Friday, March 30, 2018

`The Arrow That Has Hit Its Mark'

Nabokov detested mawkish sentiment, the cloying sincerity of fake art. He gave readers of English a useful Russian word to describe such things, poshlust, and defined it in Gogol as “not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” As a writer and man, Nabokov was no cold fish, as nuance-deaf critics have alleged. His work is suffused with artistically earned emotion. The deaths of Luzhin, Lolita and Hazel Shade are heart-breaking, rivalled in modern fiction only by the death and nightmarish reappearance of Rudy, the son of Leopold Bloom.

Take a lesser work by Nabokov, the short story “A Russian Beauty,” written in Russian in 1934, translated by the author and his son, Dmitri, and published in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973). The title character is Olga, born in 1900 to “a wealthy, carefree family of nobles.” Her beauty from childhood is “enchanting.” “She left Russia in the spring of 1919,” we’re told, but no explicit mention is made of the Bolshevik Revolution and its ensuing horrors:

“Everything happened in full accord with the style of the period. Her mother died of typhus, her brother was executed by the firing squad. All these are ready-made formulae, of course, the usual dreary small talk, but it all did happen, there is no other way of saying it, and it’s no use turning up your nose.”

Note the distancing, the refusal to indulge in predictable, formulaic, manipulative emotions. This is not coldness but artistic rigor. Olga lives in Berlin, like her creator. She exists on the fringes of the Russian √©migr√© community. She is poor and unattached. “She was still the same beauty, with that enchanting slant of the widely spaced eyes and with that rarest line of lips into which the geometry of the smile seems to be already inscribed. But her hair lost its shine and was poorly cut. Her black tailored suit was in its fourth year.”

Olga meets her friend Vera, who asks if she has many suitors. “`No, my dear, I’m no longer that age,’ answered Olga, and besides. . ..’ She added a little detail [not revealed by Nabokov] and Vera burst out laughing.” Olga borrows money from her, and soon attends a party given by her friend. There she meets a “Russified German named Forstmann, “a well-off athletic widower, author of books on hunting [German and a hunter: not positive qualities in Nabokov’s world].”

On the morning after the party, Forstmann steps outside, sits on the steps beside Olga and, “clearing his throat, asked if she would consent to become his spouse—that was the very word he used: `spouse.’ When they came to breakfast, Vera, her husband, and his maiden cousin, in utter silence, were performing nonexistent dances, each in a different corner, and Olga drawled out in an affectionate voice `What boors!’ and next summer she died in childbirth [as would Lolita].”

The tersely abrupt erasure of a character is a Nabokov trademark [“(picnic, lightning)”], a tic he may have borrowed from Flaubert. Again, it’s a way of subverting heavy-handed sentiment. He adds a coda, with similar intent:

“That’s all. Of course, there may be some sort of sequel, but it is not known to me. In such cases, instead of getting bogged down in guesswork, I repeat the words of the merry king in my favorite fairy tale: Which arrow flies forever? The arrow that has hit its mark.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Reminds me of that deadly line in Randy Newman's They Just Got Married – 'Anyway, she dies...'