Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000365, Tue, 8 Nov 1994 09:06:18 -0800

RJ: A Nursery Tale (fwd)
=09The following is an installment of NABOKV-L's continuing series=20
drawn from Roy Johnson's study of VN's short stories. Presented in=20
chronological order, a new story is discussed each week. You may address=20
your comments either to NABOKV-L or to Roy Johnson directly. DBJ

Forwarded message ---------- From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>
To: nabokv-l@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu


In his next story Nabokov took what looks, in relation to his
work as a whole, like a false move, a backwards step into the
realms of fantasy. He himself rated it lowly - 'A rather
artificial affair...with more concern for the tricky plot than
for imagery and good taste' (TD,p.40) - and it was a genre he
never used again. In 'A Nursery Tale' (June 1926) the devil
visits Berlin in the form of a middle-aged woman and makes a pact
with Erwin, a young office worker who is full of frustrated
sexual longings. He can have as many women as he chooses at
midnight of the following day - on the one condition that the
total is an odd number. Erwin is greedy and selects thirteen by
the appointed hour, only to discover that the last girl he
chooses is the same girl as the first. He forfeits his chance and
goes home depressed.

The story harks back through Gogol to E.T.A.Hoffmann, a source
which Nabokov acknowledges by having his devil, Frau Monde,
living at number thirteen Hoffmann Street. But despite the skills
which Nabokov would later develop at moving credibly between
various levels of fictionality he seems ill at ease here: he
fails to make his devil or the fantasy convincing. Apart from
dealing with a topic (frustrated sexuality) he would later make
famous for himself, the story lacks any serious thematic concern.
And even though the story has been 'revamped' (TD,p.40) the
thinness of the material leaves exposed some of Nabokov's
potentially irritating mannerisms, such as his tendency towards
excessive alliteration: "pedalling with passionate power" (p.53)
and "the lustrous leaves of the lindens" (p.47).

The story does however possess one feature which is of interest
in tracing the development of Nabokov's literary style - this is
the placing of subtle hints and clues within the narrative which
have the ostensible purpose of signals from Frau Monde to let
Erwin know that she has recognised his choice - '"I shall have
a sign given you [sic] every time - a smile...a chance word in
the crowd, a sudden patch of colour"' (p.46). So, when Erwin
selects two young ladies (who he thinks might be sisters, or even
twins) and requests "Both, please", one girl says to the other
(now *described* as sisters) "Yes, of course" (p.49). Here we see
Nabokov practising those nudges and winks across the narrative
to the reader which he was to bring to such a much more subtle
stage of development in later stories such as 'Spring in Fialta'
and 'The Vane Sisters'.

Given the centrality of *Lolita* in Nabokov's work, this story
is mainly of interest for the early appearance of a Humbert-like
figure who strolls through the later pages with a nymphet at his
side - 'a child of fourteen or so in a low-cut party dress'. He
is 'a famous poet, a senile swan...[who] strode with a kind of
ponderous grace; his hair, the hue of soiled cottonwool, reached
over his ears beneath his fedora' (p.54). In fact the description
of his appearance as an old rou=82 partly deflects attention from
the fact that Erwin adds the girl to his list, and we might note
that he is attracted by the 'flitting glance of her much too
shiny eyes ... her lips were touched up with rouge. She walked
swinging her hips very, very slightly'. This focus of interest
(circa 1926) on the sexuality of a pubescent girl is worth
keeping in mind when we are faced with the teasingly facticious
claims that the imaginative origins of *Lolita* are attached to
an ape behind bars circa 1940. If there is a simian trying to
break free from constraint we might claim with more than a little
evidence that it was Nabokov's own barely restrained sub-
conscious. Not that he would like that!

Next week's story TERROR