Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000341, Wed, 14 Sep 1994 14:59:05 -0700

RJ: Christmas
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the fifth in NABOKV-L's weekly series
drawn from Roy Johnson's book manuscript on VN's short stories. Comments
of general interest should be directed to NABOKV-L; comments intended only
for the author should go directly to him at "roy.johnson@mcr1.geonet.de".
For those who are following the series by reading a story each week, the
topic next week will be "The Letter that Never Reached Russia." ..DBJ

In 'Christmas' (December 1925) Nabokov returns to a more
traditional narrative mode to record one of the many evocations
of his Russian childhood which grace the edges of his fiction.
The setting is an accurate picture of the type of aristocratic
country estate on which Nabokov had lived as a child (and
inherited at the age of seventeen) [Boyd Vol:I, p.121]. It is
enveloped in midwinter snow, and is presented complete with
master (Sleptsov) and servant (Ivan) who might have strayed over
from works by Chekhov or Tolstoy.

Sleptsov has returned to his estate to bury his recently deceased
teenage son in the family vault of the village church. He is
suffering under the burden of an almost insupportable grief and
sense of loss. Wandering about his estate, he pictures his son
in midsummer, collecting butterflies. He then assembles some of
his son's effects, and on reading fragments of a diary recording
the boy's youthful infatuation for a local girl (of which he was
not aware) he feels that he will die from grief by the next day.
But just then a chrysalis from the boy's collection bursts open
in the warmth of the room and a large moth emerges, opens its
wings, and takes a 'full breath under the impulse of tender,
ravishing, almost human happiness' (DS,p.161).

The use of symbols here is conventional but they are neatly
deployed, and rather unusually for Nabokov but in keeping with
the social beliefs of a pre-Revolutionary Russia, they include
Christian symbols. The story is set in the deepest part of the
winter, at the turning point of the year, as a parallel to the
depth of Sleptsov's grief. Crucifixes appear on the church and
on a Christmas tree which Sleptsov wants taken away but which is
retained by the faithful servant - holding on to traditions in
very much the same manner as a servant in 'Master and Man' or
*Anna Karenina*. And the events reach their quiet climax on
Christmas Eve, with the chrysalis, which was thought to be dead,
acting as a symbol of resurrection - the rebirth of life and of
Sleptsov's will to live.

Even though they are conventional, Nabokov shows delicacy and
restraint in handling these symbols, just as he cleverly relates
them to his theme and brings them into harmony with the structure
of the story. At the climax of the story Sleptsov is reading his
son's diary, which forms a living link between them: it turns out
to be concerned with butterflies (the symbol of life in the
story) and the boy's *own* sense of loss and separation from the
girl he will never see again, following the end of a youthful
romance the ignorance of which has separated his father from him.
Artistically too, the chrysalis acts as a symbol of a supposedly
dead past being brought back to life in the present.

For that is the sub-text of the story - Nabokov's attempt to
record a past, his own personal experience of life in a pre-
Revolutionary Russia to which he knows he can never return. He
grieves for the loss of his own country and culture, but he can
bring it back to life by an act of memory and artistic creation.
It is for this reason that his autobiography bears the title
*Speak, Memory*. The story uses as some of its material a
youthful love affair from Nabokov's own life, but it is not
difficult to see Nabokov fictionalising his adult self as
Sleptsov and his youthful self as the butterfly collecting son
which he actually was in the years before the revolution. This
is one response to the pain of irreversible exile - a meticulous
and sensitive recollection of the past - and Nabokov was to make
frequent use of this device in that part of his writing which
seeks to record elements of his personal biography [See *Speak,
Memory] but in his fiction he more frequently asserted his
enthusiasm for life by a recording of the *present*, even when
it was being experienced in Germany - as his next story shows.