NABOKV-L post 0000583, Tue, 9 May 1995 08:34:23 -0700

RJ:The Circle (fwd)
EDITOR's NOTE: Each week, courtesy of British Nabokovian Roy Johnson,
NABOKV-L presents an analysis of a Nabokov short story. Presented in
chronological order, they are drawn from Roy Johnson's book manuscript on
VN's short stories. Each discussion is followed by the title of next
week's story so that subscribers may read the story prior to the
presentation. NABOKV-L hopes to encourage discussion of the stories
which, next to the plays, are the least studied aspect of NABOKV fiction.
Please address your comments to NABOKV-L or directly to Roy Johnson.
NABOKV-L wishes to express its thanks to Roy Johnson.

This week's story - THE CIRCLE

It is interesting to note that as Nabokov became more firmly
established as a novelist from the early 1930s onwards, he generated
a number of stories which came into existence as discarded or
extracted fragments of larger works. They fall into three categories:
'The Circle' Nabokov himself describes as "a small satellite [which]
separated itself from the main body of the novel [*Dar*]"
(RB,p.254); 'Ultima Thule' and 'Solus Rex' which are the first and
second chapters of a novel (*Solus Rex*) abandoned during
Nabokov's transition between France and America; and finally
'Mademoiselle O' which is a chapter from his autobiography,
*Speak, Memory*. Significant though these second and third
groups/categories might be in relation to the rest of his work, they
cannot command serious attention in relation to Nabokov's
contribution to the development of the short story as a literary
form, since they were neither conceived nor executed as such. But
'The Circle'(1936) does have some claim to independent existence
as a *story* even if some of its details have their origin in the
creation of a novel.

The overt content of the narrative is the now-familiar topic of
recovering the lost Russia of pre-1917, and this is linked, as it has
been before, to tantalising memories of a particular woman.
Innokentiy, the protagonist, is sitting in a Parisian cafe recollecting
his past. He is the son of the village schoolmaster and his memories
centre upon the development of his own sentimental and academic
educational. The story focuses upon his inchoate yearnings and
their sudden fixation on Tanya, daughter of the local Count. Tanya's
family move to the Crimea, the war intervenes, and Innokentiy
moves on to become a distinguished scholar. Many years later he
meets Tanya again. She has married, and her memories of their
past are not the same as his. Disappointed by this but still finding
her attractive, Innokentiy leaves her and goes to a cafe to indulge
his "sudden mad hankering after Russia" (p.255) - that is, in circular
fashion, back to the point where the story began.

This circularity is well executed and convincing: it gives a neat logic
to the structure of the story. But unfortunately the content of it,
Innokentiy's memories, do not hold together with sufficient thematic
coherence: one senses, no matter how much one might sympathise
with the experience of exile and loss which give rise to them, that
they are ultimately the loose materials of a memoir rather than the
rigorously assembled and scrupulously pertinent details of a short
story. They might fit easily into one corner of a novel, but for the
stringent demands of the story form there are too many non-
relevant characters and too many details which, though elegantly
expressed, represent dilations in the narrative:

"Olive-brown atlantes with strongly arched ribs
supported a balcony: the strain of their stone muscles
and their agonisingly twisted mouths struck our hot-
headed uppergrader as an allegory of the enslaved
proletariat" (p.258).

Moreover there is little sense of temporal unity created. The first
three quarters of the story deal with Innokentiy's youthful
experiences, all dealt with in a leisurely and lyrical manner; then
suddenly the story flashes through his later development in a few
lines and ends with two or three paragraphs describing the final
meeting with Tanya.

Innokentiy's final thoughts underscore the essentially nostalgic
impulse behind the story - "nothing is lost" he thinks, "nothing
whatever; memory accumulates treasures" (p.268) - though one
notes that this is closely linked with one of Nabokov's favourite
themes -

Nobody would wish to deny the importance to Nabokov (and all the
others who shared his experience) of giving expression to a whole
world and culture from which he had been separated. And a work
like 'The Circle' is readable and entertaining enough. But in the
strictest analytical terms it demonstrates one of the dangers of using
biographical sources and impulses as the material basis for short
fiction, and the fact that even such a strong narrative device as what
Nabokov calls "the serpent eating its tail" (p.254) cannot generate
the unity in the content if there is none.

But in one sense it might be said that if 'The Circle' fails to unite
its elements, it provided a trial run for a similar attempt which
Nabokov made later the same year and was destined to become his

Next week's story - BREAKING THE NEWS