It’s always been true that most of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary output has been a family affair. Vera Nabokov was always his first reader, editor, “muse” and of course ran his life’s affair, as he was a kind classic European aristocratic effete, something he adored. In the United States, he was of course no better. These stories might be the most family affair as not only did Vladimir translate all of them with his son Dmitry, who also translated most of Nabokov’s Russian writing with his father, it’s also clear that he’s acting as literary executor and continuing to add to this collection in subsequent editions up until at least 2008, just a few years before his death at almost 80. He of course had his own illustrious career as a translator and opera singer. Additionally, several of the stories here were translated by Dmitri alone, some with consultation from his mother, and several years after her death.
He tells us in the introductory materials about these choices, selections, and especially dealing with the previously uncollected stories, at least in English. Nabokov published four primary English translations of his stories: Tyrants Destroyed, Details of a Sunset, Nabokov’s Dozen, and A Russian Beauty. But there remained what he called “bottom of barrel” which as Dmitri tells us is not a reflection of their quality but of their status as the last remaining worthwhile stories. These were sometimes published, often with “The Enchanter”, the ur-story for Lolita, and sometimes separately. Gathered here in the Collected Stories, I’ve decided to treat them as a separate collection, which is also supported by Dmitri’s admitting that in Italian and in Israel they had already been published that way previously.
Bottom of the Barrel –
The nature of Nabokov’s Russian literary output means that for the most part the story collections neither represent a set of themes, a specific time period, or anything else. He was more or less mining them with his son and wife and putting out the collections as they became translated to his satisfaction. Even this uncollected set of works, what I am calling the Bottom of the Barrel because he called them that are still representative of a set of work he deems worthy.
These story range in a number of ways. The opener, “The Wood Sprite”, speaks to a kind magical realism/Russian fairy tale quality to some of his short stories. Others involves a kind of impressionistic first-person narration often about a love affair to the lover, and others still remind me more of the Proustian and Zweigian connections that so much of his writing has to the pre-fall Russian aristocracy that he so adored and group up within.
Nabokov’s Dozen –
There’s a reason this collection came first. It’s by far the best, has the most robust collection of stories, and is overall the most successful.
Tyrants Destroyed –
This collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov, especially after I read his uncollected works, helps to give shape in not only what he was concerned with in his short fiction, but also what he was specifically looking to achieve with his story collections.
There are thirteen stories in this collection and more than about half of them feel like sketches and vignettes, still with impeccable writing, but limited in their focus. The absolute two strongest pieces for me were “Lik” about a man who becomes embroiled in a brutish set of experiences with his childhood bully, and the title story “Tyrants Destroyed” about a man slowly working himself up to commit an assassination, or so it seems.
It’s wild to me that Nabokov claims (perhaps truthfully) that he didn’t read Kafka until well into his writing life because so many of these stories feel like a perfect and beautiful blend of Kafka and Stefan Zweig.
A Russian Beauty –
Another collection with impeccable writing, but not always impeccable storytelling. I am starting to realize I should have braked more while reading through this wider collection.
Details of a Sunset –
This collection I think is the shortest of the bunch, and presents the most vignettes and character sketches version of all the stories. Like I said in other reviews here, there’s a lot of very good writing, but the specifics of the stories themselves are a little lost on me.
“The contemplation of beauty, whether it be a uniquely tinted sunset, a radiant face, or a work of art, makes us glance back unwittingly at our personal past and juxtapose ourselves and our inner being with the utterly unattainable beauty revealed to us.”
“Actually he was a pessimist, and, like all pessimists, a ridiculously unobservant man.”
“You see, we find comfort in telling ourselves that the world could not exist without us, that it exists only inasmuch as we ourselves exist, inasmuch as we can represent it to ourselves. Death, infinite space, galaxies, all this is frightening, exactly because it transcends the limits of our perception.”
“Many fellow exiles of mine denounce indignantly (and in this indignation there is a pinch of pleasure) fashionable abominations, including current dances. But fashion is a creature of man’s mediocrity, a certain level of life, the vulgarity of equality, and to denounce it means admitting that mediocrity can create something (whether it be a form of government or a new kind of hairdo) worth making a fuss about.”
“I had once been splintered into a million beings and objects. Today I am one, tomorrow I shall splinter again. And thus everything in the world decants and modulates. That day I was on the crest of a wave. I knew that all my surroundings were notes of one and the same harmony, knew – secretly – the source and the inevitable resolution of the sounds assembled for an instant, and the new chord that would be engendered by each of the dispersing notes. My soul’s musical ear knew and comprehended everything.”
“Your voice, through the beelike hum, was remote and anxious. It kept sliding into the distance and vanishing. I spoke to you with tightly shut eyes, and felt like crying. My love for you was the throbbing, welling warmth of tears. That is exactly how I imagined paradise: silence and tears, and the warm silk of your knees. This you could not comprehend.”
“My angel, oh my angel, perhaps our whole earthly existence is now but a pun to you, or a grotesque rhyme, something like “dental” and “transcendental” (remember?), and the true meaning of reality, of that piercing term, purged of all our strange, dreamy, masquerade interpretations, now sounds so pure and sweet that you, angel, find it amusing that we could have taken the dream so seriously (although you and I did have an inkling of why everything disintegrated at one furtive touch– words, conventions of everyday life, systems, persons– so, you know, I think laughter is some chance little ape of truth astray in our world.”
“When a hypothesis enters a scientist’s mind, he checks it by calculation and experiment, that is, by the mimicry and the pantomime of truth. It’s plausibility infects others, and the hypothesis is accepted as the true explanation for the given phenomenon, until someone finds its faults.”
“Logical reasoning may be a most convenient means of mental communication for covering short distances, but the curvature of the earth, alas, is reflected even in logic: an ideally rational progression of thought will finally bring you back to the point of departure where you return aware of the simplicity of genius, with a delightful sensation that you have embraced truth, while actually you have merely embraced your own self… anything you might term a deduction already exposes the flaw: logical development inexorably becomes an envelopment.”