Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000390, Sat, 26 Nov 1994 15:46:42 -0800

RJ:The Doorbell (fwd)
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is one of a weekly series on VN's short=20
stories. The material is from a book manuscript by Roy Johnson and is=20
offered on NABOKV-L for discussion purposes. Responses may be directed=20
either to the list or directly to Roy Johnson.


In 'The Doorbell' (April or May 1927) Nabokov deals again with his
favourite themes of loss, separation and exile; and at the same
time he takes a couple of paces forward in his development of
narrative manipulation - that is, teasing the reader's
expectations, laying traps, and offering us the chance to
participate in some delicious dramatic irony. The story also
features one of his first severely negative protagonists.

Nikolay Galatov joins the Red Army, then the White, travels in
Africa and Italy, joins the Foreign Legion, and ends up in
Germany. Nabokov as narrator mockingly comments 'It was
pure Jack London' (DS,p.103). In this he rather typically takes
a swipe at third rate fiction at the same time as appearing to
criticise his own use of it (tongue in cheek, of course). From
time to time Galatov remembers Olga Kind, the woman he left
behind in Petersburg, and eventually after seven years decides
that he must find her amongst the other e=82mige=82s of Berlin. We
have every reason from the conventions of fiction to believe
that he is retracing a romantic attachment.

He locates a Dr Weiner who he takes to be his old family
dentist, but the man turns out to be only a namesake.
Nevertheless Olga Kind *is* one of his patients - and it is
revealed at this point that she is in fact Galatov's mother.
Galatov remembers her (with difficulty): 'her dark hair with
streaks of grey at the temples...the tired, bitter expression of an
ageing woman' (p.106). But the woman he goes to meet appears
different: 'Her dark hair had been bleached a very light
strawlike shade...And her face was made up with excruciating
care' (p.108). She is waiting in semi-darkness for someone's
arrival, and it is quite apparent to the reader (but *not* to
Galatov) that she is nervously anticipating the arrival of a
young lover. The table is only set for two, and there is on it a
birthday cake with twenty-five candles.

At this point Galatov's gaucheness (and grossness) become fully
apparent. He observes that she is expecting company but
nevertheless invites himself to stay; and he even counts the
candles on the cake and fails to grasp their implication in a
manner which reveals his egoism: 'Twenty-five! And he himself
was already twenty-eight' (p.111). He asks his mother about her
life, but then starts talking about himself instead.

Galatov is one of the first of Nabokov's gallery of obnoxious,
insensitive egoists from whose own point of view a story is told.
The reader has been led to accept this point of view as being
reasonably neutral or not particularly biased - because Nabokov
brings us close to him by interspersing a form of interior
monologue into the third person omniscient narrative: "he was
running out of funds. *Oh well*, he would get there one way
or another" (p.102 - my emphasis).

Clare Hanson, speaking of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield in this
respect, observes that they

were amongst the first to develop, initially in their
short fiction, the 'indirect free' style of narration
in which the voice of the narrator is modulated so
that it appears to merge with that of a character
of the fiction. The author thus avoids direct
omniscient commentary and remains more closely
within the orbit of particular characters and their

Nabokov certainly uses this device a great deal, withholding any
comment of his own and thus forcing the reader into extra
work constructing an independent viewpoint from which the
character can be judged. And there are other tasks too, for like
other modernists Nabokov eliminates a great deal of direct
explanation, demanding that readers supply this information for

When the doorbell rings announcing the arrival of the lover,
Galatov offers to answer it; but his mother, anxious with
embarrassment at the possible revelation, forbids him to do so.
The lover leaves, and Mme Kind collapses in tears: "I'll be fifty
in May. Grown up son comes to see his aged mother. And why
did you have to come right at this moment" (p.114). At this
Galatov simply puts his overcoat back on and leaves, with no
indication that he has understood anything or felt any
sympathy for his mother's plight. The moment he has gone she
dashes to the telephone - presumably to explain to the young

Just like the undramatised argument we assume might take
place at the end of 'The Return of Chorb' Nabokov is here
exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the-meeting-which-does-
not-take-place. The reader is allowed to deduce the mother's
touchingly romantic expectations (her make-up, the table
setting) and to feel with her that an embarrassing confrontation
will take place. But it does not - and the subject changes from
her fear of exposure, to the disappointed realisation that she
may be missing one of her last chances of romance. She may
present an image of pathos with her bleached hair and the
lights dimmed to conceal her age [rather as Blanche Dubois
would do some years later] but this does not ameliorate or
excuse the gross behaviour of her self-centred son.

The reader is in fact teased or misled on three counts. We have
no reason to believe, for almost half the story, that the woman
Galatov seeks is anything other than his own romantic
connexion. Her true relation to him is deliberately concealed,
and she is even given a different surname (although we do
know that she has been married twice). Then Dr Weiner is
*not* the dentist Galatov thinks he is, but (double twist) he
*does* know Olga after all. And finally the visitor *does*
arrive at the wrong moment, and he *does* ring the bell - but
the meeting between the three of them does *not* take place.
The story is thereby charged both with the most exquisite
dramatic ironies and reversals of what we might expect. What
Nabokov is doing here (and went on doing for the fifty years
which followed) is to devise playful and inventive variations
upon the conventions of plot, character, and presentation of
information which generations of readers have absorbed from
the traditions of European literature.

Following works dealing with topics which later became part
of existentialism (anxiety, alienation, the Absurd) it is
interesting to note that Nabokov's next story deals with another
aspect of that philosophy - the notion of *mauvaise-foi*. Bad
faith - hiding from the truth behind a screen of conventional
attitudes, or refusing to accept responsibility for the freedom to
choose - comes close to what Nabokov calls *poshlost*
(philistine vulgarity) and it was featured in a number of stories
written around this time.

Next week's story - AN AFFAIR OF HONOUR