Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000346, Sat, 24 Sep 1994 10:13:07 -0700

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth in a series drawn from Roy Johnson's
book manuscript on Nabokov's short stories. The story this week is "A
Letter that Never Reached Russia" from the collection _Details of a Sunset_.
Please subject references all responses to "RJ:Letter". I might point out
that Julian Connolly provides an extended treatment of
this same story in the first issue of NABOKOV STUDIES. DBJ

It is possible that 'A Letter That Never Reached Russia' (January
1925) was a fragment of a novel, *Happiness*, which later became
*Mary*. [Brian Boyd contradicts VN's own account on this point,
and there is certainly nothing within the story which suggests
that its subject would be developed as part of a larger work.
Boyd, Vol:I, p.237]. However, it is given the coherence of a
story by the unity of its themes. A young man is writing to a
young woman he left behind eight years before in St Petersburg.
He evokes their past together but then stops himself and declares
that it is the present, his life of exile in Berlin, of which he
wishes to speak. He then describes his happiness in the
perception of the everyday details of life: 'I get such a
blissful, melancholy sensation when, late at night, its wheels
screeching around the bend, a tram hurtles past, empty'
(DS,p.84). These moments of aesthetic pleasure - rather like the
Proustian or Woolfian 'moment' - are provoked by very ordinary
objects and phenomena: the gurgling of water in pipes or the
combination of light and texture as a girl with an umbrella walks
under a lamp and 'a single taught, black segment of her umbrella
reddens damply' (p.84).

But then the main themes - how to respond to exile, and the
affirmation of the will to happiness in the fight of Life against
Death - emerge when he mentions a visit to the Russian orthodox
cemetery where an old lady has committed suicide on the grave of
her recently deceased husband. She has collapsed into grief (as
Sleptsov threatened to do) whereas the letter writer remains
stubbornly happy, and his reaction is a challenge to the forces
of obliteration, loss, and death:

centuries will roll by...everything will pass,
but...my happiness will remain, in the moist
reflection of a streetlamp...in everything with which
God so generously surrounds human loneliness (p.87).

This is a very positive response to the fact of exile and the
recognition of death's inevitability, and the letter is in a
sense written as much to Russia itself as to the girl he left
behind there. It is one of the many stories Nabokov would write
in which Russia and a woman are brought into symbolic parallel
with each other - culminating in his masterpiece 'Spring in
Fialta'. [It is also a matter of biographical fact that VN's
exile from Russia coincided with the premature ending of a
youthful love affair. See Boyd Vol:I, Chapter 6, 'Lover and

The story was also historically significant at the time in that
it struck a blow against the orthodox notion in the Soviet press
that life for all exiles was a 'sterile and bitter purgatory'
[Field, *N:LA*, p.115]. Even under the most difficult
circumstances Nabokov seems to have had what Brian Boyd calls 'a
genius for personal happiness', and he transmits this very
convincingly in his work ['Nabokov extols the freedom we have
within the moment, the richness of our perceptions and emotions
and thoughts'. Boyd Vol:I, p.10].

As far as the development of his literary style is concerned, its
significance lies in its being one further exercise in exploiting
the possibilities of the first person narrative mode - a strategy
he was to develop extensively in the stories and the novels which