Sunday, March 09, 2014

`The Friendly Hand Still Stretched Out to It'

With Turner, Ruskin and Hopkins, Nabokov is a master of cloudscapes, sensitive to color, density and shifts in shape: “…three lovely cloudlets, holding each other by the hand, were drifting diagonally across the sky; the third one fell slowly behind, and its outline, and the outline of the friendly hand still stretched out to it, slowly lost their graceful significance.” This is from “Perfection,” a story written in Russian in 1932 and published in English, in a translation by the author and his son Dmitri, in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (1975). In the humanized cloudlets we see, in delicate outline, much of the story to follow. 

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.


marly youmans said...

You made that story sound so very enticing. And what a lovely, poignant image at the start...

Roger Boylan said...

Hear, hear, PK. I get more sheer pleasure from VN's stories than from anyone else's, including Chekhov and Pritchett. Only Joyce comes close, in "Dubliners." It's as if he reached a kind of pitch of aesthetic purity in the concentrated space of his stories, like Mahler in his songs. Or Strauss in his.