NABOKV-L post 0000465, Tue, 7 Feb 1995 13:30:27 -0800

RJ:Terra Incognita (fwd)
The following discussion of Nabokov story "Terra Incognita" is drawn from
Roy Johnson's book manuscript on VN's short stories. You may address your
comments either to NABOKV-L or directly the author Roy Johnson. DBJ

---------- Forwarded
From: Roy Johnson <>

This week's story - TERRA INCOGNITA

Further twists in the arrangement and manipulation
of narrative are made in 'Terra Incognita' (1931) and
Nabokov also invents an imaginary world and
fragments of its language in a manner which
prefigures the Zembla and Zoorlandia of his later
novels *Pale Fire* and *Ada*.

The narrator, Valliere, is an explorer on an
entomological expedition in Badonia, a tropical country
of forests and swamps. He is accompanied by his
friend Gregson and a coward, Cook. In its overt
subject the story is rather like a parody of Conrad's
'An Outpost of Progress'. They are deserted by their
native bearers, Valliere becomes dangerously ill with
fever, and Gregson and Cook quarrel then kill each
other, leaving Valliere alone to die.

The atmospheric detail is somewhat predictable,
almost as if Nabokov is signalling a self-conscious
recognition that his subject harks back to Edwardian
models of boys' adventure stories - but the detail is
rendered in a prose style which is rich with emphatic
rhythm, alliteration, and exotic vocabulary:

"The branches of porphyroferous trees
intertwined with those of the Black Leafed Limia
to form a tunnel, penetrated here and there by
a ray of hazy light" (RB, p.120).

We begin to suspect that the contrivance of both plot
and detail might be deliberate when we encounter the
first hints that Valliere may not be offering us an
altogether reliable narrative.

To begin with he tells us that he is very ill with a
fever that distorts his perception: "I was tormented by
strange hallucinations" (p.121). This is Nabokov's first
twist in the game of unreliable narrator - the man who
admits that he *may* have things wrong. And many of
Valliere's subsequent observations are offered in a
manner which supports this supposition: "Gregson and
Cook seemed to grow transparent" (p.123). But then
Nabokov adds a second twist: we are lead to suspect
from hints that he drops that Valliere might be
imagining the whole story in a European sickbed. He
sees window curtains, an armchair, a crystal tumbler
and teaspoon, and the rocks on which he is abandoned
seem to him "as white and soft as a bed" (p.125). The
reader feels reassured that he need not take all this
too seriously or feel that Valliere is genuinely in

At this point Nabokov poses two difficult problems, for
both himself and the reader. Valliere announces that
his fever is fatal: he is about to die in a few moments.
Problem number one: how do first person narratives
reach us if their author is at the point of death? This
is solved with a traditional device from the world of
fiction: Valliere begins to reach for a notebook and we
presume that the narrative in our possession is what
he manages to write down. But problem number two
is more dramatically shocking:

"in these final minutes everything grew
completely lucid: I realised that all that
was taking place around me was not the
trick of an inflamed imagination ... I
realised that the obtrusive room was
fictitious" (p.127).

So he *is* dying in the tropics after all: the hints were
Nabokovian false clues laid to tease and deceive the
reader. We are kept in a state of almost metaphysical
suspense until the very final sentence: "I absolutely
had to make a note of something; but alas, [the
notebook] slipped out of my hand. I groped all along
the blanket, but it was no longer there" (p.128).

There has been no mention of a blanket in the exotic
world of Badonia, but such an objects fits perfectly
well into the sickroom: hence we conclude that
Valliere's sudden fit of lucidity was another of his
illusions and that he *is* in the sickroom after all. The
narrative therefore was recorded in the notebook at
some later date, after he had recovered.

We might feel a little cheated by this resolution, but
Nabokov, working within the limits of what is logically
permissible in fictional narratives, has reasonably
managed to sustain the illusion of what Andrew Field
calls "the simultaneous cofunctioning of two distinct
worlds" (LA, p.76). The atmosphere and detail of the
narrative may belong to the boys' adventure story, but
as an example of the subtly unstable narrative it is
one further step closer to the more daring experiments
Nabokov was to make in the next few years.

Next week's story - LIPS TO LIPS