20
May
14

Transatlantic Fiction: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

The Stories of Vladimir NabokovThe Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

As near as complete as possible, Vintage’s collection of Nabokov’s short fiction is a fascinating look at the progression of a novelist, changing not just styles and settings but entire languages.

This single, large volume collects just about all of Nabokov’s short fiction: 68 stories, ranging from the early 1920s to the mid 50s, when he was firmly settled in the United States. They generally run along the same playful lines as his novels, often twisting and toying with reality and often with a surprising sense of humor. A couple of the stories here are laugh-out-loud funny.

Not all the stories worked for me, though. Some of the early ones are clunkers, with Nabokov trying different styles and angles. Gods, for example, is a direct address to the reader (“We go out on the balcony together…”). Others are relatively brief, over in just a couple of pages.

But generally, most of the stories are pretty good. And a few of the better known stories are great: The Visit To the Museum, which juxtaposes the nostalgia of émigré life with a never-ending, twisting museum, comes to mind immediately. So do two related stories: Ultima Thule and Solus Rex, both of which came from an abandoned novel with echoes of later works like Pale Fire and Bend Sinister: totalitarian governments, kings in exile or the relationship between writer and subject. In particular, those two offer a tantalizing look at what could’ve been.

There are some good deep cuts, too. Take La Veneziana, a work newly translated by his son Dmitri for this collection. Set in a remote English estate, this story centres on a never-explored love triangle, a famous painting and an art restorer who claims he can literally disappear into a canvas. It’s a fun, playful story and a little reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight at times, but wholly it’s own.

Maybe I shouldn’t namedrop so many books, though. As Dmitri notes in his introduction, this short fiction is rewarding if you know Nabokov’s history, but it’s perfectly enjoyable for the Nabokov newbie, too.

The translation is clear and easy to read, although you can usually tell the stories Vladimir had a hand in, and it’s remarkable how well he wrote in different languages. He wrote most of the stories here in Russian, usually for émigré magazines or newspapers. But as it goes along, he experimented with writing in French before settling on English once he settled in the US. He really was a remarkable talent.

Rating: 8/10. The Stories of… is an all-encompassing collection that’s great for fans of short fiction and of Nabokov’s more famous novels. The size of the book might score off those that are new to him (it’s nearly 700 pages), but I think this is a better collection than the earlier, smaller collections like Details of a Sunset: not only do you get more bang for your buck, but the notes in the back is handy when wanting to learn a little about each story’s history. Recommended!

Related: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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