian migr literary circle around this time. [Boyd,
*Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years* p.257. One wonders at the
exact manner and content of the lecture when his later assessment
of Conrad in 1964 is given as ~I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-
shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichs.~
Strong Opinions, p.42.] The method enables Nabokov to do two
things which were to fascinate him more and more as his work
progressed - tease the reader and ring changes on the deliberate
creation of unstable narratives.

When Madame Perov is invited to meet Bachmann at a friend's
house for instance, her attention is immediately drawn to the
dominant figure at a piano entertaining some ladies grouped around

The tails of his dress coat had a substantial-looking,
particularly thick silk lining, and, as he talked, he
kept tossing back his dark, glossy hair, at the same
time inflating the wings of his nose, which was very
white and had a rather elegant hump. There was
something about his entire figure benevolent,
brilliant, and disagreeable (p.172).

Both Madame Perov and the first time reader can be forgiven for
assuming that this is a sketch of Bachmann (complete with the
Gogolian details of *coat* and *nose*). Nabokov is playing with the
attractions of stereotypes - the conditioned expectations of both the
Madame Perovs of this world going to meet piano-playing
celebrities, and our expectations as the readers of fictions about
them. In fact this character is not Bachmann at all but the
impresario Sack, and we then gradually learn from the account of
events he gives and which is relayed to us by the outer narrator, just
what an unsavoury person he is.

Sack is greedy and shallow, and he completely fails to understand
both Bachmann and Madame Perov. Bachmann he calls an
'absolutely abnormal individual' merely because he is 'cranky,
capricious, grubby' (p.174). That is, he does not conform to Sack's
own mediocre and conventional views of what is proper. And in
describing Madame Perov he falls back on clich, describing her
after only their first meeting as 'an extraordinarily "temperamental"
as he put it, extraordinarily high-strung woman' (p.174) even though
she has done nothing whatever to warrant this description.

Even when Bachmann goes on alcoholic binges, Sack only bothers
to search for him when it is necessary to get him in shape for a
concert. And he cannot understand why Madame Perov could ever
love the man whose talent he is exploiting: 'The mystery of the
female heart' (p.177) he exclaims, speaking like something out of
Flaubert's *Dictionnaire des Ides Reues*. Not only does he
summon Madame Perov from her sickbed to search for Bachmann
when he goes missing, but he is abusive to her when she arrives, he
misdirects her into the slummy bar district, and then he abandons
her. Finally, some years later, when he sees a shabby and unhappy
Bachmann on a railway platform he ignores him because '"I was
with a lady, and there were people around...It would have been
awkward"' (p.183).

What is of interest here is the fact that the outer narrator makes no
comment at all on Sack: he merely relates what Sack tells him. Thus
we are presented with a character who, whilst setting out to justify
his actions, does exactly the opposite and reveals himself as a
shabby egoist if we read closely enough. We are given Sack's view
of things, but in the presentation he releases information which
does not correspond with that view, and Nabokov offers us enough
information to make an objective judgement.

Viewed another way, the reader is given the opportunity to make
a gradual 'construction' of Sack's character as a moral vulgarian,
enjoying what Wayne Booth calls 'The pleasure of collaboration'
between reader and author.[*The Rhetoric of Fiction*, University of
Chicago Press: 1961, p.302.] Of course such a complex strategy of
delivering the story to us has its own problems. How can the outer
narrator know what Madame Perov did or felt when nobody was
with her? Nabokov side-steps this potential trap with some very
neat linguistic footwork. Statements of admitted invention are used
as a subtle bridge into an account of what *could* be known or
surmised. 'I imagine for some reason that when she started pulling
on her stockings the silk kept catching on the toenails of her icy
feet. She arranged her hair as best she could' (p.180). The transition
here from surmise ('I imagine') to statement ('She arranged') is
hardly noticeable. This is a very skillful manipulation of narrative
mode in a twenty-five year old writer just embarking on his literary