Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000356, Wed, 26 Oct 1994 14:40:03 -0700

RJ:The Return of Chorb (fwd)
Date: Wed, 26 Oct 1994 16:58:18 GMT
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>
To: nabokv-l@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu
Subject: The Return of Chorb


Apologies for the break in transmission. [I have recently been
changing Email systems.] We take up the chronological sequence
where we left off, with 'The Return of Chorb'. Please note that
responses and comments may be made to the list or to me directly
at my new address.

Roy Johnson

In his next story, 'The Return of Chorb' (October 1925), written
just after the completion of his first novel *Mary* and therefore
possibly influenced by the more complex structures of the novel
form, Nabokov turns again to the theme of grief and loss,
combines it with his ever-recurrent topics of death and
recapturing the past, but introduces for the first time a degree
of grotesqueness and dramatic irony which were later to become
hallmarks of his mature style. What makes the story so
interesting ['One of Nabokov's finest short stories' as Andrew
Field justly suggests: N:LA, p.147] is the skilful manner in
which the sequence of events is rearranged in order to maximise
the dramatic irony of the narrative - only to have the climax
towards which all the events are pointing denied us.

The story *begins* with a German burger Herr Keller and his wife
returning home from the opera to discover that their son-in-law
Chorb, a Russian litterateur of whom they disapprove, has come
back from honeymoon with news that their daughter is ill. We then
learn in flashback that she has in fact been electrocuted whilst
on holiday in the south of France, and that Chorb has retraced
their journey consumed by grief in his attempt to keep alive the
image of his wife (whose name we never know). We also learn that
his love for her was of a tender, almost chaste character, and
that she was very happy on their honeymoon - which throws her
father's disapproval of Chorb into a critical light.

Back in the narrative 'present', Chorb books into a seedy hotel
and we learn that he occupies the same room as that to which he
had 'escaped' from the Kellers' oppressive fuss on his wedding
night. His intention is to mentally re-live their recent
experiences so as to fix the image of his dead wife in his mind
forever: 'All there remained was but a single night to be spent
in that first chamber of their marriage, and by tomorrow the test
would be passed and her image made perfect' (DS,p.66). He hires
a prostitute just for company and goes to sleep as soon as they
return to the room.

The prostitute meanwhile looks out of a window onto the opera
house where crowds are emerging from the evening's performance of
*Parsifal* - including the Kellers. This is a wonderfully
constructed moment which brings together all the dramatic ironies
of narrative past and present. We already know about the Keller's
irate response to Chorb's news, we know from what he has told
their maid that he can easily be traced to the seedy hotel, and
he has compromised himself, albeit with a pure enough motive.
Even some of the minor details of the story reinforce the ironic
climax here. Not only has Chorb been in the room before, but so
has the prostitute: she like him recognises it from the picture
of a pink *baigneuse* above the bed.

Chorb wakes with a terrible shock in the middle of the night, but
realises that his ordeal is over. At that very moment the Kellers
arrive to discover the prostitute just leaving. And Nabokov with
a very mature sense of restraint ends the story at that point.
Having created all the conditions for a dramatic finale he
denies us the confrontation between *burgerlich* father-in-law
and apparently compromised artist. The resolution to the story is
left to take place in the reader's imagination.

This is one of Nabokov's many fictions in which the feelings of
a cultivated but slightly unorthodox artist figure are contrasted
with the vulgarity and misunderstanding of others (and of course
he is not the only writer to adopt this psychologically
transparent strategy). He combines this here with an
unsympathetic portrait of a German - one of many in his work.

Nabokov is placing himself squarely with the modernist movement.
His story is 'open-ended', and its mode mingles elements of the
touching and tragi-comic with the grotesque, which Thomas Mann,
speaking of Joseph Conrad, identified as one of the hallmarks of
the modern sensibility.

Next week's story - 'A Guide to Berlin'.