Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000374, Sat, 12 Nov 1994 08:07:01 -0800

RJ:Terror (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please reference all responses to NABOKV-L as RJ:Terror.=20
Comments may be sent directly to the author, Roy Johnson, or to NABOKV-L.
The posting is one of a weekly series on NABOKV-L drawn from Roy Johnson's
book manuscript on VN's short stories. The intent of the series is to
stimulate on-line discussion of a new Nabokov story each week.=20
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>


In 'Terror' (January 1927) Nabokov returns to the theme of the
double and explores that aspect of it which deals with the actual
process of personality breakdown. A young man (unnamed) who calls
himself a poet (but who is engaged on business trips) plunges us
straight into his first person account - 'Here is what sometimes
happened to me' (TD,p.113) - in a manner which is very
reminiscent of Gogol's Madman - 'Something very peculiar happened
today.' He describes his feelings of dissociation from himself
and the anxiety it induces: 'I...stood considering my own
reflection in the glass and failing to recognise it as mine'

The more he worries about the phenomenon, the harder he finds it
to reconcile the image with an identity he feels no longer
belongs to him. On top of this he has realised the inevitability
of his own mortality and falls into soul-choking panics on
recognising the inescapability of Death. And yet once he was
happy, with a girlfriend, even though he sometimes could not
stand the idea of another person in the same room with him. Even
she represented Another.

He describes the girl as a 'naive little maiden' and mentions how
he loved her 'unassuming prettiness, gaiety, friendliness, the
birdlike flutterings of her soul' (p.116). Here is the
Dostoyevskian note of this story writ large. For all his
protestations against Dostoyevski, Nabokov often echoes him
(particularly when dealing with this theme in works such as 'The
Eye' or *Despair*). The girl is very similar to many of
Dostoyevski's female innocents (one thinks of *Notes from
Underground*) and indeed she is a common figure in classical
Russian literature - from the younger Tatiana in Pushkin's
*Eugene Onegin* to Maslova in Tolstoy's *Resurrection*.

The narrator tells how he panicked on the eve of his last trip
abroad. This is followed once he is on his own by his experience
of what he calls The Supreme Terror - which is a form of
incipient *agnosia*, a state in which objects become emptied of
any significance or meaning and the words which describe them
become detached from their meaning. This state of being induces
a feeling of horror in contemplating the *thingness* of things:

I was tortured by my efforts to recognise what 'dog'
might mean, and because I had been staring at it hard,
it crept up to me trustingly, and I felt so nauseated
that I got up from the bench and walked away (p.120).

It was precisely these sorts of object and this tone which Sartre
was to adopt in developing the notions of existential *angst* a
dozen or so years later in *La Naus=82e*.

The Nausea hasn't left me and I don't believe it will leave
me for quite a while ... I was in the municipal park just
now. The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground
just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it
was a root. Words had disappeared, and with them the
meaning of things. *Nausea*, trans Robert Baldick, Penguin:
Harmondsworth, 1965, p.182.

[Nabokov reviewed *Nausea* rather dismissively when it appeared
in America (*Strong Opinions*, p.228) and he does seem quite
justified in his claim of having anticipated its ideas. (*Tyrants
Destroyed*, p.112).

But then Nabokov goes on to integrate these metaphysical states
of being with the fiction itself. The poet's mood is interrupted
by a message recalling him to his dying girlfriend, and her death
'saves' him. For when he appears to her at her bedside he feels
his other self disappear: 'there were two of me standing before
her: I myself who she did not see, and my double, who was
invisible to me. And then I remained alone: my double died with
her' (p.121). The problem at this point is that the idea of the
double has not been sufficiently well established by what has
gone on before. The 'poet' has been slipping out of contact with
the physical world, even with other people; but no credible
notion of a double has actually been established. Nabokov was to
do this much more successfully in later works.

But fortunately this is not the end of the story. For having
recognised that his grief at losing the girl has temporarily
filled his mind and distracted it from The Supreme Terror - 'Her
death saved me from insanity' (p.121) - he then realises that as
the memory of her fades he will once again be subject to its
power: 'I know that my brain is doomed...the helpless fear of
existing, will sometime overtake me again, and then there will
be no salvation' (p.121). Hence the significance of the
narrative's opening which is couched in the past tense - 'Here
is what sometimes happened to me'. The story describes something
which *happened* in the past, but at the time of relating it the
man is waiting, helplessly in his own eyes, for the madness to
overtake him again with a terrible finality. Nabokov rescues the
story from its slip over his use of the double by his strong
sense of structure, form, and his control of narrative logic.
This is another story whose dramatic closure occupies a place
projected beyond the end of the narrative itself.

'Terror', like many of Nabokov's other stories (and novels) seems
to offer itself fairly plainly for a psychological reading in
which the narrative is fictionalising a fear of sexuality and
women. It is in *bed* that the narrator discovers his fear of
mortality; although he has a girlfriend he is occasionally
'terrified by the very notion of another person' (p.115); and
when he dreams of his girlfriend she is sitting on a bed in a
lacy nightgown, laughing. He finds the dream 'hideous'. He then
feels his existential terror and tries to exorcise it by
conjuring up a memory of childhood - but this is one in which his
mother appears to him as 'an incomprehensible face, noseless,
with a hussar's black moustache just below its octopus eyes, and
with teeth set in its forehead' (p.119). She is upside down - but
the compressed sexuality of the image certainly suits the 'fear
of woman' reading. And the girl's death certainly does in a sense
'save' him: he no longer has to face the challenge that she
represents, and that 'other self' which feared her can die. He
describes the memory of her in terms reminiscent of a Poe story:
'her image within me becomes ever more perfect, ever more
lifeless' (p.121).

The story seems to reach simultaneously back to Gogol (the
noseless face) and Dostoyevski (the first person angst) and reach
forward, anticipating Sartre. What these connexions demonstrate
is the firm manner in which Nabokov is embedded within the
traditions of European literary culture.

Next week's story - THE PASSENGER