I suppose that if one is going to read Nabokov for the first time — as I have with this book — one ought to start with Lolita. Because, well, why wouldn’t you?
But Lolita — the character, at least — has become such a part of our cultural consciousness that I fear any reading of Lolita the novel will be marred by “Lolita” the archetype. And besides, I’m always interested in the short fiction of famed novelists — I like to see what they’re capable of in that shorter, more compressed form.
Nabokov, to judge from this book, seems to be a bit hit or miss in the short form. Some of the stories in this book are quite good, products of their time that feel a bit dated and staid by today’s standards but that are clearly well written and good stories. A few are excellent, understated gems that easily survive the radical changes in taste that have convulsed the short fiction world for so long, and those stories hold up quite well even today. And a few are so weirdly flat that I’m a bit surprised they ever saw print.
It’s no surprise that my favorite stories in the book are the most stylistically inventive or contain the most bizarre content:
“Spring in Fialta” is actually fairly pedestrian, in terms of content, though its subject — the “girl who got away” turning out to be not such a great catch to begin with, and yet the sad male narrator yearns for her anyway — is a favorite subject of mine. But he chooses to tell the story in a kind of fractured narrative built almost entirely out of memories revisited at random in a present-tense rumination. The result is a narrative that jumps around in time wildly and frequently switches between present and past tense (with healthy but haphazard doses of past- and present-conditional tenses), yet the story itself never really gets confusing. Instead, Nabokov wraps you up in the narrator’s reminiscences and so you just sort of float along, a passenger in someone else’s story.
“Signs & Symbols” is also a bit fractured, but for different reasons: the story involves an older couple’s attempt to visit their son in a sanatorium, and the narrative drifts between their perspective and the observations of their mentally ill son. The passages in the son’s head, obviously, are the source of many of the “signs & symbols” of the title, but the whole story bears the marks of a writer anxious to play mind games with his reader and bury as much symbolic content in the text as possible. Which all sounds a bit pretentious, and it is, but for me it works. Plus, the plot of this story reminds me strongly of the plot in Raymond Carver‘s “The Bath” and its longer, more developed revision, “A Small, Good Thing” — in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Carver was influenced by this story (I know Carver was a fan of Chekhov, but I don’t know what other Russians he read).
“Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster,” a story about a pair of conjoined twins that is narrated, sometimes in the first-person plural and sometimes in the singular, by only one of the twins, is a bizarre and haunting story about human connections and disconnections. I confess, I had started this story late at night and thought I might skim it a bit before skipping ahead to another I wanted to read before falling asleep, but something about the narrative voice of this story compelled me to back up and start over, and I wound up reading it all the way through. It’s a gimmicky premise and could easily have come off as a piece of hack exploitation fiction, but Nabokov handles the perspective of this one conjoined twin sensitively and beautifully, and it’s a terrific tale even if the ambiguous ending doesn’t quite satisfy the rest of the story.
But the real knock-out in this collection is daring “Conversation Piece, 1945.” The story starts out as simply a mistaken-identity story that flirts with the speculative or the surreal: a man shares his name with a notorious bigot and keeps getting mistaken for him in awkward circumstances. The “conversation” that the title alludes to is one such mistake, in which the narrator gets accidentally invited to an intellectual salon hosted by a friend of a friend (in a layered confusion, the narrator himself has mistaken the name of his friend’s friend for someone else he knows by the same name). The salon, it turns out, is hosting a “celebrated” anti-Semite, and all the party present — none of whom the narrator actually knows — are quietly, politely, viciously anti-Semitic themselves. The narrator is trapped, then, in a situation from which he cannot politely extract himself, listening to ideas he finds morally repugnant. And so the story goes. It would be a comedy of manners if not for the racially and politically charged content — set in America in 1945, the story takes place shortly after the death of Hitler but before the end of war in the Pacific Theater, and it does a fantastic job of highlighting the dangerous undercurrent of anti-Semitism among certain sects of America’s “intellectual” élite during the war years. What on the surface looks like a mere situational comedy becomes a troubling philosophical commentary. It’s a clever and risky combination, but Nabokov pulls it off brilliantly.
Some of the other stories in this collection come off as over-long and a bit dull, old-fashioned to my eyes. “The Assistant Producer” was probably the worst offender; it actually contains the line, “We are now going to witness a most weirdly monotonous series of events.” And indeed, we do. “Mademoiselle O” also suffers, because, while it is interesting as a peek into the private life of Nabokov himself — it is so blatantly autobiographical that Nabokov included a version of the same story, using the actual rather than the changed names of the characters, in his memoirs — I feel the story is too constrained by fact to make convincing fiction.
But the book on a whole is a good read, and I don’t regret at all not having picked up Lolita first. In fact, I feel I can probably more honestly read Lolita now; I feel I can treat it as fiction rather than as cultural icon.
But that’ll be for next’s year’s reading list.
For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.