Part Three of my review of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV – as continued in the comment stream below when I read them…

CONTINUED FROM HERE: https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/vladimir-nabokov/

29 responses to “*


    “, he lay and looked through his lashes, and every line, every rim, or shadow of a rim, turned into a sea horizon or a strip of distant land.”

    An incredibly synaesthetic and tactile journey (using incredibly synaesthetic and tactile words in a description split between a boy’s third person singular and first person singular perceptions of the narrative journey), a journey inside a flat as he gets cigarettes from his father for his sister and her boyfriend who are also in the same flat), some of the images he imagines or actually sees being as contiguous extensions of places and things not in the cavernal flat at all. The flat is typical of those bourgeois ones Russian émigrés (with which this book teems) used to rent in Berlin. Such flats are not flat at all, I guess.


    A short word-aesthetically tentacular text that ably evokes its author recruiting an old man he happens to see on a tram to become a character in this story, or another work not yet written. The only way to quote from this masterpiece is to quote it all. The old man’s backstory et al. An old man like me, if one with a different life.


    “— yes, I wear mourning, for everybody, for everything, for my own self, for Russia, for the fetuses scraped out of me.”

    A truly remarkable work, that seems a stream of conscious disguised as an audit trail of real life, or vice versa, narrated by an older woman who has had her flings, including with the voluble gentleman who has just lost his wife to another man, a wife who has gone off inadvertently with his pince-nez, and she listens to this man, someone who in the past she fancied, a short tale that leads to many repercussions as she follows him towards a violent denouement, although my saying that may be a spoiler. A story that follows the patterns of her own written romances that often, she knows, sag in the middle with mediocrity, the middle where the core of the plot should have been! Recruited herself to appear in it?


    “, and still less do I understand what was the purpose of fate bringing us constantly together.”

    It is as if this book accretes its power story by story, as this latest apotheosis of apotheosis of unrequited love and sudden mortality as end-shock tells us of when I, the married narrator, had random and chance meetings — over the years in various places and surrounded by various characters — with fickle Nina and her eclectic husband, a man with whom I have had creative dealings. Now in the vying of the old and new town of Fialta so beautifully characterised, amid a visiting circus, this might be the final time I see her, and wonder at her equivocations of love. A miracle of literature, as if Proust wrote Nabokov or vice versa. Without them, I would not have existed.

    “, whatever perfume they use, those dark-haired girls, and as it often happens, a trivial remark related to some unknown topic coiled and clung to one’s own intimate recollection, a parasite of its sadness.”


    “At the stations, Vasiliy Ivanovich would look at the configuration of some entirely insignificant objects — a smear on the platform, a cherry stone, a cigarette butt — and would say to himself that never, never would he remember these three little things here in that particular interrelation, this pattern, which he could see with such deathless precision;”

    As if on one of those recent new-fangled ‘slow TV’ programmes of train journeys etc., we follow VI on his prize pleasure trip from Berlin to Russia, and back again, and the various people with whom he travelled, VI himself being a square peg in a round hole, until he reached that triple conflux announced by the story’s title, an optimum moment of place where he wanted to stay forever. Instead, he was inexplicably thrashed by his companions and returned to where he had started the journey! (Inexplicably thrashed? Inexplicable to me, at least.)


    “By killing myself I would kill him, as he was totally inside me, fattened on the intensity of my hatred.”

    Yes, this was written years and years ago, but it is about a Gestalt of tyrants that became Trump! Just read it and see – the bronze jowls and olive oil complexion, the inferred tweets of “chaff”, his mediocrity, tediousness, his what turned out to be a “monstrous future”. “The whole is stronger than its parts,” and “he repeats verbatim what he has just disgorged, but in a tone of voice suggesting that he has thought of a new argument, another absolutely new and irrefutable idea.” “He reads through newspapers and I read them with him, searching for something that might catch his attention,” and we end with all tyrants embodied by him, but, true, there are aspects here that are not strictly him, but they FEEL like him, like encouraging the workers to dig for vegetables, and, of course, the giant turnip! This is powerful stuff that flows from page to page like an avant garde symphony, a language to die for.

  7. LIK

    “…equipped with heavy, leathery lids…”

    …being the eyes of the man who, when they were boys, used to bully Lik, and this man turns up suddenly in Lik’s later life, the bully himself now bullied by the attrition of life and by his own character failings. Lik, meanwhile, an émigré actor with a heart complaint, is the centre of this highly charged and complex story, including the well-observed interaction between the past bully and Lik, and the meticulously examined general interaction between the act of acting and the peopled reality of motivation outside of acting. The story’s striking finale completes another emotional work of genius in this book, with the style and words to match. Lik’s lid lifted. Crickets or cicadas, notwithstanding. And the wristwatch like a surgically vestigial organ of the body. And another tyrant destroyed,

    “…a peripatetic smile that really did not belong to any one member of the group, but skittered across the lips of each like an independent spot of reflected sunlight.”



    “The green soaked greenery in a greener green.”

    And silence as a more silent silence you can hear – in the Alps. Whether an untruth or not, it is a truer one, too. This tale is kicking against the pricks of fictionism, salvaging the author’s own O-shaped Swiss-roll of a French-speaking governess, salvaging her from his own fiction — and giving her the dignity of truth in such a portrait now untainted here, untainted by his fiction, even if she appears paradoxically in this book of collected stories! A portrait that is incredibly synaethesic as to personality and bodily traits, with reference to colour filters, colour pencils, even a white pencil that gifts one freedom of expression. Hyperbole versus wise old saws. Seven years she stayed as governess, an epitome of her own misery. A stickler for her own language against the author’s language. A struggling swan as an objective-correlative of her death. An affectionate cut and thrust to pare her down to a living shape in my mind, after reading this. Salvaged truly from fiction.


    “, for example, a mother, having lost patience, drowned her two-year-old daughter in the bathtub and then took a bath in the same water, because it was hot, and hot water should not be squandered.”

    An ingenious literary anecdote in beautiful observed prose, about a character who is a poet and appears to be a real contact of another character, a novelist called Nabokov, in Parisian Russian émigré circles, but which of them is the figment of the other’s sleights of hand as to the foibles of intention amid fiction and truth?


    “, and that such children (i.e., the posthumously born) were known as cadaverkins.”

    Possibly the most astonishing story ever written (with the caveat that I have not yet finished reading this book) – a story to take a run at, and having run at it, to read it speedily, without faltering, the text close to your eyes, without leapfrogging or skimming, giving each word due weight. And what words! What stylistic connections between them! The story of a man whose wife has died and, as part of the process of coming to terms with it, he dwells on the case of another man, one called Falter, who had the most speechless fit one night in a hotel (no way I can do justice to the nature of that fit here) and when questioned what caused such an unholy fit, questioned by our hero widower, Falter prevaricates with the most convoluted philosophies within a discussion between them, aiming to reach the crux of existence, and what had caused his fit — a fit that, when earlier described to a doctor, caused the doctor to die. I would not be surprised if some readers of this story (not all of them, obviously) have died when eventually finding the revelation of the cause of the fit, and it is there to be found, having reached the edge of finding it at last. Only the cleverest of readers need fear the worst, I guess.


    “We, the slaves of linked events, endeavour to close the gap with a spectral ring in the chain.”

    This appears to be in the land of Thule itself, and you will NOT believe this narrative, quite beyond the beyond of stylised style to the nth power of pretentious, an incomprehensibility bordering on comprehensibility, a work about a trend of “meta-politics” within a plot about some sort of Trumpworld conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that are laid against Thule’s natural Royal heir (Adulf) who has wild sexual proclivities and other character defects (defects not unlike Trump’s and also beyond the beyond of any pale of pale fire). Meanwhile, K, the story’s point of view, ends up himself being King, having witnessed all these machinations, with some lovely set pieces. Including, I infer his own dotage of defects at the start of the story! And a bridge he needs to open. A towel folded five years before.

    “, the now forgotten Professor Skunk, did not err much when he affirmed that childbearing was but an illness, and that every babe was an ‘externalised,’ self-existent parental tumour, often malignant.”


    “Along the left side of that lane there was a long wall with crossword puzzles of brick showing here and there through its rough greyness; and in that wall there was at one spot a little green door.”

    I suspect ULTIMA THULE, when read by me in a certain way a day or so ago, has now become the VN classic story, and now these later stories will be tailing off, dwindling? Who knows? This one, THE ASSISTANT PRODUCER, although with some magical sleights of hand typical of VN, is indeed rather laborious otherwise about the doings of the WW as the White Warriors v. the Soviets (with a history lesson that is nowadays better on the new-fangled WWW), and of the imprisonment of a woman singer who had married a WW general, with conspiracies galore of the kidnapped disappearance of another general reminding me of some meta-political machinations in the previous story, and whether it was a green door or not. Ah well, I am not “….one of those people who believe that so long as a sentence is a sentence it is bound to mean something.”

  13. ‘THAT IN ALEPPO ONCE . . .’

    “‘The dog,’ she said, ‘the dog we left. I cannot forget the poor dog.’ The honesty of her grief shocked me, as we had never had any dog. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘but I tried to imagine we had actually bought that setter. And just think, he would now be whining behind a locked door.’ There had never been any talk of buying a setter.’”

    I take it back. This is a classic VN story, as a letter addressed to “V” himself, by a man who describes to him the diaspora in wartorn Europe, trying to make his way to USA, but ends up in southern France, with his wife, but does his wife really exist or is she one of V’s characters? Some vintage V here, with the projected precariousness of a woman who had her head in the clouds, as well as possibly vice versa! The log-women, notwithstanding.

    “, because of course the denominator of every fraction of knowledge was potentially as infinite as the number of intervals between the fractions themselves.”


    A poet who created his posterity in his early life, a poet of “lyrical spasm” and destroyer of “twittering”. Drowns by rumour of staged suicide? He returns as an old man, or an old man returns as him, do we ever know?, during a commemoration and monumentalisation of his fame, when he fidgets embarrassingly on a piano stool as they talk about him as if he is not there, which he may not have been. A telling vision of precarious literary genius that only emerges by dint of an early death. A study of posterity and legacy, as he becomes caretaker and guide to his own museum of his work. Autographing as himself. Or does he? I think the author of this story should have died earlier. Who reads him now – other than perhaps for Lolita! Humph!


    “…men who have too little imagination to write fiction and too bad a memory to write the truth.”

    I put VN weighing more to the latter propensity, yet this is not a story at all, not even fiction, but an increasingly pretentious proto-Proustian impression of “the symphonic entirety of the past”, of time and memory, to the backdrop of the memories associated with his moving from Europe. At least émigré rhymes with the USA he’s now in.

    “: arrested by a deep drone that vibrates and gathers in volume overhead, stock-still,…”


    “The worst madman is the one who fails to consider the possibility of somebody else’s being mad too.”

    A humorous tale, with slingshots of expression, as our narrator VN is dogged by a seeming doppelgänger, just after the war, after arriving as an émigré in USA, and is erroneously invited, as his other persona, to a salon ‘do’ where conversation by a seeming Dr Shoe as a convenient name describes all manner of pet theories about the war that were no doubt at that time, and probably still are today, very politically incorrect. I dare not quote them here. It seems that our narrator VN is deemed, by the doppelgänger, to be dogging HIM the doppelgänger, not vice versa!

    “, and I assumed that Mrs Hall’s husband was either dead or kept his hats in another place.”

    “I have often wondered why is it that a thin German always manages to look so plump behind when wearing a raincoat.”


    “In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.”

    A sad story about “Referential mania” in these parents’ suicidal son whom, they regularly visit in a sanatorium, another story wonderfully typical of VN where its ending, after many characterful observations of their daily life, is both disarming and fraught with oblique reference, as the parents receive two wrong number phone calls they fear come from the sanatorium. Until a third one needs to be answered….yet we are not allowed to answer it ourselves, and leave them to answer it alone.


    “…at the Russo-German frontier (Verzhbolovo-Eydtkuhnen), where the ample and lazy Russian sixty-and-a-half-inch gauge was replaced by the fifty-six-and-a-half-inch standard of Europe and coal succeeded birch logs.”

    A reminiscence by VN, I infer, as a story of a train journey in 1909 when he was a ten year old boy, travelling from Russia to the French Riviera. Then meeting ten year old Colette and a Proustian account of their short romance. Exquisite.
    Butterflies and bunk beds, too. (Misericoleteq being Basque for butterfly, but what is micheletea?)


    A striking, meticulously, potentially pointillist portrait from within of the thoughts and impulses of a pair of conjoined twins, and the dreams they shared without speaking of them, and the forced exhibitionisms of their lives or life, as freaks or freak….
    “The pattern of acts prompted by this or that mutual urge formed a kind of gray, evenly woven, generalized background against which the discrete impulse, his or mine, followed a brighter or sharper course; but (guided as it were by the warp of the background pattern) it never went athwart the common weave or the other twin’s whim.”



    This is the perfect story for me, a hilarious ghost story, a satire on the paranormal and on the meticulous stylistics of literary criticism that I try to operate in these reviews as a sort of preternatural process (!), but, first, about Sybil Vane’s suicide, then her sister Cynthia who paints as if looking through a smeary windscreen, and that relates to her belief in ghosts, and factoring in deaths of those whom she knows influencing future trends of her own life, a life that eventually arrives in her own death. All seen from the point of the view of the male writer of this story and his relations and involvement with the two sisters, full of observations that are second to none in all literature, I claim. So utterly staggering, I wonder how I have lived without this story all my life, one that will in turn be factored into whomsoever I haunt in the hereafter. You heard it here first. All the “odds and ids”, and self-confessed “Jamesian meanderings”, notwithstanding. In fact I am IN the story already, referred to as D.

    “…one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket.” […] “Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.”

  21. LANCE

    “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

    A personal SF-satirical narration by the author of the eponymous space-travellers (Lance and his companions) as perceptible mountaineers on a strangely extrapolated planet, creating anxiety for Lance’s parents back home. But, for me at least, it turns out he is not a lance but, implicitly, a boomerang. A sick boomerang who poignantly wants to become a lance again in November.

    “What I wanted to say was that perhaps Lance and his companions, when they reached their planet, felt something akin to my dream — which is no longer mine.”


    “The fable-blue sky was like a gigantic painted egg, bells thundered,…”

    A woman called Joséphine who was homesick as a Governess in Russia returns to her homeland in Switzerland and then feels homesick for Russia! And after failing to instil an Orthodox Easter in Russian émigrés she knows in Switzerland by painting eggs – a poignant process of paints of various colours or stickability. An offended neighbour becomes party to Joséphine’s later idiosyncratic illness of delirium. Homesick for a previous homesickness seems a haunting image of Nabokov himself. Each of his stories a fable-blue sky of a delirium, still working through readers like me today. Painting windscreens by Cynthia or the author seeing space travel as if through the same smeary windscreen in the previous two stories. The Governess syndrome as a Proustian search for lost time now made delirious?

  23. THE WORD

    “You understand, though, my kindhearted, my gray angel. Answer me, help me, tell me, what can save my land?”

    A four page rapture of “inspired oneiric wind”, amid the lustre of angles, a rapture about angels, wings within wings. In chance mutual synergy with my concurrent review of a more modern book BLACKER AGAINST THE DEEPER DARK here.
    A discovery for weird literature enthusiasts.


    A daughter looking after her seriously ill émigré father (a father who is missing Russia, too), and she is invited by a male neighbour to go out for the day, as the father seems better today. The two of them have a good day out, knowingly telling each other with delight tall stories of their past, his non-existent exotic tours abroad and she her floating visions she never had, one of the Virgin Mary. A most poignant ending to this story, but who is telling tall tales now, the father who is seen alive outside the flat or the father who is in the flat, lying dead? Who is abroad, who is at home, I ask? None of us really know.

    “…through some blue mist of happiness.”


    This book has been that mix of émigré homesick emotions, mixed further with shards and angles, angels and butterflies, misty oneiric windscreens, and suddenly clear memories transcending the lost Proustian ones, such clearness usually forgotten, but confident that they were once clear, and many endings with möbius sections of further dawning realisation, characters, events and places, tantalising you with clearness again. The fable-blue approach of delirium or dementia never seeming to thwart that memory of clearness even though you somehow know that you cannot reach such clearness ever again.
    I repeat – Who is abroad, who is at home? None of us really know.


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