Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000392, Wed, 30 Nov 1994 08:31:26 -0800

RJ:An Affair of Honour (fwd)
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a weekly installment on
NABOKV-L. Each week Roy Johson presents his analysis of one of
Nabokov's short stories (along with a note advising readers of next week's
story). The stories, all those in the three volumes of VN's collected
stories, are treated chronologically. The aim of the series is to
encourage discussion on NABOKV-L of VN's stories. DBJ


'An Affair of Honour' (September 1927) was originally called
'Podlets' ('The Cur' or 'The Scoundrel') which signals the topic more
directly, but without the irony of its present title - for the affair is
anything *but* honourable. The story is in fact a grotesque
variation on the subject of duels, which occur so often in Russian
literature. Nabokov acknowledges his debt to Pushkin's *Eugene
Onegin* and 'The Shot', and to Lermontov's *A Hero of Our Time*
by mentioning them in the text, and he cites in his editorial note
'Chekhov's magnificent novelle *Single Combat*' as a romantic
theme on which his own story is a 'belated variation'.[RB,p.82]

The setting is yet again Russian emigre Berlin, and the topic which
provokes the duel is one to which Nabokov returns over and over
again throughout his work - adultery. Anton Petrovich (who with
the same forename and initials, is a second nod to Chekhov)
returns home unexpectedly early from a business trip to discover
that he is being cuckolded by his associate Berg. He immediately
challenges him to a duel: 'He pulled off the glove with a final yank
and threw it awkwardly at Berg. The glove slapped against the wall
and dropped into the washstand pitcher. "Good shot", said Berg'

This squalid little farce encapsulates the whole story. For Anton
Petrovich is clumsy and cowardly: he is also fat, self-satisfied, and
utterly conventional. Berg on the other hand is a big man with
broad shoulders, full of insouciance and physical confidence. More
importantly he is a former White Army man who has killed more
than five hundred Reds. Anton Petrovich compounds the farce by
choosing as seconds Mityushin and Gnushke, two drunken fools
who come from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern school of
malevolent funsters - one of many such grotesque duos which crop
up in Nabokov's work: [two similar but more sinister thugs will
appear shortly in 'The Leonardo']. He then goes back home,
congratulates himself on his sangfroid - 'Extraordinary, how this
man retains his composure - does not even forget to wind his watch'
(p.92), then vomits all over the carpet with anxiety.

He tries to shed personal responsibility for what has happened - 'all
that talk about duels had started' (p.93) (which *he* had started
himself) - and he hopes that the seconds will not make the
arrangements for the duel. But they do, and Anton Petrovich is
seized by the terrible realisation that he may be killed. His mind is
in a whirl of fear, half-baked superstition, and *idees recues*: 'when
the duel starts, I shall turn up my jacket collar - that's the custom,
I think' (p.102). He is even worried by such irrelevancies as the fact
that his suit may be ruined if he is shot.

Overwhelmed by his own cowardice, he sneaks away from the
appointed place and rushes back into the centre of Berlin to hide
in a hotel room. Nabokov then uses the technique he employed in
'Details of a Sunset' and takes him back home, where he discovers
that Berg has run off too and his ordeal is therefore over:
'everything is now just dandy. And you come out of it honourably,
while [Berg] is disgraced forever' (p.115).

But of course as even Anton Petrovich himself realises, 'such things
don't happen in real life' (p.115). He is in fact still in the hotel
room, cowering, not knowing what to do. The story closes with him
woolfing gluttonously at a ham sandwich on which he 'immediately
soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging margin of fat' (p.115).

This is another example of inventive use of traditional material - a
variation which presents the duel-which-doesn't-take-place. The
story is open-ended. As in 'The Return of Chorb' we are not told
'what happens next' because this is not important. Nabokov's
purpose is to offer a character study of vulgarity, incompetence, and
moral cowardice and to ring the changes on a traditional subject.

There are also some finely developed examples of Nabokov's skill
in organising structural details to hold together the story. When
Anton Petrovich visits Mityushin he declares "I want you to be my
second" (p.89) and when he sneaks off from the duel at the other
end of the story he does so by pretending to go to the lavatory:
"Excuse me a second" (p.109). These are the sort of echoes, poetic
repetitions, and ironic counterpoints (even when used for comic
effect, as here) which were being used by writers such as Mansfield,
Woolf, and Nabokov (all of whom were admirers of Chekhov, one
notes) to develop the short story as a more condensed and tightly
organised literary form.

When Anton Petrovich escapes back to the city centre he meets an
old colleague Leontiev - something of a polite bore, and also a
fellow cuckold. Leontiev dogs his steps for a while in a manner
which increases the suspense as we wonder if the escapee will be
caught. But we eventually realise that he wishes to ask Anton
Petrovich's advice and talk something over with him - and when he
mentions his wife's name we realise that we have encountered her
very briefly earlier in the story - lying in a drunken stupor in
Mityushin's apartment. We perhaps view Leontiev in a more
sympathetic light (the fellow cuckold seeking help) but more
importantly we see two minor characters connected symmetrically
across the pages of the story to reinforce two of its themes -
adultery and moral squalor. Both Leontiev and his wife appear to
be superfluous to the story until their significance is brought into
focus by this one deft touch.

What 'An Affair of Honour' illustrates is Nabokov's ability to take
a subject deep from the stockpile of Russian cultural history and to
ring inventive changes upon it. He first ironically *inverts* it: the
duel is initiated by an abject coward. Then he *subverts* it: the duel
does not take place. And then instead of the conventional ending
to duel stories (somebody being shot, or as in the case of Pushkin's
'The Shot', demonstrating the skill they *could* have used and thus
illustrating a point of honour) he produces an open-ended narrative
with the protagonist in mid-flight from his rival and his own

We have no idea what will happen to him afterwards, and this is
anyway not important. As closure to the story Nabokov offers
Anton Platonov's negative epiphany as he slides hopelessly into his
spiritual abyss - rather in the same manner as the narrator of
'Terror'. Thus as a substitute for the traditional requirement of plot
resolution we are presented with character revelation. As the short
story writer Eudora Welty observes, this is what often distinguishes
the *modern* from the traditional short story: "the plot of a short
story in many instances is quite openly a projection of character."
[Charles May (ed) *Short Story Theories*, p.169]

Next week's story - THE POTATO ELF