Although I had read various Nabokov stories over the years I had never done so in a comprehensive manner, and finally decided to do so. I anticipated that this would be a wonderful read, and of course, I was right.
I was well aware as to how gifted Nabokov is with the language; what surprised me is his versatility. It seems like there is nothing he can't do. Contained in this collection is every kind of character imaginable: rich, poor, simple, smart; there is even an entirely credible portrait of a Siamese twin. There is straight drama, fantasy, adventure, horror and intrigue. There are all the elements of what our English teachers told us make good writing: symbolism, allegory, descriptive power, observation, wit, cleverness, heart, and an enormous store of knowledge, performed in a style that can only be described as poetic. And woven through it are the themes that make up the web of humanity: beauty, truth, and love. It is an utterly splendid collection, as good a collection of short stories as any I have ever read.
One of the things that sets him apart is restraint, or perhaps subtlety is a better word. In, "The Reunion," for example, two brothers meet after not seeing each other for ten years. One escaped the Soviet Union and is living a poor, almost wretched existence in Berlin. His brother stayed, and was able to achieve some success as a Soviet functionary. They finally meet each other in the Berliner's shabby apartment. Most authors would not be able to resist the urge to let this to sink into melodrama. There would be arguments, tears, and recriminations. But not for Nabokov. In his story the brothers simply find that they are uncomfortable with one another, and when they go their separate ways the seeming lack of drama beforehand makes their parting all the more poignant.
Humor and sadness are evident in all of this collection, sometimes in succeeding stories, sometimes in succeeding pages. "A Bad Day," is the touching and amusing story of a little boy's visit to his cousins in the Russian countryside, a visit he dreads because he doesn't get along and because he will be teased. The last line of the story--which in the hands of somebody like Updike would be a devastating condemnation of humanity--is here bittersweet, bringing both a tear to the eye and a smile to the face in self-recognition. It is, after all, nothing more than a "bad day."
But if there is whimsy here there is also great power. In, "Signs and Symbols," an old man and woman make a trip to the sanatorium to visit their deranged adult son on his birthday. Such a simple exercise is made terribly complicated by their age, their lack of means, the unpredictable nature of their son, and the indifference of the hospital staff. Nothing is really resolved by story's end; we are simply given an indelible portrait of the difficult, arduous journey that life has been for these uncomplicated, decent people. It is very moving and also an excellent example of Nabokov's worldly or otherworldly knowledge.
Many of the stories here have to do with, as you would expect, Russians and Russian expatriates. ("Write about what you know!" the English teachers say.) Nabokov unfortunately knew about the horrible experience of being exiled from his country, a country that his stories make clear he deeply loved, and to which he never returned. He doesn't spend a lot of time condemning the evil system that drove him and millions like him away, (although he does, briefly, in two of his earlier, weaker stories), he instead concentrates on those that it drove away. There are many excellent examples of this, but perhaps my favorite is entitled, "Cloud, Castle, Lake." In it, an older fellow is taken on a holiday train excursion he tries to get out of, is coerced into taking part in activities he doesn't wish to engage, and told to forsake the simple pleasures he has come to enjoy; all for--he is told--his own good. The train eventually stops at a perfect little inn, which overlooks a perfect lake in which is reflected a lovely cloud and castle. He wants to stay. Of course, he can't. Sad as it is, the story is also very amusing, and, typical of Nabokov at his best, works on several different levels.
The story also contains examples of Nabokov's splendid use of the language at the height of his power. Our friend observes the countryside from his hurtling train: "The badly pressed shadow of the car sped madly along the grassy bank, where flowers blended into colored streaks. A crossing: a cyclist was waiting, resting one foot upon the ground. Trees appeared in groups and singly, revolving coolly and blandly, displaying the latest fashions. The blue dampness of a ravine. A memory of love, disguised as a meadow. Wispy clouds--greyhounds of heaven." How marvelously descriptive this, and so beautiful that one finds oneself emotionally engaged.
The book is loaded with this stuff. You can barely turn a page without some surprise or delight awaiting you. A twenty-eight year old son returns unexpectedly after many years to visit his mother in, "The Doorbell." In the dimly lit room, he is taken aback by the fact that she is clearly preoccupied with something. Suddenly, "like a stupid sun issuing from a stupid cloud, the electric light burst forth from the ceiling." This, by the way, is another great story. In, "Ultima Thule," as a character is walking on the beach, "a wave would arrive, all out of breath, but, as it had nothing to report, it would disperse in apologetic salaams."
I could go on and on. After picking up the book I decided to read it cover to cover, but after about a hundred and fifty pages, I simply opened it and read the stories randomly. After a time I began to open the book onto stories I had already read, and found that I couldn't help but to reread them. Finally, I became apprehensive in fear that I might have missed something.
But no matter. If I haven't gotten to one yet, I will eventually. The book has already become an old friend, and like an old friend I will return to its comfort and joys for many years to come.