Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000404, Mon, 12 Dec 1994 12:44:56 -0800

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following discussion of _THE EYE_ is drawn from Roy
Johnson's (Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk) book manuscript on VN's short stories.
Each week NABOKV-L carries Dr. Johnson's treatments of one of the
stories, roughly in the order of their composition. This week begins Part
II of the series. The essays are presented with the aim of incouraging
discussion among subscribers to NABOKV-L. Your comments may go either to
Roy Johnson or to the list. DBJ

Part II - *The European Master: Stories 1930 - 1939*

There was a gap in Nabokov's production of short stories during
the years 1927-1930 occasioned by his growing success as a
novelist: he published both *King, Queen, Knave* and *The
Defense* during this period. And it is perhaps significant that
in his next story, 'The Eye' (February 1930) he expanded the
possibilities of the short story form to a point just short of
it becoming a novella. In fact Nabokov himself called it a
'little novel'[E, p.1] - and he may well be right. But arguments
of categorisation apart, it has many of the features of his short
stories and it is a work in which he made several leaps forward
in his manipulation of narrative conventions at the same time as
combining a number of his favourite themes. The story has a
protagonist straight from the pages of Gogol or Dostoyevski - a
psychologically tortured petty-bourgeois seeking but failing to
make his mark on those people of a higher class amongst whom he
mixes. It also has elements of pre-Sartrean existentialism, a
variation on the double theme, and one of the most daring feats
of narration since Melville's 'Benito Cereno' or James's 'The
Turn of the Screw'.

At the outset of the story the first person narrator is a private
tutor to the sons of a Russian emigre family in Berlin - a job
he finds quite humiliating. He is having an affair with a married
woman, Matilda, but is bored with her: indeed from the
description he gives - 'this plump, uninhibited, cow-eyed lady
with a large mouth' (E,p.14) - it is quite clear that either he
feels ashamed of her or does not like her. In addition, he feels
lonely, is full of self-pity, and is neurotically self-obsessed:

I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep
I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding
nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought
of not being able to stop being aware of myself

Here Nabokov is harking back to Dostoyevski's underground man:

Compared to them [the successful] I was a fly, a nasty
obscene fly - cleverer, better educated, nobler than
any of them, that goes without saying - but a fly ...
humiliated and slighted by everybody.
(*Notes from Underground*)

and he is in a sense anticipating by almost a decade (just as he
did in 'Terror') Sartre's Roquentin:

I exist by what I think ... and I can't prevent myself
from thinking. At this very moment - this is terrible
- if I exist it is because I hate everything.
(*La Nausee*)

When Matilda's husband uncovers the affair he thrashes the
narrator in front of his pupils. Feeling that this is his most
complete humiliation, the narrator decides to commit suicide

There is, even at first reading, something slightly peculiar
about this narrator. What Nabokov is doing is to exploit the
attractiveness and the immediacy of the first person narrative
*mode*. He is also exploiting the fact that readers have a
conditioned tendency to believe what a first person narrator
says. As Somerset Maugham observes, in admitting his own penchant
for this strategy in telling stories:

Its object is of course to achieve credibility, for
when someone tells you what he states happened to
himself you are more likely to believe that he is
telling the truth ... it has beside the merit ... that
he need only tell you what he knows for a fact, and
can leave to your imagination what he doesn't or
couldn't know. (*The Complete Short Stories* Preface)

But Nabokov's objective (more experimental and more modernist
than Maugham's) is to present the reader with the challenge of
discriminating between different types of 'truths' offered by a
rather unreliable narrator. These are (1) statements he makes
which are true because they can be ratified by other evidence he
gives us in the narrative; (2) statements he makes which are
intended to deceive or mislead us; and (3) statements from which
we draw conclusions different to his own.

For instance the narrator is setting out to give a good
impression of himself, but he keeps doing the opposite. In
describing his embarrassment at smoking in front of his two
pupils for instance, he reveals his own gaucheness:

I kept spilling ashes in my lap, and then their clear
gaze would pass attentively from my hand to the pale-
grey pollen gradually rubbed into the wool (p.13).

We notice that he fails to recognise the voice of Matilda's
husband over the telephone even though he has met him several
times; and confronted by him he behaves in a cringing and
cowardly manner, trying to hide behind his own pupils, his own
lies - 'Enough, I have a weak heart'(p.24) - and behind what to
the reader is an ugly but amusing form of *mauvaise-foi*: 'I
personally could never bring myself to hit anyone...especially
if that fellow were angry and strong.' (p.23)

What we have is certainly an unreliable narrator, but also a
comic-grotesque form of the Dostoyevskian neurotic who brings
about his own humiliation: 'A wretched, shivering, vulgar little
man in a bowler hat ... This is the glimpse I caught of myself
in the mirror' (p.26). But how is a first person narrator going
to commit suicide a quarter the way through his own narrative?
He does so by arranging to fail: 'I drew away my awkwardly bent
arm a little, so that the steel would not touch my naked chest'
(p.28) and after recovering from the gunshot wound he speaks of
himself as if he had lived beyond death, and is now observing
himself from the outside. This begins a variation on the Double
theme: he speaks of himself as if he were someone else: 'In
respect to myself I was now an onlooker' (p.35).

He then begins to mix with a family who live above him, where his
attention is focused on two people. The first is a woman who has
been given a boy's name, Vanya, who he describes as looking like
a bulldog, with thick black eyebrows and big hands with large
pink knuckles. The second is Smurov, an enigmatic young man who
he describes in a very flattering manner: 'everything he said was
intelligent and appropriate' (p.40). Smurov makes such a good
impression that the narrator feels Vanya is bound to fall in love
with him. Yet when Smurov begins to speak he makes a complete
fool of himself, and in giving an account of how he narrowly
escaped death fleeing from Russia is discovered in a blatant lie.

By now the attentive reader has enough information to realise two
things. First that the narrator and Smurov are the same person,
and he is speaking about himself in the third person mode; second
that he is not only *very* unreliable but an outright *liar*.
Nabokov's skill in manipulating this mode is in making Smurov
principally unreliable to himself but giving us enough
information via his narrative to work out the truth. We realise
for instance that *he* is in love with Vanya, and the remainder
of the story is built around his clumsy and embarrassing attempts
to pay court to her and to discover if she reciprocates his

To do this he snoops in his neighbour's rooms and reads other
people's mail: everything he finds out confirms our belief that
Vanya is engaged to somebody else and that the whole group of
people with whom Smurov is mixing actually dislike him. Even his
pretence of standing outside himself begins to slip when he
recounts his *own* rapture for Vanya: 'She was so enchanting ...
Her downy face, near-sighted eyes...her short bright dresses: her
big knees' (p.73). The unlovely nature of these love objects
Vanya and Matilda is linked to a secondary theme running as an
additional mystery throughout the story - the exact nature of
Smurov's sexual psychology.

Right from the start we are given hints that Smurov is sub-
consciously homosexual. His descriptions of women are grotesque,
whereas even the memory of an old male university friend leaves
him with a 'knowing, faintly dreamy expression' (p.20). When he
intercepts somebody's letter it describes him as a homosexual who
chooses to admire women he hardly knows, confident that 'he will
not be compelled to perform that which he is neither capable nor
desirous of performing with any lady, even if she were Cleopatra
herself' (p.86). Everything we read in the letter confirms what
we already suspect about Smurov. He makes one last clumsy assault
on Vanya, is repulsed, and takes himself off, completely

The story ends with two brief episodes. In the first Matilda's
husband turns up again, begs his forgiveness, and offers him a
well paid job. In the second Smurov tells us how happy he is -
and in doing so reveals that he is not: 'What more can I do to
prove it, how to proclaim that I am happy? Oh, to shout it so
that all of you believe me at last, you cruel, smug people'
(p.103). Both passages are further lies on Smurov's part: the
first is a fantasy of wish-fulfilment which incidentally confirms
Smurov's sexual orientation. When the husband accosts him Smurov
'feels an odd weakness' (p.100) and hides girlishly behind a
bunch of flowers he is carrying, pretending to be angry. 'I
pouted a little while longer. All along I had to restrain a
desire to say something nice' (p.101).

His final statement has all the characteristics of the Gogolian
or the Dostoyevskian tale - a first person narrator who is at the
borders of sanity, disorientation, and self-deception. 'I am
invulnerable ... what do I care if she marries another?' (p.103).
This is a close echo of Gogol's diary-keeping madman - 'Didn't
go to the office today. To hell with them! No my friends, you
won't tempt me now." - or of Dostoyevski's underground man - 'The
swine! It isn't as if I can spare seven roubles. Perhaps they'll
think ... Oh hell! I don't grudge seven roubles! I'll leave this
minute! But of course I stayed.'

This is a dazzlingly clever manipulation of the first and third
person narrative modes. Even when, early on in the story, the
reader has guessed that Smurov is himself the narrator, Nabokov
plays amusingly with the device by posing an artificial
difficulty to himself as author. At one point of Smurov's
narrative a secondary character arrives at a gathering and asks
to be introduced to everyone. This would seem certain to expose
the identity of the narrator, but Nabokov sidesteps the trap he
has set himself - and does so with a literary double somersault
by having the character *recognise* just Smurov, greet him
'palpating Smurov's arms and shoulders' (p.70) and then pass on
to the others - allowing Smurov to stay within his fictional
'cover' and Nabokov to maintain the narrative logic.

Smurov all along claims that he is a complex personality, a
mystery to others, a multiplicity of masks. But the truth, which
we can extract from his own account, is that he is a seedy,
shabby individual, a small-minded petty thief who is grossly
insensitive and terminally self-absorbed. What Nabokov has done
is devise strategies for having a first person narrator condemn
himself by his own account whilst giving the reader the pleasure
of slowly making this discovery - what Wayne Booth call 'Secret
communion of the author and reader behind the narrator's back'
[*The Rhetoric of Fiction*, p.300]. And no matter how early in
the story it is made, we enjoy the amusement of the grotesquely
embarrassing situations the narrator creates for himself. If we
see Smurov as a precursor of Kimbote, it is interesting to note
how early in his *oeuvre* Nabokov was manipulating and developing
the possibilities of the first person narrative mode.

Next week's story - THE AURELIAN

Roy Johnson | Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk
PO Box 100 | Tel: +44 (0)61 432 5811
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