11-11: Russian fiction review (Vladimir Nabokov)

Nabokov's Dozen, by Vladimir Nabokov. (This isn't the edition I read -- I read 1969 "Books for Libraries" edition -- but this is a cool cover.)

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.

Vladimir Nabokov. (Image from Wikipedia.)

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 about my 11-11 project, check out my initial post on the challenge or all the posts in my 11-11 category.

For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.

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6 thoughts on “11-11: Russian fiction review (Vladimir Nabokov)

    1. I was this close to reading it instead, but I really do think I needed to get some less-hyped Nabokov under my belt before I could tackle Lolita. I did the same thing with Dostoyevsky: except for a few essays and excerpts I read in college textbooks, the first “real” Dostoyevsky I tackled was the less-known The House of the Dead. It’s a damned fine novel, but I think if I’d started with one of the “heavy-weight” Dostoyevsky’s I’d have felt overwhelmed.

      I am definitely picking up Lolita next year, though. 🙂

  1. Why would you feel overwhelmed if you started with what you called a “heavey-weight” Dostoyevsky novel?

    I read a less popular book of Kazuo Ishiguro, who is certainly a more modern writer than the ones mentioned here, and enjoyed it so much that I had to pick up another one of his work. It somehow makes me feel more trusting of my taste when I read the less popular work of authors to know if I’m a true fan.

    Did you ever quit reading a novel or story simply for reasons of taste and preference?

    I did not watch Lolita the movie, and wanted to read the book first. This was about a month ago. Nobokov’s writing is impressive in quality though a bit redundant, I thought, but I was so disturbed by the subject matter and the main character that I had to put it down and quit. I was afraid this makes me too impatient as a reader, but I think this might simply be a good understanding of my taste in literature, or really, in anything! I can say “No” even to literature, can’t I?

    1. I think some books need to come to us at the right time. I can certainly see that being the case with Lolita — Nabokov is actually asking us to sympathize with a lecherous pedophile (and by all accounts, he succeeds!) — so I can see that being very much a “I’ll read it when I’m ready” book. I do know one person who was a victim of child molestation and was nervous about reading Lolita but wound up liking it simply because the language is so beautiful. So I definitely want to give it a shot — I love brilliant language.

      But yeah, I’ve put down books. It’s fairly rare, because I feel the need to finish even bad books once I’ve started them (I managed to slog my way through the entire Twilight saga, for crying out loud, though I loathe those books), but there have been times when the writing is simply too bad. Recently, I tried reading Dracula the Un-Dead, by Stoker’s descendant Dacre Stoker (with a lot of ghost-writing from Ian Holt), simply because I love Bram Stoker’s novel so much (it’s a genius work of fiction), but dear god that book is awful. I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I wanted to, and some day I’ll have to try it again simply because I love vampire fiction and this thing feels like required (read: forced) reading, but at the time, I decided I simply didn’t have energy enough to waste on writing that bad.

      Back in high school, I tried reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but I just could NOT get into it. I didn’t understand the stilted, overly formal language (all those “thee” and “thou” expressions!), I wanted more overt sex and violence, and, frankly, I was expecting something like the Metallica song of the same name. In the end, I ran out of patience and just skimmed the thing, which meant I understood it even less.

      But later, in college, I fell in love with The Sun Also Rises and Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, so I decided to give FWtBT another shot. And this time, I got it. The genius of translating the formality of the Spanish usted into “thee” or “thou,” the seductiveness of those understated but surprisingly explicit sex scenes, the psychological and mechanical precision of the violence, the sheer perfection of the novel’s plot structure….. It blew me away. Now it’s one of my favorite novels of all time. But back in high school, I just wasn’t ready for it. That isn’t my fault and it isn’t Hemingway’s fault. I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time to enjoy the novel the first time around.

      As for Dostoyevsky: I think you called it. Your experience in picking up a lesser known Ishiguro book is pretty much exactly my experience with the lesser-known Dostoyevsky book. (By the way, what was the book you read? I’ve only read Never Let Me Go, but I loved that book and was thrilled when they made it into a film. I like the film less, by the way, but it was still good.)

  2. You’re so right, some books need to come to us at the right time. I actually identified myself as someone who “hated” reading for a long time until I discovered poetry. I generally disliked novels, until I read the good ones and just now I am learning the joys of diving into the world of a novel. Taste changes, just the way it changed for you from your teens, but it can also change a hundred times more!

    So you did have those types of horrible reading too, I mean you can’t help it if it’s you just can’t stand it.

    The interesting thing about “Lolita,” for me is that it’s written with beautiful words, but the language of the character when it comes down to it is ugly; the language of a pedophile. So getting into a mind of a character like that felt like I was doing a psychological case study rather than leisure reading. Needless to say, after reading this post on his other writings, I don’t feel too eager to read more of Nobokov’s work.

    In college though I didn’t read The Sun Also Rises, I was introduced to some of Hemingway’s short stories. I love when I read a piece of literature and I find myself stunned by the author’s cleverness the way you described you were with him. This is what happened to me when I read Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” two years ago. It’s the only one I read too actually. I’m reading “When We Were Orphans” now and a Murakami book too.

    I didn’t watch “Never Let Me Go” yet but I couldn’t believe they made a film of it when I found out. I might watch it, but it’s definitely one of very few books that are close to my heart. I couldn’t get it out of my mind for weeks afterwards. I wish to write so hauntingly the way he does.

    1. Hemingway’s a genius in the short story. I love that man. He’s overly macho and a bit too self-aggrandizing and weirdly hypocritical sometimes –he’s kind of a bastard, really — but I love him all the more for it.

      Actually, I don’t blame you for disliking novels at first. I have a writer friend who’s also a publisher, and even now he tries to avoid novels whenever he can. He prefers short stories and novellas. And there’s nothing wrong with that! 🙂

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