Friday, June 20, 2008

Reading Nabokov In...

The only Nabokov I had ever read was Lolita. Then in the space of a week I encountered two of his short stories. The first was a previously unpublished short story called “Natasha” in the recent Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker ( It was written in 1924. The second was the New Yorker podcast of “Symbols and Signs” read by writer Mary Gaitskill ( This story, the first Nabokov story to appear in he New Yorker. was published in May of 1948. The podcast (“Sign Language” 6/2/08) is especially interesting because Gaitskill discusses Nabokov and why she admires his writing. Hearing this discussion helped me better appreciate “Natasha” as well.

Symbols and Signs” begins as an older Russian émigré couple travel to visit their son. It is his birthday and he is mentally ill and confined in a sanitarium. The journey is difficult and when they arrive they are not permitted to see him since he has recently attempted suicide. They return home disheartened, and late that night the husband decides that they must bring the boy home to live with them. As they discuss this they are interrupted by telephone calls. The first two are wrong numbers. The story ends as the phone rings for the third time. The reader is left to wonder whether this call is another wrong number or the hospital calling about their son.

When Gaitskill discussed this story she talked about the fact that in a great short story there is a second, larger story hidden behind and sometimes bleeding through the first. In this case there are hints that the damaged son is not the only heartbreak the couple has endured. The ordinary objects in the apartment suggest that this family has escaped the Holocaust and lost much of their family. Is the son's madness connected to these traumatic events?

Natasha”, written when Nabokov was a young man, is also about displaced Russian émigrés, Natasha and her ailing father Alexey. They live in a modest apartment in Berlin where the girl cares for her father. Their neighbor, the aptly named Baron Wolfe, is infatuated with Natasha and convinces her to leave her father briefly for an outing in the country. Natasha and Baron live in both the real world and their fantasy worlds. Baron's involves his imagined travels to exotic places while Natasha's concerns her ecstatic visions. Even the father has visions, although his are more dark - he mistakes a luminous clock dial for the muzzle of a rifle. The story ends with Natasha's final vision and its collision with reality.

I think the larger story is the way in which the human imagination distracts (or protects? or hides?) us from harsh reality. Is self deception, in the form of spirituality or just tall tales, a part of the human condition that we all share?

A new edition of "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov" will be published later this year. I'm looking forward to it.

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