The collected stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Alfred A. Knopf 659 pages $35


I do have a story for you," wrote Vladimir Nabokov one New Year's Day 50 years ago to Katherine White, his editor at The New Yorker, "but it is still in my head; quite complete however; the pattern showing through the wing-cases of the pupa."
The image was perfectly apt, and not just because this lifelong butterfly chaser was pulling double duty as a Wellesley lit teacher and a research fellow at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
The story turned out to have less to do with pupae than patterns, the kind discerned by a paranoid mental patient and the aging Russian emigre parents who attempt to visit him on his birthday. The son beset by a world where trees, bodies of water and objects in general are secretly plotting his doom has attempted suicide; the parents are told to come back later. Late that night, they resolve to bring their boy home. They are having tea when the phone rings. Wrong number. It rings again; same caller. It rings again. End of story.
Like a number of Nabokov's stories and novels, "Signs and Symbols" is beautifully written, meticulously imagined and suddenly, spontaneously confounding. Will this third call heart-stopping as all midnight calls are be just another wrong number? Or the hospital, saying the son has died? Has the parents' lucid world turned into the son's mad one is that telephone one more threatening object, poised to attack? Or are the three calls part of some larger, vexing pattern we can't understand?
Questions, questions. As anyone who has discovered such masterpieces as Pale Fire, Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading already knows, Nabokov fully intended his books to be taken apart brick by brick. As he told his students at Cornell and Wellesley in the 1950s, that's the way books are:
Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
Besides "Signs and Symbols," there are a few other stories in this long-overdue volume where it is worth bearing these words in mind.
In "The Vane Sisters," an arrogant French teacher recalls a pair of dead siblings, and his fruitless search for their ghosts. What he doesn't know and what only readers alerted by Nabokov's prefatory note will likely find out is that the last paragraph of his story is an acrostic message from the two, who have gamely penetrated his narrative from the next world to let him know that they have guided his search from the beginning.
Stories like this fairly bolster Nabokov's standard claim repeated by every Nabokolatrist since that he was influenced by no one and wrote like no one else. But such stories aren't typical, and this collection with its whims of fate, its ghosts, out-of-body experiences, furry angels and toady devils doesn't seem all that far from the Russian tradition of Gogol and Chekhov. Even geniuses are shaped by predecessors; Vladimir, who has long since joined Nikolai and Anton at the heavenly poker table, has likely already conceded as much.
Nabokov wrote most of these stories in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, between fleeing the newly revolutionized Russia and coming to America. It was a productive, if penurious, time; he also wrote nine novels, a few collections of poetry and two plays, few of which brought him any real money. It was also a period of exile; the sense of alienation worked its way over and over into his books, and it's there in his first story, "The Wood-Sprite."
A forest elf visits a dozing emigre writer to announce that he, too, has left the old country for good. The last time he tried bombarding unsuspecting forest visitors with pinecones brought no response whatsoever:
"I toiled away for a whole hour, all to no avail. Then I took a closer look, and I was horror-struck. Here's a man with his head hanging by one flimsy crimson thread, there's one with a heap of thick worms for a stomach."
Clearly, Soviet Russia was no place for either wood sprites or imaginative artists. In this three-page story which combines a ghostly Puck with a writer who may or may not be the author himself, Nabokov kisses off what was and suggests the prose magician to come.
The transformation was not immediate. The early stories, collected here for the first time, are spotty in the way first efforts usually are. They veer between swoony self-absorption, overwrought aestheticism, and expansive, surprisingly muscular works with real imaginative vigor.
Nabokov never really lost his taste for precious little scenes or labored exercises in style - they appear late in the book, too - but the stories that don't really work are often partly redeemed by something: a phrase, a sense of character or just his ease with abnormality.
No one had a greater, more refined talent than this devout anti-Freudian for mapping out all the heavens and hells the mind can forge when it's up against the wall.
The delirious jungle explorer of "Terra Incognita" keeps seeing mirages of a bedroom the kind where someone like him just might be having a fever dream of a lost expedition.
The unfortunate tourist of "Cloud, Castle, Lake" takes a "pleasure trip" with a group of like-faced, like-minded vulgarians, who nearly torture him to death after he tries escaping to the castle he dreamed of the night before.
The porter in "A Matter of Chance" commits suicide in despair over his missing wife, unaware she's a passenger on his train.
And, almost always, there's that intoxicating style, those deep-focus observations that turn the ordinary and banal into the strange and unique. Look at the attention he pays to faces, always showing an artist's admiration for the creative process, both his and God's:

His face was ill-shaven, yellowish and long, and all of him looked clumsy, emaciated and lugubrious, as if nature had suffered from toothache when creating him.
"An Affair of Honor"

His face looked as if it had been fashioned of buttery modeling clay, with its slimy mustache and unexpected furrows.

Her mien was airy and impetuous, her mouth so red it seemed the Creator had scooped up some torrid carmine and slapped a handful on the nether part of her face.

Other descriptions, like this one of the mother in "Signs and Symbols," can simply break the heart. Note the exquisite parallel:
Her drab gray dress was done anyhow. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the fault-finding light of spring days.
We also have the pathetic Luzhin in "A Matter of Chance," who dreams of ending it all by putting his cocaine-soaked head between connecting trains: "It would burst like a soap bubble and turn into iridescent air." Ivanov's impending heart-attack in "Perfection" turns his body into an "asymmetrical archipelago of pain."
One of Nabokov's favorite words is palpate, to examine by touch; a good description of his own Flaubertian passion for le mot juste. There are a lot of perfect words in these 650-odd pages, although I admit a number fell on imperfect ears. Just what kind of instrument is a "soubrette"? What is a "harsh chitinous crust"? Or "elementary allobiotic phenomena"? Ditto "araucaria," "furunculosis," "cinerous," "frass," "calvities," "mastic," "fa ence," "gules," "purpure," "voilette," "elytra," "merds" and "cacological."
Whatever these words mean, (and I forgot 10 minutes after I looked them up) they reveal an artist who knows that the illusion won't work without attention to exacting details. It's this very sense of detail of the working parts behind the surface of the world that lets Nabokov reign over his fictive worlds like Prospero on his island.
For all its forgiveable flaws, this unique, variegated collection proves he can still out-conjure all the magical realists who have appeared in his wake.

Rodney Welch is a frequent contributor of film and book reviews for POINT.

No one had a greater, more refined talent than this devout anti-Freudian for mapping out all the heavens and hells the mind can forge when it's up against the wall.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 2/15/95