That Plato was by nature a short-story writer, not a novelist, seems clear. Walt Whitman was a novelist, Chopin a writer of short stories. Michelangelo was a novelist, Picasso a writer of short stories. Whatever the medium, most artists would seem to favour a breathing period that is either long or short. Chekhov, Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver were short-story writers. Dostoevsky, Faulkner and (horrified as he would be to find himself with this lot) Vladimir Nabokov were novelists. If your destiny lies in one form, the other is seldom hospitable. O’Connor’s short fiction was the inspired work of one born to the genre; her novels seem grimly willed achievements, determined to last 300 pages or die trying. The short story is notoriously even more unforgiving of those whose ambition cannot abandon its vaster longings. Take the muse of the short story out for an evening only if you are willing to rivet your concentration on her every velleity; she will repay the roving eye with instant annihilation.
This large collection of his short stories will be extremely welcome to readers of Nabokov, though they will find nothing to compare with the supreme accomplishments of The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Lolita or Pale Fire. It is surely significant that he himself abandoned the form the moment Lolita had liberated him from the chores of teaching and magazine work.
Something about the cenotaphic mass of this volume gives the impression that we are dealing with an entire career of short fiction, paralleling Nabokov’s involvement with the novel. We are not. Most of the works here are in a sense ‘early’ Nabokov, for he ceased writing short fiction in the Fifties. This was just the period when he first caught the world’s attention. Lolita had appeared more or less secretly in Paris in 1955, whipping decorous appetites into fits of pruriency before her disappointingly respectable public debut in 1958. Pale Fire and Ada followed, as did the methodically Englished versions of the Russian novels. Working exclusively in the long form, he moved back to Europe, where he lived for another highly productive two decades and died in 1977 without another trial of short fiction.
One of the problems entailed by the general earliness of this work is that it did not have to satisfy very demanding editors. The Russian émigré newspapers and journals of Berlin and Paris, always endangered by the weird demographics of their readership and famished for material, would reject the work of young ‘Sirin’ on grounds of policy or prudery, but far too seldom for his own good on grounds of artistic merit. Later on, in America, the fiction editors of the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and Playboy were less complacent though occasionally also obtuse to the special qualities of Nabokov’s several successes in the short form.
In his first collection of stories in English, Nabokov’s Dozen, he drew on the tradition of the baker’s dozen and continued it in three major collections, each of 13 stories, thereafter. The extra loaf from which this expression originated was not so much a lure for customers as it was insurance against the serious fine imposed for short weight. It was called ‘inbread’ (the homophone might have given Nabokov pause) or ‘vantage bread’ (of which he would no doubt have approved). This collection preserves the numerological theme, 65 being, neatly, five baker’s dozens, though the continuance derives more from the filial piety of the editor, Nabokov’s son Dmitri, than from editorial discernment, since some of the buns in the basket are not so much ‘inbread’ as ‘makeweight’. Nevertheless, Nabokov being Nabokov, even the mistakes have their interest. They provide scale, as it were. And reason for relief: he did not, thank heavens, continue with the Symbolist fustian of ‘Wingstroke’ and one or two other negligible things here.
The very word ‘stories’ in the title needs qualification. Most of these pieces are, indeed, the brief narratives conventionally understood as being ‘short stories’. But several of the most important are not. ‘Mademoiselle O’ (about revisiting his old French governess in her retirement) and ‘First Love’ (about his infatuation at the age of ten with a Biarritz playmate, a little French girl whom he calls Colette) are straight autobiography and were published as such in Speak, Memory. ‘Orache’ is a rearrangement of incidents told rather more successfully in Chapter 9 of the same book. The last story, ‘Lance’, deals with a couple named ‘Boke’, a syllabic shard of the author’s own name, who are anxious about the dangerous pastime of their grown son, the eponym, who is an astronaut. Dmitri Nabokov, whose mountain-climbing worried his parents, points to the autobiographical ‘sublimation’ in his Preface.
Two pieces, ‘Ultima Thule’ and ‘Solus Rex’, are Chapters 1 and 2, respectively, of an unfinished novel. Neither stands alone as an independent short story, nor does the pair (separated by a chasmal hiatus of narrative style and content) constitute an aesthetic unit. Together, these brilliant fragments promise what would have been one of the greatest of contemporary novels, the lack of which is only meagrely compensated for by the later development of some of the themes, as for instance in Pale Fire. Another story, ‘The Circle’, is what Nabokov calls a ‘satellite’ of his Russian masterpiece, The Gift. A slight nocturnal scene in Berlin entitled ‘A Letter that Never Reached Russia’ was part of an abandoned novel called Happiness.
The work entitled ‘Conversation Piece, 1945’ is simply an essay, with overtones of harangue. It is one of numerous samples of Nabokov’s outrage at the political idiocy of American intellectuals of that period, who were in his view blind to the savagery of the equally detestable Soviet and Nazi tyrannies. ‘Time and Ebb’ is an essay dressed as a story. A 90-year-old scientist of the distant future recalls dates like 2012 as part of the past. The mnemonic mode is pure Nabokov, evoking the world of the Forties (it is copyright 1944) as if it were irrecoverable. To call this an essay rather than a story is not to belittle it (half the masterpieces of Borges are essays in fictional garb). No matter the genre, one is grateful for sentences that only he could have written: ‘My mother died when I was still an infant, so that I can only recall her as a vague patch of delicious lachrymal warmth just beyond the limit of iconographic memory.’
‘Recruiting’ starts as a story. A helpless old Russian émigré named Vasily Ivanovich sits on a park bench to recuperate his strength after going to a funeral. The narrator sits down beside him and ‘recruits’ him as just the type needed to fill out a chapter of a novel he has been working on for two years. This trifle manages thus to be a pseudo-story that metamorphoses in front of our very eyes to reveal itself as an essay, as another meditation on Nabokov’s eternal subject, the mystery and bliss of artistic creation.
When he was writing at the top of his form, Nabokov succeeded almost too well. He wrote ‘The Vane Sisters’ in 1951, but only in 1959 did the Hudson Review finally publish it. When it appeared in the 1975 collection Tyrants Destroyed, Nabokov appended an authorial note that gave away the story’s secret, one that he had evidently thought his best readers would discover for themselves. In my experience, they never do. I certainly did not and would not have done so without the note. One of the best readers he ever had, Katharine White, fiction editor at the New Yorker, rejected it, much to his dismay. He simply had not yet done what every great writer must finally do: create his readers.
The story is told by an émigré professor of French at an American college. He is the friend of the Vane sisters, the younger of whom, Sybil, is his student. Cynthia, the elder, is an artist who leads a bohemian existence in Greenwich Village. She enlists the narrator’s aid in breaking up what she sees as her sister’s destructive relationship with D., a married man, and he complies. Sybil kills herself. Some years later the narrator is out for a walk and spends time minutely observing some melting icicles and the shadow cast by a parking meter on a snowy street. D. happens by and imparts the news that Cynthia has died. The narrator reflects on what he sees as her absurd involvement with spiritualism, messages from the hereafter and so on. That night he has a troubling dream, one that he is unable to understand. End of story.
Or, for most readers, that would be the end, if it were not for the hint in the author’s note: ‘In this story the narrator is supposed to be unaware that his last paragraph has been used acrostically by two dead girls to assert their mysterious participation in the story.’ Sent back to the narrative with pencil and paper, the reader discovers that the initial letters of the words in the final paragraph make up a message from the Beyond: ‘Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me Sybil.’ This of course opens the story up and causes one to read it aright for the first time. A more or less trivial character study of two silly American females as seen by a self-satisfied, dense European sophisticate turns into a philosophical meditation about the vanity (Vane) of human denials of supernatural survival.
One is sent back to more than this story. One is sent back to all of Nabokov’s best fiction, to reread it for the first time. The epigraph to Invitation to a Beheading comes from a French writer invented by Nabokov: ‘Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels.’ To believe that one’s soul dies is just as delusional as to believe that one is God. Brian Boyd, in his splendid two-volume biography, links this story with another, ‘Signs and Symbols’, written in 1948. An aged couple try to visit their hopelessly insane son in an asylum to give him a birthday present, but he has attempted suicide for the second time and cannot have visitors. His illness is called ‘referential mania’. The whole inanimate universe, quite simply, refers to him; every cloud, tree, raindrop. The old parents go home, where they resolve to bring him back, taking turns at surveillance. The phone rings twice, the same young woman having misdialled each time. Then it rings again. End of story. Every detail – the weather, the subway ride, everything that the pathetic old pair witness, such as a baby bird dying in a puddle – is so morbid and depressing that I could hardly keep from recalling Oscar Wilde’s remark that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
Boyd, whose readings of Nabokov’s works are no less adroit than his narrative of the life, calls this ‘one of the greatest short stories ever written’. He is a persuasive advocate. If the third call announces the fatal third try at suicide, then all the ‘signs and symbols’ announced in the title, all the linked mishaps great and small that ruin the old parents’ day, are part of the complex delusional code of the boy’s insanity. When we thought we were on the outside of the story, looking at the performance of an excessively bathetic O. Henry anecdote, we were all the time inside the mania itself. I can see this argument and appreciate its subtlety; what I cannot see is a short story that stands alone, without the scaffolding of an intricately refined explication to lift it from banality to greatness.
Nabokov oversaw his work so carefully that it is sad to report a lapse in the editorial supervision of this handsome and expensive book. Mistakes range from the minute (the Russian original of ‘A Slice of Life’ should be Sluchay iz, not in, zhizni to the mind-blowingly massive: the entire eighth and final section of one of the most discussed stories, ‘The Potato Elf’, seven pages in all, has simply been omitted, robbing the story of all the point it ever had. I cannot locate any editorial justification of this, so must presume that its omission was simply a blunder. Losing the last paragraph of ‘The Vane Sisters’ would be an incomparably greater disaster, since the missing pages of ‘The Potato Elf’ could not have saved this interesting but inept fiction. Still, although one does not expect Knopf to supply an extra loaf, one expects what one paid for.