The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage, New York, 1995-1997. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F;10/14.

I read about two thirds of these (there are 67, over 600 pages). In my American fiction course of hundred years ago, I remember being given the option of writing on “pursuit of dream” in respect of Lolita, which I hadn’t read and which wasn’t on the course list. I opted for it, and have been a Nabokov fan ever since. These stories confirm my enthusiasm but provide a bit of history of an evolving imagination from Berlin in about 1921 to America in the 1970s. It’s not clear to me which were originally written in Russian, German, and English. I believe many of the former are here translated by Nabokov’s son Dmitri.

Generally the stories are full of literary playfulness, some of it either overdone or ironic (“horseflies hummed hotly, heavily.”), but there is always darkness and psychological surprise. A lot of the sense of expectation of surprise comes from exaggeration in description:

On the other side of the fence, in a gap between the buildings, was a rectangular vacant lot. Several moving vans stood there like enormous coffins. They were bloated from their loads. (Details of a Sunset)

I woke up because the night had begun crashing to pieces. A wild, pale glitter was flying across the sky like a rapid reflection of colossal spokes. One crash after another rent the sky. The rain came down in spacious and sonorous flow. (The Thunderstorm)

Light on his feet, Nabokov can confront sex and death in a tone of make-believe, like the charming tiny man at the center of The Potato Elf. Although truth may be stranger than fiction, violence and death in fiction don’t necessarily have to occur. Or do they? In The Passenger nothing really happens only because the narrative doesn’t conclude. But Sounds is a reflection on subjectivity, suggesting that the narrative and what really happens can’t always easily be separated. I was reminded of Book of Memories, which shakes up truth and fiction like numbered balls in a lottery machine, but the tone of this is a lot softer. We waste our living moments taking things as they appear it seems to say, and we  could do better.

Beneficence represents magnificent experience in a sad hopeless circumstance. The Thunderstorm is a superhuman fantasy in which a mighty God falls out of his chariot and recovers. But it’s the outrageous but precise description of the natural phenomena that give the events significance. In The Fight this priority is restated. What matters may not be the events at all, but the unique and inimitable play of light and shadow.

But play and reflection occur in our minds. As Jim Harrison says quoting DH Lawrence,

There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself. It is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.

The world we ordinarily take to be real is separate from our minds, but it is part of us because we can only see it using our brains connected to our eyes. Mr Nabokov continually reminds us of this sinister and terrifying ambiguity, and that the world our minds take to be real contains other people lost in a material maze.

Some of his stories set a love scene, paint a seductive impressionist picture with light, establish dramatic momentum, and then rush toward a catastrophe that could be triggered by betrayal or a foolish mistake. But nearly always vivid detail illuminates the awful significance in that cold train of events. There is something Poe-like in the horror of love gone wrong, and suicide, in Wingstroke. Love-related suicide also crops up in A Matter of Chance: a broken man steps in front of a moving train after just missing seeing his wife by coincidence, each of them seeking the other. Preoccupation with death is hiding in many of the stories. But it’s also a death of human sense and meaning. With loss of identity the whole world loses its coherence, in Terror, for example.

The number of stories in this anthology might have begun to wear me down a little bit. I felt the later Berlin stories starting to get a bit heavy and dull. A Busy Man, for example, for me never got started and then just ended. I jumped to some of the more recent stories but also wasn’t especially happy with The Word which seemed an overwrought fantasy about angels and a word, glorifying “word” without the same charm I had come to expect.

But also among the later stories I was again captivated. First Love, for example. I found here the same wonderful direct sophisticated understanding I love in Cunningham and Ondaatje. I’m invited to be carried along in my imagination like the boy on the train. The girl seems almost abstract, but she is touchable and real. Mademoiselle O also deals with childhood, but in retrospect, and again I got to remember my own experience of slow development of instinct about others (emphasis on slow…). But at the same time I remembered other thoughts and feelings from long ago reading Signs and Symbols with its childhood filled with inescapable delusional terror.

Amazing. There is a lot of Borges here, reality and human creativity two views of the same paradox, seen through the imagination. But Nabokov is closer to how I wish I could see the world in…reality. 9.5/9.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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