Posts Tagged ‘vladimir nabokov


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


Who is Sebastian Knight?

The Real Life of Sebastian KnightThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

A fun, if intentionally confusing book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a nice slice of vintage Nabokov. On the surface, it’s a farce of a detective story: the half-brother (known only by the last letter of his last name: “V.”) of a famous novelist tries to reconstruct a life and track down a mysterious women Knight had a disastrous affair with. And, of course, it quickly spirals out of control, with V. passing judgement on other writers, breaking down his brother’s prose and supplying lots and lots of conjecture.

With V., Nabokov plays around a lot with the idea of truth. The narrator of this book spends most of it insisting that everyone else got the story of his half-brother wrong, while being just twisted enough to seem like a convincing liar, like when he opens a chapter by saying:

“As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible. I have tried not to allude (though a hint now and then might have made the background of my research somewhat clearer).

Coming from the narrator of a book, it’s a curious statement. And like so much of what V. says throughout, it’s misleading at best.

By book’s end, it becomes a question of who exactly Knight is? And for that matter, who is his half-brother, who nobody’s ever heard of before? Who is the mysterious plainclothes cop that helps V. for no concrete reason? And why do so many people have names corresponding to chess pieces?

Here, Nabokov spends time poking fun at everything from literary critics to detective novels. It’s obtuseness makes it a little maddening sometimes, but it’s also pretty funny, too: the last scene made me laugh out loud. And like just about everything Nabokov wrote, it’s his language is gorgeous. It’s amazing to realize this was his first novel written entirely in English! Not to mention under stressing circumstances, with World War Two just on the horizon and a sudden flight to the United States shortly before it’s publication.

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s not one of the Big-And-Famous Nabokov novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight still a blast and probably makes a good starting place for people who feel daunted by Pale Fire, Lolita or The Gift. It’s clever, funny and will really make you think about what you’re reading. Plus, it’s likely the best novel ever written on the back of a bidet.


The Opinionated Lepidopterist: Vladimir Nabokov – Strong Opinions

Strong OpinionsAn interesting collection of interviews, essays and letters, Strong Opinions presents the late novelist Vladimir Nabokov doing just that: having strong, occasionally grumpy and usually clever opinions on nearly everything.

Maybe you’ve read his autobiography, Speak, Memory. That covers the early years of Nabokov’s life. But it stops short of the years many people know him best for: his American years, teaching at Cornell, chasing butterflies across the continent and writing Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire. And forget his years in Montreux, where he wrote Ada Or Ardor, Look at the Harlequins and others.

Although Nabokov occasionally spoke of writing a second memoir (perhaps titled Speak On, Memory), he never did. It makes a book like Strong Opinions all the more interesting: it shows him speaking about the later period of his life in several ways, collecting a little bit of everything: interviews, book reviews, letters to editors, even lepidoptera papers.

The interviews are the most fascinating and make for better reading than you’d think, mostly because of an unusual caveat Nabokov imposed on journalists: they had to submit their questions in advance and he’d write up responses to them, which they had to run verbatim. Reporters could (and did) talk to him, but he’d only permit direct quotations from these written responses. Even now, this runs against journalistic basic training (day two of J-School: don’t do email interviews), but for Nabokov, many bent the rules a little.

So instead of reading a conversation or a Q-and-A session, each interview comes across like little essays, allowing Nabokov the freedom to pontificate on everything from the correct way to pronounce character’s names, how he meant his novels to be interpreted to his complaints about music. They’re a unique look at the man, his working habits and sense of humor. He trashes writers he doesn’t like: Faulkner is dismissed as “Corncobby” and Ezra Pound is called a fraud. He praises Joyce (but only for Ulysses) and relates the time they had dinner together. He fails to remember a student of his who went on to write one of my favourite novels (although his wife remembers him). And he trashes Sigmund Freud all the damn time.

But he’s also evenhanded: his criticism of Sartre is succinct and doesn’t go out of it’s way to bash the author. And in case you thought VN was a cranky hater, he included an essay on stories he liked: John Updike, John Barth and JD Salinger, among others. Book junkies will get a lot to chew on here, seeing what VN looked for in good literature and how some of the more famous Great Authors failed in his eyes.

The rest of the book is a little more uneven: the letters are interesting once you have some context and the essays are a little more academic than literary, but they’re still enjoyable reading: you get to read him going back and forth with editors and writing a blistering broadside against Edmund Wilson, where he goes out of his way to destroy a former friend over a nasty review of his translation of Eugene Pushkin (here’s a great piece at The Paris Review about this war of wits). But even as VN blows Wilson away, he does it with a sly sense of humour:

“If told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary.”

On the whole, Strong Opinions is great for Nabokov fans who want to know the author a little better (from all sides, including his work as a lepidopterist. But if you’re not already a fan, this won’t win you over. Start with Speak, Memory or one of his novels.