Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000400, Thu, 8 Dec 1994 10:13:47 -0800

RJ:The Potato Elf (fwd)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following material is drawn from a book manuscript on
VN's short stories by Roy Johnson. Each week NABOKV-L runs Dr. Johnson's
discussion of one of Nabokov's stories. They are being treated in
chronological order. Comments may be addressed either to Roy Johnson
directly or to NABOKV-L. The material is presented as grounds for
discussion on the list. DBJ

------------------ ----------------------------------

'The Potato Elf' (1929) brings together the themes of adultery
and death in a story which hovers a little uncertainly between
fantasy and realism. The Elf - 'Actually his name was Frederick
Dobson' (RB,p.221) - is a circus dwarf who feels somewhat
humiliated by his job and his lack of sexual fulfilment. He
becomes assistant to a magician, Shock, and is taken home by him
to be adopted, since Shock's marriage is childless. Shock's wife
Nora seduces the Elf next day as a deliberately vindictive act
against her husband, even though she thinks the Elf is 'a nasty
little worm' (p.237). But Fred is transformed with happiness by
the incident and imagining that she reciprocates his enthusiasm
for her, he immediately gives up his circus job and tries to
confess what has happened to Shock - without apparent success.

When Shock returns home Nora is eager to triumph over her husband
with the secret, but Shock reveals that he already knows of her
betrayal and takes poison in front of her. As he is dying she
blurts out her hatred of him in a rage of frustration - whereupon
Shock reveals that the poison was a trick.

Disappointed by Nora's rejection of him, the dwarf retires into
provincial obscurity and lives as a recluse, getting older and
developing a heart complaint. Eight years later Nora visits him
to reveal that she had a son by him. Fred is radiantly happy at
this news and fails to see that she is in mourning, which
suggests to the reader that the child has died. When she leaves
Fred chases after her but dies of a heart attack at her feet,
whilst she disowns any knowledge of him to onlookers.

Field considers this Nabokov's greatest story on the basis of its
"compressed action" [LA, p250] and Boyd "One of [his] poorer
stories". [VN:RY p.230] The story is essentially in three parts.
Part one (numbered sections 1, 2, and 3) tell of the dwarf's
history and how he comes to be taken home by the magician. Part
two (sections 4, 5, and 6) - and this is where the action
certainly *is* compressed - deals with the events of one day:
Nora's seduction of the dwarf; his confession to Shock; and
Shock's confrontation with Nora. The third part (sections 7 and
8) deals with the subsequent eight years and Nora's visit to the

In this sense - of a balanced triad - the story is harmoniously
structured. But there are problems with the eight year gap. First
of all it destroys the fine unity of time strongly generated in
the centre of the story (into which the first part could easily
have been incorporated). And the other problem arises from a
question of either credibility or consistency of motivation.
Quite apart from the semi-arbitrary gap of eight years (which
could just as easily have been two, or twenty) and our doubts
concerning the dwarf's source of income in all that time, the
principal problem is centred in the character of Nora. If she
dislikes the dwarf so much, why has she sought him out after all
this time? The obvious answer is to tell him about their child.
She does restrain the announcement of its death out of sympathy
for the dwarf's 'tender and joyful radiance' (p.248) at the news.
But then why does she repudiate him publicly when he dies at her
feet in the street? Nabokov's extreme hostility towards Nora
throughout the story (consistent with his attitude to other
adulteresses) sits uneasily with her actions in this ending.

Field is on stronger ground when he points to the structural and
thematic strengths of the work:

The affair with Nora began with Fred sitting at her
feet, and it is there where he dies...the form of the
story precisely matches his life, which in essence has
only two moments, and it is at both these moments that
he feels he is no longer a dwarf.[LA, p.251]

The story is set (rather unusually for Nabokov) in an England
which he knew well enough from his years as a student at
Cambridge, but it comes across as a rather improbable mixture of
Toytown and comic book stereotypes which sit rather uneasily with
the realistic manner in which the dwarf's emotional experiences
are depicted. Nabokov is never at his best when moving uneasily
between fantasy and realism, and moreover this is a story which
despite (or maybe even because of its strongly *cinematic*
elements is moving away from the restraints of the short story
proper and becoming more a *tale*. Ian Reid makes this
distinction between the short story and the tale or yarn,
pointing to the loser structure and the lack of traditional
unities (time, place, and action): 'The term
'tale'...usually...designates a fairly straightforward, loose-
knit account of strange happenings'.[*The Short Story* p.32]

It is also possible that Nabokov was 'finding his feet' with this
story, since conflicting evidence exists regarding the date of
its composition. If the earlier date suggested is more reliable
[which puts it near the start of his writing career] then we
might not expect the tightness of composition or the
psychological credibility which characterises his later work. But
if the earlier date is correct, this leaves us to wonder at the
choice of such a grotesque subject and such youthful misogyny -
something I will leave for psychoanalytic critics to ponder.

This brings us to the end of Part One of this study.
Part Two - 'The European Master' - begins next week with