In observance of Vladimir Nabokov’s 122nd birthday I have reversed the conventional custom – giving birthday boy a gift -- and reread three of his finest short stories as gifts to readers – “A Guide to Berlin,” (Russian, 1925; English, 1976); “Spring in Fialta” (1936, 1947) and “Signs and Symbols” (1948). Here, respectively, are the concluding sentences to each story:
“How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?”
“He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again.”
“. . . I stood on the station platform of Mlech with a freshly bought newspaper, which told me that the yellow car I had seen under the plane trees had suffered a crash beyond Fialta, having run at full speed into the truck of a traveling circus entering the town, a crash from which Ferdinand and his friend, those invulnerable rogues, those salamanders of fate, those basilisks of good fortune, had escaped with local and temporary injury to their scales, while Nina, in spite of her long-standing, faithful imitation of them, had turned out after all to be mortal.”
Readers who know the stories will flash on what precedes these excerpts, each a tricky variation on the O. Henry ending. Nabokov would have rejected such a description, of course, but he seldom let disdain for traditional storytelling, or his taste for formal pyrotechnics, get in the way of a satisfying story. We think of him as a parodist, a subverter of narrative form, and he is, but there’s no shame in simultaneously reading Nabokov for plot and character, the way we read Dickens and Tolstoy. I read him for the sense of wonder he brings to the world and to human consciousness.
In The Art of Celebration (1992), the Nabokov scholar Alfred J. Appel Jr. assembled what he termed a “Yes Celebratory Shelf” of Modernism ranging from Louis Armstrong and Laurel and Hardy to Ulysses and Richard Wilbur. Naturally, he shelves Nabokov with them. Little more than a year after his arrival in the United Nabokov shares a self-revealing fable which confirms Appel’s choice:
“I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”
[The excerpt is from “The Creative Writer” (Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, 2019). It was originally written in 1941 as a lecture delivered at Wellesley College. An incomplete version, retitled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” was published in Lectures on Literature, 1980.]