Ivanov is a poor young man with a degree in geography who tutors David, a schoolboy. Ivanov is a variation on Henry James’ “poor, sensitive gentlemen,” with a Gogolian twist (“…some sort of flannel entrails were trying to escape from his necktie”). He’s a dreamer who revels in the romance of ancient maps. His mind is elsewhere: “Sometimes, as he looked at a chimney sweep (that indifferent carrier of other people’s luck, whom women in passing touched with superstitious fingers), or at an airplane overtaking a cloud, Ivanov daydreamed about the many things that he would never get to know closer, about professions that he would never practice, about a parachute, opening like a colossal corolla, or the fleeting, speckled world of automobile racers, about various images of happiness…” He worries about his heart, in both senses. In Serbia, once, he took a lover who died, with the baby, in childbirth. At the Baltic beach he is at first comically overdressed, then self-consciously pale and hairy when he puts on a bathing suit.
Please read the story. Nabokov’s short fiction, in Russian and English, never seems to get attention. He wrote small masterpieces – “A Guide to Berlin” and “Signs and Symbols,” among others. I don’t want to betray the deft reversal, the breathtaking shift in point of view, at the end of “Perfection.” Ivanov’s self-sacrifice, his fatherly commitment to David, is moving and comically sad, and will remind some readers of Stevie Smith’s poem.