Talk about obsession: Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov's Puzzles, Codes, "Signs and Symbols" (Continuum) is a massive exploration of the master's (possibly) most masterful short story, "Signs and Symbols." The book contains the full text of the short story, correspondence between Nabokov and his editor, 33 essays, and a round-table discussion with a screenwriter, a mathematician, and a psychiatrist. Yuri Leving, the book's editor, told Tip Sheet his 10 favorite Nabokov short stories.
Before the author of Lolita and Pale Fire was catapulted to world fame, Vladimir Nabokov wrote close to 70 short stories, mostly in his native Russian. Still a young émigré, Nabokov mastered the genre of short fiction like no author had before: not an easy task for a novice considering that the cramped quarters of 20th century Russian literature was already populated with such giants as Chekhov and Bunin (winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in literature, Nabokov’s one-time artistic mentor and later a rival).
As Martin Amis remarks, Nabokov “does all the usual things better than anybody else”. But, after all, these are only “usual things”. Where Nabokov becomes incomparable is in his ability to engage readers in a kind of a creative partnership. Indeed, what makes Nabokov’s prose particularly enjoyable and intriguing is the fact that each of his short stories transforms the reader into a detective, desperately trying to grasp the master plot, or going down what seem to him like distant murky trails, but often merely following Nabokov’s red herrings.
Vladimir Nabokov’s texts are deliberately constructed as “hide-and-seek” games, and the omnipotent Author finds it particularly gratifying to lure us into his intellectual traps. In 1942, Nabokov shared his experience of capturing moths in a private letter to Edmund Wilson: “It is one of the most perfect pleasures I know of – to open the window wide on a muggy night and watch them come. Each has its own lamp-side manner: one will settle quietly on the wall to be boxed in comfort, another will dash and bang against the lampshade before falling with quivering wings and burning eyes upon the table, a third will wander all over the ceiling. The system is to have several tumblers with a piece of ‘carbona’ soaked cotton-wool stuck to the bottom, and you overturn the tumbler upon the bag…it is the noblest sport in the world.”
Nabokov’s stories glimmer and shiver with stylistic nuances and enigmatic plots. We feel an urge to solve the mystery of every one of his short masterpieces, glowing like lampshades in a dark room. The whole aesthetic experience is at once haunting and rewarding. The night is muggy. The window is wide open. The volume of Nabokov’s short stories lies on a table. We are coming.
1. “Signs and Symbols”
One of Nabokov’s shortest short stories, “Signs and Symbols” has been called “one of the greatest short stories ever written” and “a triumph of economy and force, minute realism and shimmering mystery” (Brian Boyd). The body of critical essays and scholarly articles devoted to this text of only five pages still continues to grow. One of his last experiments in short prose, “Signs and Symbols” is striking for its lexical density and contains a surprising structural element: what the writer described in his letter to Katharine White, editor of The New Yorker, as an “inside,” “inner scheme,” and “a system of mute responses.”
2. “Spring in Fialta”
Deceptively lyric in tone, the short story is poetic and richly metaphorical. Edmund Wilson quipped that “it hasn’t quite enough story”, failing to realize that it is beautiful precisely because of what is not there.
3. “Ultima Thule”
This short story is among the last written by Nabokov in Russian before switching to the English language. It is Nabokov’s leap into metaphysics, one of those works that invite us to ponder over a riddle with a misplaced key. It is up to us, the readers, to find the key and “unlock” the story’s hidden meaning.
4. “A Nursery Tale”
One of Nabokov’s early short stories, it is also one of his most whimsical and erotically charged: a young man named Erwin collects random girls for a harem, promised to him by a Devil in an old lady’s disguise.
5. “An Affair of Honor”
First published in Berlin in the late 1920s and then reprinted in The New Yorker, the 1966 English translation of “An Affair of Honor” tells the story of modern adultery which is to be resolved by an old-fashioned duel. Or will it…?
6. “The Potato Elf”
The cinematic devices of this short story written in 1929 are self-evident. Even the author himself in a later postscript admitted that although he had never intended “to fire a script-writer’s fancy, its structure and recurrent pictorial details do have a cinematic slant.”
7. “A Dashing Fellow”
During his entire life Nabokov fought against representations of philistinism, or poshlust. He defined a philistine as a “full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.” The main character of the story is a prime example of a philistine.
8. “Breaking the News”
Despite frequent accusations of moral cruelty and even disdain for humane causes, Nabokov (the literary provocateur) is a tacit singer of personal pain, and his vulnerable heroes are destined for solitude and misunderstanding. “Breaking the News” is the epitome of such sadness, capable of bringing tears to even the most cynical contemporary readers.
9. “Cloud, Castle, Lake”
A powerful and sad story about a sensitive émigré, persecuted by a brutal group of German thugs during a trip he wins in a lottery.
10. “A Russian Beauty”
In his Lectures on Russian Literature Nabokov tells us an anecdote of how a publisher once remarked to him that every writer had somewhere in him a certain numeral engraved, the exact number of pages which was the limit of any one book he would ever write (“My number, I remember, was 385. Chekhov could never write a good long novel – he was a sprinter, not a stayer”). “A Russian Beauty” is a vivid and bright piece composed by a stayer who chose to run a short distance.