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SEARCHING FOR THE AUTHORS HAND: NARRATORS, READERS, AND THE FICTIVE WORLD IN VLADIMIR NABOKOVS SHORT FICTION By LAURA HAMPTON A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the sponsorship of Dr. David Schatz Sarasota, Florida April 2009
ii Acknowledgements Id like to thank my thesis s ponsor Dr. Schatz, whose inspiring classes introduced me to Ru ssian literature and whose mentorship profoundly enriched my college experience. Id also like to thank the other committee members Dr. Dimino and Dr. Myhill, for working with my thesis and challenging me throughout the years. Finally, extreme thanks to my family and friends, for their boundless encouragement and unceasing beauty.
iii Table of Contents Acknowledgements ii Introduction 1 Chapter One: Peering Through the Clear Pane: The Resurr ective Fiction of Mademoiselle O 7 Chapter Two: Taming Lifes Themes: Glimpses of the Authors Hand in Recruiting 22 Chapter Three: Decoding the Undulation of Things: Referentia l Mania and the Role of the Reader in Signs and Symbols 37 Conclusion 52 Works Cited 55 Works Consulted 57
iv THE SEARCH FOR THE AUTHORS HAND: NARRATORS, READERS, AND THE FICTIVE WORLD IN VLADIMIR NABOKOVS SHORT FICTION Laura Hampton New College of Florida, 2009 ABSTRACT In this thesis I explore the various interactions between writing, narrators, and readers in Vladimir Nabokovs short fiction. In the first chapter I discuss Mademoiselle O, and the narrators attempt to retrieve the memory of his childhood governess from the past. By weaving detailed memories in to a story, the narrator helps anchor her memory in the present, and achieves greater understanding of her character. The theme of writing lives continues in the second chap ter on Recruiting. The narrator tells a detailed story about a man who is actually an invented character, inspired by a stranger the narrator sees on a bench. Once this is reve aled, the story can be read as a record of the narrators creative process, and a guide for seeking artistic patterns within myriad details. In my third chapter, the search fo r patterns becomes problematic with Signs and Symbols. Here, readers are tempted to e ngage in referential mania and follow seemingly blatant symbols which may indicate a characters impending death. This story highlights the difference between teasing out artistic patterns and expecting events to adhere to a fixed, pre-determined track. Dr. David R. Schatz Division of Humanities
1 Introduction Many of [Nabokovs] more substantially drawn characters often seem to labor under the same recursive burden in the narratives they inhabit. Like their author, the lucid loners seek just such an exit, seek to tear a hole in the fabric of time and escape to some contiguous realm, some more satisfying past time in the presence of people they loved and lost, or a vantage point from which they can at least glimpse or dream of some hearte ning design behind the gloomy tenderness and topsyturvical coincidence of their lives. Zoran Kuzmanovich, Strong Opinions and Nerve Points: Nabokovs Life and Art, 24 Vladimir Nabokovs writing is explicitly c oncerned with the relationship between fiction and life, and fictions potential for elucidating certain aspects of existence. His work often centers upon characters struggling to reclaim their past, orient themselves in their present, and decipher meaning amongst lifes infinite detail and events. Often, characters participate in these activities through writing or other forms of creation. The prevalence of author characters reveals th e constructed nature of fiction while simultaneously exploring its complicated relatio nship to real life. Characters who are not explicitly writers often engage in the sa me search for meaning and orientation in an
2 infinitely diverse and complicat ed world; a world where each detail potentially hints at a heartening design behind the events in their lives. My thesis focuses on three of Nabokovs short stories which I feel succinctly embody these ideas and concerns: Mademoi selle O (1939), Recruiting (1935), and Signs and Symbols (1946). Mademoiselle O and Recruiting are written in the first person while Signs and Symbols is written in third person. In Mademoiselle O, I focus on how Nabokovs narrator works as a reanimator through using fiction to re-create a person from his pa st. The narrator seeks to resurrect his childhood governess through wr iting. His attempt highlights fictions generative capabilities and both the restorativ e and distancing propertie s which result. In order to restore the memory of Mademoiselle O, the narrator must in tertwine his specific memories with fictions generative nature in order to create a resur rective fiction to save her from the progression of time. Recruiting begins with th e story of a man named Vasiliy. This story becomes doubly fictional when the narrator reveals that Vasiliy is an imagined character inspired by a stranger sitting beside the narrator on a bench. Through writing him, the narrator shapes the stranger into a character for his ow n novel. This revelation forces the reader to re-examine the various details of Vasiliys life in a new light. I will also briefly address another occurrence of this phenomenon which occurs in Nabokovs novel The Gift when the protagonist Fyodor, a young author, writes a se mi-biographical story of the utilitarian novelist Chernyshevski. By presenting a C hinese box of expanding characters and authors, Nabokov highlights the constructed na ture of characters within a literary text,
3 and provides readers with an example of how to discern ar tistic patterning among seemingly insignificant events. In my third chapter I address Signs and Symbols. In this final story Nabokov plays upon readers temptations to seek out arti stic patterns in life in order to predict the course of things. While the first two stor ies appear to encour age and privilege the identification of recurring patte rns and themes in life, the sons illness in Signs and Symbols presents a much bleaker picture. The story forces the reader to act as co-author; after being presented with a number of potentia lly ominous signs, the re ader is left with the decision to read them as a fixed pattern and condemn the son to death, or to react differently. After exploring how fiction can be re-generative, and the constructed nature of characters, Signs and Symbols reveals the dark side of searching for artistic patterns, and reveals how a too-narrow author ial lens leads to formulaic and narrow interpretation of lifes events. Along with investigating the role of th e author, these three stories focus on various aspects of fictions relationship to life. Through their various instantiations of authorship, these pieces reveal how powerful an effect fiction can have on life, and how its interaction with memory and details can be resurrective, genera tive, or life-denying. To once again quote Kuzmanovich: Given that the act of read ing fiction requires us to read events forward and meaning backwards, we are bound to consider the possibility that our bare, factual material existence becomes meaningful, tr ansmissible, and accessible to us as a human existence only through the spinning and understanding of spun narratives. (Kuzmanovich, 24)
4 In these stories, the narrators and characte rs attempt to either discern or enforce meaning on the events in their lives or some one elses. In the first two stories the narrators sift through memories or details and build cohesive narratives out of them. In Mademoiselle O, this helps to ground a woman from the narrators past firmly in the present, while in Recruiting the narrator generates a character for a novel from the details around him. While these are both arguably positive instantiations of fictionalizing life, the pare nts and readers alike in Si gns and Symbols attempt to enforce a pattern on the story, which would likel y lead to the sons death, highlighting the difference between teasing out artistic themes in life and expecting life to adhere to strict, readable patterns. In an interview with Stephen Jan Pa rker, Nabokov described the relationship between novels and short stories: Many widespread species of Lepi doptera produce a small, but not necessarily stunted, race above the timberline. In relation to the typical novel the short story represents a small Alpine, or Po lar, form. It looks different, but is cospecific with the novel and is linked to it by intermediate climes (Nabokov, qtd. in Parker 69). Although the locations and characters change, Nabokovs short stories provide myriad glimpses into a specifically Nabokovi an universea universe where specifics are everything and where the individual consci ousness is supremely precious. Nabokovs world is grounded in minutiae; it is a wo rld consisting of and built up by countless other worlds. The precise dissection of an orchid, the world of bu tterflies, insects and biology reflect aspects of the human beings and feeli ngs which exist with th em. Thus, a sort of
5 referential mania exists among all things; an orchids thic k petals merge with Adas waxy skin, while unimaginably intricate butterflies fill the air, each litt le worlds of their own. Kuzmanovich states that Nabokovs real ity is always a matter of layers of passionate and precise knowing, not a resti ng place for commonsensical consciousness (Kuzmanovich, 21). This sense of passi onate and precise knowing imbues Nabokovs fictive world. The world of Na bokovs stories is not merely a stage set for characters to act upon, as in realist fiction, nor is it a place distant from the characters which inhabit it. In Nabokovs fiction, each detail fits precisely with the next, even if they seem utterly divergent. His stories simultaneously mimi c the diversity of th e natural world and highlight its inextricable relationship to humanity and life.1 In his article Nabokovs Life and Art, Zoran Kuzmanovich states that: In Nabokovs fiction each life follows its own distinct pattern, indiscernible in advance, even clearer in retrospect, but certain moves recur again and again. First, the myth of the return : the futile attempt to return or to relive the past. Next, the myth of arrival : the futile attempt to foresee or control the future. Third, the surprise of the ending a new possibility that undercuts what we and the heroes have foreseen, but in a way that sends us, and perhaps them, back to the beginning. (Kuzmanovich, 36) The three stories I chose to work wit h, Mademoiselle O, Recruiting, and Signs and Symbols succinctly embody Kuzma novichs distinctions. In Mademoiselle 1 I have read all of Nabokovs short fiction and the majority of his novels, and these three stories stood out as clear representatives of the them es I wished to explore. Working with short fiction allowed me to perform close readings on each text, and made it possi ble to investigate various aspects of each theme. Fortunately, I also discovered a fair amount of critical material which engaged directly with my ideas and interests. The result is an in-depth textual analys is of the three stories, guided and supplemented by pertinent secondary material.
6 O, the narrators quest to recapture his ch ildhood governess is heav ily in dialogue with the myth of the return. The narrators final admission about Vasiliy in Recruiting is an example of the surprise of the ending, while the temptation to read details as signs and referential mania in Signs a nd Symbols are examples of the myth of arrival. Nabokovs interest in complicating our appr oach as readers to fiction often makes defining the nature of the speaker, or separa ting authorial voice from the narrators voice impossible. Many of his works complicate th e idea of authorship, and the authors relationship to the text. In hi s stories he both tempts reader s to and warns them against conflating the narrator with th e author. All of th ese stories have complicated narrators. In Recruiting, the author writ es himself into the story, wh ile in Signs and Symbols, the readers are suddenly forced to become authors when the aut hor lays out potential signs then drops out of the story. Madem oiselle O appears to be strictly autobiographical; however, due to the complications inhe rent in the other stories, it is best to refer to the narrator as strictly narrator, rather th an daring to equate him with the author of the entire text. Therefore, throughout this thesis I will refer to the narrators of each story as narrator, rather than the author.
7 Chapter One Peering through the Clear Pane: The Resurrective Fiction of Mademoiselle O Which arrow flies forever? Th e arrow that has hit its mark. Vladimir Nabokov, A Russian Beauty pg 389 Mademoiselle O was originally written in Fren ch in 1936. Traditionally regarded as autobiographical the story focuses on the narrators childhood governess Mademoiselle O. A slightly different version than the story explored in this thesis also appears in Nabokov's famous autobiography Speak, Memory Written a few years after her death, the story is built upon a multitude of the narrators memories, spanning from personal recollections of his childhood to mi nute physical descriptions of setting and Mademoiselles physical appearance. "Madem oiselle O" is explic itly in dialogue with what Kuzmanovich describes as The Myth of the Return, or "the futile attempt to return or to relive the past"(Kuzmanovich, 36). Many Nabokovian characters and narrators attempt in some way to creep backwards into the cherished pasts they have lost. In Mademoiselle O the narra tor seeks to resurrect his childhood governess by rescuing her from the oblivion of time. "M ademoiselle O" explores the obstacles faced when an author or narrator attempts to "ret urn" to the past thr ough fiction, or to reestablish certain aspects of it in the presen t. The narrator in "Mademoiselle O" must combat not only the powerful effects hi s own, unrelated fictions have had on Mademoiselle's memory, but the effects of he r own personal "fictions" as well. He must combine the generative power of fiction with concrete details from his memory in order
8 to resurrect the true Mlle. O, and make her a permanent soul. In Mlle. O, the narrato r largely relies upon remember ed details in order to achieve his rescue/resurrection of the past. In the opening lines of Mademoiselle O, the narrator states that his purpose behind writing this story is to rescue Mlle. from the fictional stories which hes plac ed her in over the years: I have often noticed that after I ha d bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the ar tist the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the desc ription of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own. (Nabokov, 480) This opening passage reveals both sides of the relationship between real life memories and fiction. Through transforming a memory into a character or object in a fictitious story, it loses its ret rospective appeal. Its natu re shifts from a warm, living memory inextricably connected with the life and mind of the authorit becomes instead an object within the world (something in a book) and an object in a new world (an object in the world of the book). It is granted a ne w life, yet one that is disconnected from the author. In Mademoiselle O, through placi ng his governesss memory in another story, the narrator has granted her li fe once more, but a life that is separate from his own. The narrator states: The man in me revolts agains t the fictionist and here is my desperate
9 attempt to save what is left of poor Mademois elle (480). The narrator s desire to save Mademoiselle reveals a deeper preoccupation th an just preserving her memory. It also suggests that writing this story may be done in such a way that it actually could save her. This suggests that fiction has a genera tive and potentially resu rrective property (the latter which the narrator attempts to utilize) His juxtaposition of m an and fictionist is also compelling. The desires of both sid es can only be fulfille d through the act of writing, yet the writing of the man and the wri ting of the fictionist accomplish different ends. For the narrator, simply capturing M lle. O in prose and placing her in a fictional story is not enough; her former life and identity would be usurped by the newly constructed world of the story. Various details which set the scene of the story have previously been given away as Mademoiselle has. While recalling a much loved set of colored pencils lost to a new, fictional world, the narrator explains the nature of the loss: These pencils, too, have been dist ributed among the characters in my books to keep fictitious children busy; they are not quite my own now. Somewhere, in the apartment house of a chap ter, in the hired room of a paragraph, I have also placed that tilted mirror, and the lamp, and the chandelier-drops. (483) The fictional story is described in terms of a houseonce memories are placed within it, they become a part of it and are divorced from their original settings. This is a compelling comment on fictions generative po wer. The reality constructed within a work of fiction, according to the narrator, is significant enough to usurp lived reality. Thus, it appears that fiction must be lif e-granting in a way, yet not necessarily resurrecting. In order for fiction to become resurective, and for the narrator to rescue
10 the true Mademoiselle O, he must do more th an merely insert her as a character into a story: the narrator must fix he r in his remembered reality. He must apply the generative capabilities of fiction to his own memori es, and the memory of his governess. Although the narrator deals pr imarily with remembered detail, he also engages in the practice of "narrative proxy." In the st ory's beginning, he imagines her arrival in Russia: I can visualize her, by proxy, as she st ands in the middle of the station platform and vainly my ghostly envoy offers he r an arm she cannot see" (482). A long description follows, depicting her travel acro ss the frozen landscape, her apprehensions and fears. Interspersed with this imagined sc ene is a concrete descri ption of the narrator's old family coachman, Zakhar ("a burly man in sheepskin with the leather outside, his huge gloves protruding from his scarlet sash into which he has stuffed them" ). Here, the narrator anchors his scene with actual details, reassuring the reader that even his imagined scenes are working toward th e same goal of accurately "capturing" Mademoiselle. In Nabokov: The Russian Years, Brian Boyd states that Nabokov define[d] the prison of the present in his fiction through the theme of the impo ssible return, (Boyd, 283) or the Orpheus myth. Mademoiselle O is clearly in dialogue with the Orpheus myth. Priscilla Meyer states, For Nabokov the Orpheus myth unites the quest for the lost land and dead beloved with the idea that both can be reached through art (Meyer, 123). Orpheuss journey to the underworld to reco ver his beloved Eurydice mirrors the quests undertaken by various Nabokovian ch aracters and narrators into the past to recover lost people and places. Much of Nabokovs short fiction centers upon bereaved narrators attempting to connect to the past through th eir fiction. For instance, one of Nabokovs
11 earlier stories, Gods (1923), is narrated by a father gr ieving for his dead son. The story takes place as he and his wife walk to the cemetery where their young son is buried. As they walk, the father weaves a fable a bout a chicken who lays golden eggs. After the tale is finished, he assures his grieving wife, You mustnt cr y. He can hear my fable, theres no doubt at all he can hear it. It is to him that its addressed. Words have no borders (Nabokov, 49). In Gods, the narrat or relies upon the transcendent properties of fiction; he sends his story into the past as a messenger from the present to keep him in touch with his dead son. Meyer asserts that According to Nabokov, and to the narrator in Gods, words can reach the otherworld in the form of immortal art (Meyer, 123). Although at first the relationshi p between fiction and the past in Gods appears slightly different than the relationship depicted in Mademoiselle O, by the end of the story fiction functions not only as something w ith which to reach the lost beloved, but something which can capture them and re-est ablish them in the land of the living. Near the end of Gods the narrator reassures his wife: You and I shall have a new, golden son, a creation of your tears and my fabl es (Nabokov, 50). Here, the narrator suggests that through the combination of his wifes so rrowful, loving memories, and the power of his fictions, their son will be resurrected and golden, impe rmeable to time and death. Another obstacle the narrator faces in Mademoiselle O is Mlle.s hyperbolic nature, and her resulting distan ce from reality. According to the narrator, Mlle. soars with the wildest hyperbole when not clingi ng to the safest old saw (482). She continually makes up or mis-remembers scenes with the Nabokov children, often exaggerating them, or adding forced and sometimes clichd emotion: Ah, she sighed, comme on saimait! (didnt we love each other!)
12 Those good old days in the chateau! The dead wax doll we once buried under the oak! (Noa wool-stuffed golliwog.) And that time you and Serge ran away and left me stumbling and howling in the de pths of the forest! (Exaggerated.) (My, what a spanking I gave you!) (She di d try to slap me once but the attempt was never repeated.) Votre tante, la Princesse whom you struck with your little fist because she had been rude to me ! (Do not remember.) And the way you whispered to me your childish troubles! (N ever!) (487). Mlle. characterizes her life through vari ous warped and false memories. Her exaggerations obscure the true memories of the events, and the details which made them unique and personal. The wool-stuffed golliwog is a highly specific object which indicates a certain time period and social climate. However, she erases the detail with a clichd and generic dead wax doll. This passa ge exemplifies what the narrators task is: to consistently correct and re fute her exaggerations, and build them back up into reality. Mademoiselles tendency toward framing her lif e in melodrama or hyperbole also manifests itself through the pictures in her room. The pict ures are all in dialogue with various clichs, or have stories imposed upon them by Mlle. or others: photographs of the nephew who had died, of his mother w ho had signed her picture Mater Dolorosa, and of a certain Monsieur de Marante who had been forced by his family to marry a rich widow (487). Here, the mother of the dead nephew who signed her picture Mater Dolorosa is attempting to portray herself as a religious symbol; she is folding her person into a melodramatic and clichd sign. Another example is the photo of Monsieur De Marante, who, according to Mlle., had been forced by his family to marry a rich widow. This story is most likely false, either created by Mlle. herself to a ssuage the pain of being rejected by Marante
13 (presumably a love interest), or perhaps by Mara nte himself when trying to escape her. All of the pictures carry with them stories built by Mlle. or others which are divorced from the true state of affairs. They are an exam ple of the hyperbole whic h Mlle. has so firmly entrenched herself: the memory contained in each photograph has been so exaggerated and warped that it contains almost nothing of its original subs tance. The final photo mentioned is of Mlle. herself as a young girl: a slim young brunette clad in a close-fitting dress, with brave eyes and abundant hair (487). After viewi ng this one, the narrator feels disbelief in the idea that she had looked like that once: In vain did my eyes probe her familiar form to try and extract the graceful creature it had engulfed (487). Mlle. probably keeps this picture around to attempt something similarto remind herself of what she once was, just as she does with all of her pictures-to make se nse and bring order to a sad life, and improve it by creating memories and stories. These fic tions with which Mlle surrounds herself are de-humanizing; they are generalizations in to which the true person and all of their intricacies are swallowed up. Mademoiselle is still her hyperbolic self ev en in the narrators final meeting with her. On a visit to her native Switzerland, the narrator and his friend seek her out. When they find her, she welcomes the narrator with a tumultuous burst of affection (492). The narrator notices that there is now a picture of a garish troika on her wall; presumably Russia has usurped Switzerland as her new much lamented homeland (492). She is living with the households other aging governess Mlle Golay, even though they had not been on speaking terms when both had been living under [the narrators] roof (492). His explanation for their sudden camaraderie a nd Mademoiselles sudden love for Russia is one is always at home in ones past, whic h partly explains those pathetic ladies
14 posthumous love for another country, which th ey never had really known and in which none of them had been very content(492). Made moiselle probably glamorizes Russia much as she once did Switzerland, in the same way th at she glamorizes all her memories and experiences. During this visit, the narrator realizes that Mademoiselle is almost completely deaf, so he returns the next day with an appara tus to help enhance her hearing. In this final encounter between the narrator and Made moiselle, she tries out the device: She adjusted the clumsy thing improperly at first, but no sooner had she done so than she turned to me with a d azzled look of moist wonder and bliss in her eyes. She swore she could hear ev ery word, every murmur of mine. She could not for, having my doubts, I had not s poken. In [the] past, she had been lying to herself; now she was lying to me. (492) Her only idea of how to please the narrato r is through exaggera tion. Rather than dealing in the everyday or dealing with real memories, Mademoiselle continuously reaches outside of her experience in order to ex press herself to others. This scene, where Mademoiselle denies her own physical experience of the hearing device, is a very literal depiction of what occurs to Mademoiselles actual experiences when she retreats into hyperbole: they are lost. Her tr ue feelings and experience of the world are lost and denied existence. In this story, the narrator attempts to escape what has been deemed by Boyd as the prison of the present. Boyd states that for Nabokov the two most severe limitation on human consciousness were the prison of th e presentour inability to have immediate access to the real past we have lived througha nd the prison of the selfour inability to escape our own minds or en ter those of others (Boyd, 283). Boyd writes that for
15 Nabokov both prisons were transcended in de ath, and tentatively prefigured in life: the first in memory (Boyd, 283). In cont rast to Mademoiselles entrenchment in fantasy, the narrator grounds his story in c opious details. From intricate physical descriptions of characters to setting, the narrator reveals a world not complete but highly specific. Contrary to Mademoiselles desire to contextualize her life within sweeping, universal generalizations (clich s), the narrator focuses on specifics, characterizing each remembered scene not through its participation in a broader, mo re archetypal story but as a highly specific, and therefore irreplaceable and precious moment of life. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov states: here lies the se nse of literary creation to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discer n and appreciate in the faroff times when every trifle of our plain ever yday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right (Nabokov, SM 157). The narrator seeks to re-establish the scenes which help make up his relationship with Mademois elle through recalling th e specific details of each. He desires to present the details so that they can be imbue d with the fragrant tenderness denied them by the undiscerning eye, and Mademoiselle herself. Through this recapture, the narrator hopes to es cape the prison of the present. After hearing news of Mademoiselles d eath, the narrator states that misery was her native element and it alone gave her the impression of moving and living (Nabokov, 493); thus, her element was not the worl d and its details, but instead contrived feelings and reminiscences. This worries him; because her life was based in hyperbolic feelings and melodramatic emotion, he feels that perhaps Mademoiselle is alright on earth, but impossible in eternity (493). The narrator needs to save her from fiction, not only because he has placed her in his own fi ctional stories, but because she based her
16 entire life on fictions: ficti onal relationships, emotions, even ts. He must save her both from his fictional worlds and from her own fictions, which divorced her from the real world and distanced her true self fro m memory. The narrator must employ a new strategy. Through Mademoiselle O, he seeks to re-build Mademo iselles character rather than impose a character onto her. In order to do this he must solidly ground her in life, in the past in order to make her a permanent soul. Here, the narrator searches for fictions resurrective propert ies: through embedding Mlle. O in a story of her own, the narrator brings her to the forefront as an existing person, and attempts to cut through the heavy blinders of time and affect to reach and preserve her true self. The narrator states that Mademoiselle is at her very best when she is reading to the Nabokov children on the veranda (486). It is during these sessions that: The rare purity of her rhythmic voice accomplished its true purpose. I looked at a cloud and years later was able to visualize its exact shape. The gardener was pottering around the peonies. A wagtail took a few steps, stopped as if it had remembered somethingand then walked on, enacting its name. Coming from nowhere, a comma butterfly se ttled on the threshold, basked in the sun with its angular fulvous wings spread, suddenly closed them just to show the tiny initial chalked on thei r underside, and as suddenly darted away. (486) The true purpose the narrator alludes to appears to be Mademoiselles ability to fix the moment in the narrators mind a nd memory. The fact that the sound of Mademoiselles voice reading fiction enable s the narrator to capture the moment with remarkable clarity is powerful. Once agai n, we see another link between fiction and memory, though decidedly different than th e ones encountered previously. In the
17 beginning of the story, the narrator laments th e generative yet distan cing power of fiction, and its effects on his memory of Mademoiselle Later readers encounter Mademoiselles tendency toward hyperbole, and the way in which hyperbole turns memory into constructs and removes the remembered details from the original substance. Here readers witness an interaction between fiction and life which is conducive to memory-building, rather than somehow at odds w ith it. What is the nature of this relationship? As Mademoiselle reads, she is distilling he r reading voice from th e still prison of her person (486). Through reading fiction, she escapes her corporeality : her voice becomes a vessel for fiction which reaches others, in ways her words cannot. This once again brings to mind the father in Gods and his fable which transcends time and space to reach his deceased son. The narrator continues on with various re membered details, and ends with the description of the different worl ds in the stained glass window: But the most constant source of enchantment during those readings came from the harlequin pattern of colored pa nes inset in a whitewashed framework on either side of the veranda. The garden when viewed through these magic glasses grew strangely still and aloof If one looked through blue glass, the sand turned to cinders while inky trees swam in a tropi cal sky. The yellow created an amber world infused with an extra strong brew of sunshine. The red made the foliage drip ruby dark upon a coraltinted footpath. The green soaked greenery in a greener green. And when, after such ric hness, one turned to a small square of normal, savorless glass it was like ta king a draft of water when one is not thirsty, and one saw a matter-of-fact white bench under familiar trees. But of all
18 the windows this is the pane through wh ich in later years parched nostalgia longed to peer. (487) The panes of glass make the garden appear aloof, perhaps like a piece of artwork, rather than something out of real life. This artistic distance, viewing the garden through a frame, allows the narrator to view the garden in a new light (literally and figuratively, considering the color sh ifts). Gazing out the window to the accompaniment of Mademoiselles voice, the narrator becomes better able to appreciate his old garden. His nostalgia for the clear pane also eluc idates the value of memory; while the narrator remembers the image of the garden through the colored panes, the memory he most longs for is the image of the garden through the clear pane, boring at the time. The image of the window panes can be viewed as an allegory for the entire story. The narrator is peering into his memory, and at tempting to link it with fiction in order to revive Mademoiselle. The image of the gard en through the clear pane in the window is an example of the ideal sort of resurrective ar t which the narrator attempts to create with the story. Through the window frame and glass the garden appears s trangely still and aloof (487). The narrator is very concer ned with framing. Due to the distance the window puts between the narrator and the gard en, the familiar garden appears slightly divorced from his everyday experience, and view ed as an object of art, a whole, separate thing rather than just a se tting for everyday life. Viewed through the pane and glass, the garden is framed like Mademoiselles photos. The pictures are an example of framing which obscures the true nature of the object inside. However, through the clear glass, the garden still retains it s new status as artistic object yet the clear glass reveals the
19 garden in its actual state. The clear window combines ar ts power of revealing or indicating the significance of an image with accurate memory. It is through this combination that memories continue to live and the past is resurrected: the past is revived when it is given a new life through art, yet thro ugh art that is firmly intertwined with the lived experience and memory of the creator. Perhaps the image of the panes of glass be st characterizes the nature of the true success of Mademoiselles voice. Her voi ce reading fiction allows the narrator to look through this clear pane; it a llows him to fix the world around him in his memory. His desire to look through the clear pane also clarifies his desire to write this story, and the end he hopes to achieve. While all of her hyperbole may be comparable to the colored panes, at first glance more exciting than the cl ear one, her true essence, the real parts of her life are what the narrat or longs to possess. Rather than the flashy, harlequin exaggerations she constructs, through this story the narrator hopes to see through the clear pane, and capture and preserve the tru e Mademoiselle, not the constructed one. The narrators purpose in Mademoiselle O is to recapture Mademoiselle from the past and from fiction. As mentioned in the introduction, Kuzmanovich states that: Given that the act of read ing fiction requires us to read events forward and meaning backwards, we are bound to consider the possibility that our bare, factual material existence becomes meaningful, tr ansmissible, and accessible to us as a human existence only through the spinning and understanding of spun narratives. (Kuzmanovich, 24) In "Mademoiselle O," the narrator em ploys his narrative to help "understand" Mademoiselle. However, at the end of the story, he wonders, doubtfu lly, whether or not
20 he really salvaged her from fiction (Nabokov, 493). The last specific image in the story is of a swan, a large, unc outh, dodolike creature witnesse d by the narrator on a rainy night in Switzerland after his fi nal visit to Mademoiselle (493). The swan is repeatedly trying and failing to hoist itself into a moored boat. The na rrator describes the scene as laden with [a] strange signi ficance (493). This strange significance is emphasized when the narrator recalls the image of the swan immediately after he finds out, a few years later, that Mademoiselle has died. In the final lines of the story, the image recurs again, as he wonders whether or not the story or his memo ry has truly captured her: I catch myself wondering whether duri ng the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more she than her chins or her ways or even her Frenchsomething perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to that radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness, or to that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancers pale arms. (493) The juxtaposition between the swan and th e dancer is compelling. Perhaps the swans futile attempts to climb into the boat are akin to Mademoiselles continual attempts at beautifying and glamorizing her life Yet the ridiculous efforts of the swan are more artistically true th an the dancer, which could be an example of the image that Mademoiselle wished to achieve through her hyperboles and exaggera tion. In the end, it is not the image she strove for which is wort h preserving; it is her true image, the one characterized by that striving, which reaches closer to her essence, and artistic truth. The radiant deceit she employed when receiving the hearing device is similar in nature. The narrator searches beyond her impossible clai ms of perfect hearing into her nature,
21 and seeks the motivation at the root of the lie. It is the woman behind the hyperbole, behind her ridiculous physicality which the narrator wishes to reach through writing Mademoiselle O.
22 Chapter Two Taming Lifes Themes: Glimpses of the Authors Hand in Recruiting There is, it would seem, in the dimensi onal scale of the worl d a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowle dge, a point arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic. Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift pg 166-67 Question of authorship abound in Na bokovs works. The narrator in Mademoiselle O struggles with his own position as author as he tries, in effect, to usurp both his own stories regarding certain aspect s of Mademoiselle, and the stories with which Mademoiselle surrounded herself. As biographer he must navigate a strange barrier between memory and fiction, inte rweaving both in hopes of achieving an equilibrium which will resurrect Mademoiselle. For example, he shifts between recalling concrete specifics like physical descriptions I can see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly gr aying (480) and acting as a narrative proxy, in order to better elucidate areas of the story which he could not pos sibly have participated in, such as Mademoiselles arrival in Russi a. Since the story is presented as autobiographical, readers trust the narrators descriptions, and feel comfortable with his characterizations. Perhaps we as readers trus t him so much that we are even willing to accept his brief sojourns into proxy, and, if not accept his conjectures as truth, then at least trust their inclusion as somehow beneficial and necessary to the understanding of
23 Mademoiselle that he claims he is trying to achieve through his narrative. This touches upon another crucial point as to why readers in Mademoise lle O are instantly drawn into a trusting relationship with the narrator. He states from the outse t that his purpose of writing Mademoiselle O is to re-establis h a once existing pers on in the face of her fictions. This assertion instantly juxtaposes his and Mademoiselle s authorial voices, ultimately establishing his as the more trustworthy. While the narrator in Mademoiselle O lulls us into a peaceful trust, the narrator in Recruiti ng jars readers out of their suspended disbelief and reminds them of exac tly what they are: readers of a carefully constructed, manipulated piece of art which, no matter how artfully it imitates life, still turns out to be fiction. According to Kuzman ovich, in fiction The joy one feels in being magically and elaborately deceived is presum ably offset by the delight of seeing through disguises, seeing, as in chess problems or biological mimicry, the performance of pretending not to be there(Kuzmanovich, 25). Recruiting explores readers delight which stems from seeing through the narrato rs maneuvers and catching themselves within a text, rather than a sli ce of real life. Written in Berlin in 1935, Recruiting opens with the story of Vasiliy Ivanovich, an impoverished elderly man. Readers are fi rst introduced to him through taking part in his own memory of the days gloomy event, his good friends burial. The majority of the story is told in third person and presents the world through Vasiliys eyes, focusing largely on his internal musings. His thoughts and memories shift effortlessly from past and presentfrom his experience at the gravey ard to memories of his sister, her lover, and his childhood. The internal images are backed by physical descriptions of Vasiliy, his surroundings, and, rather st rangely, interjections from someone who appears to be
24 watching Vasiliy, once referring to him as the recruit (Nabokov 402). The story eventually climbs entirely out of Vasiliys mind and into a detailed description of the setting, which signals the arrival of a man with the local Russian newspaper who sits down on the bench beside Vasiliy. The narration then shifts entirely into first person and reveals that the man who has just sat down beside Vasiliy is actually the narrator. Whats more, the narrator explains that he has inve nted Vasiliys characte r entirely on his own, largely in order to use him in a novel: at a ll costs I had to have somebody like him for an episode in a novel with which I have been st ruggling for more than two years (404). The man beside the narrator is a stranger; the life that readers had come to identify as Vasiliy Ivanovichs belongs to no oneit is an identity constructed by the narrators eye and inspiration. The final lines of Recruiting are in dialogue with Boyds idea of the surprise of the ending; the narrators re velation introduces a new possibility that undercuts what we and the heroes have fores een, but in a way that sends us, and perhaps them, back to the beginning (Boyd, 36). As readers witness Vasiliys remembrances being triggered by the events of the day, th ey recall the connection between details and memories explored and utilized in Mademoise lle O. However, the subtle interactions between the human mind and its surroundings ar e revealed as the fruits of authorial inspiration and end up showing, rather than th e history and mindset of Vasiliy Ivanovich, the generative work of an authorial mind. For example, the different vignettes cont aining information about Vasiliys life are often prefaced with statements indicati ng suddenness or spontaneity. For instance, the image of his sisters lover appears with striking vividness suddenly (403). In the next vignette, Vasiliy remembers his sist er explaining a complex system of tactile
25 perception with no connecti on at all (403). Here, the na rrator provides Vasiliy with an imagined thought process which seemingly leaps randomly from memory to memory. When it becomes apparent that Vasiliys thought process has been constructed by an author, it changes our understa nding of those thoughts. S uddenly the no connection at all becomes a ploy, something said in the vo ice of an author de scribing a carefully constructed consciousness whos e thoughts and memories follow one another deliberately. The narrator dares us to simultaneously take his offhand suggestion to heart and to question it. The supposedly random collection of memories takes shape; it is revealed as a piece of writing, a work of art. Vasiliys mundane and depressing life is exactly what the author needsthrough writing that partic ular life into a character, the narrator validates it as something precious and specific. Even the most unremarkable existences are worthy, because they create an indi vidual, a character, someone unique and irreplaceable. These vignettes are especi ally powerful when considering Nabokovs interest in seeking out arti stic patterns within lives. According to Boyd: Instead of the standard drama of action and reaction, Nabokovs plots tend to show the accumulating pattern of a single life, the whol e distinctive pattern of a heros past, the unique rhythms of his fate, the special design of a persons individuality that extends through a life and often into the moment of death. (Boyd, 35) In Mademoiselle O, the narrator se arches for the special design of Mademoiselles individuality; it is this very same sp ecial design which readers of Recruiting think they are discovering about Vasiliy through the various vignettes of his life. In Recruiting, Nabokov effectively put s readers in the place of the narrator in
26 Mademoiselle O; perhaps the attentive reader will begin to search for certain patterns running throughout Vasiliys experiences, surr oundings, memories, etc, which hint as his special design. When it becomes clear that he is a construct of th e narrator, it does not mean that the readers search was in vain. On the contrary, it prove s that the completely unrelated thoughts and observa tions which float through Vasiliys head were very significantly relatedthey were placed there with care and purpose. Recruiting offers recurring patterns which hint at a creator. The first part of the story catalogues Va siliys rapidly shifting reminiscences, often prompted by his surroundings. In the cemete ry, he thinks of his sister, dead for ten years: he no longer missed her, having got us ed instead to a void shaped in her image (401). This void experienced by Vasiliy is comparable to the void the author suffers from until this story emergesa void shaped in the image of his much-needed character. While still at the funeral, Vasiliy laments the ever-declining state of his sisters grave: the paint of the cross had p eeled here and there, the name was barely distinguishable from the lindens shade that glided across it, erasing it (401). This detail, when examined in light of the ending, also hints at the authors consciousness: in the authors mind, the linden shade and the sisters name swirl together, both imagined details which the author could potentially invoke into ex istence through narration. The final lines of the story expose the source of the linden pa ttern when the narrator takes the departing Vasiliy Ivanovichs spot on the bench: as he had moved over into the shade where V. I. had just been sitting, the same cool linden pattern that had anointed his predecessor now rippled across his forehead (405). The leaf y shadows on the imagined grave originate on the bench where the narrator discovers Vasiliy. With this image, the story comes full
27 circle; it returns our attention to the beginning where it first occurred, and, in keeping with the surprise of the endi ng, it reveals the image in an entirely new light. An image which originally appears insignificant turns out to be a carefully placed signal, a hint at the authors existence. Recruiting is, in a way, an exercise in how to be a Nabokovian artist and reader. The narrator presents a series of details, and it is up to readers to catch the hint that there is something larger at work behind the myriad impressions; it quite literally exemplifies the importance Nabokov places on the search fo r patterns through fiction. The sentences directly preceding and following Vasiliys descent from the tram clearly exhibit this sensitivity test for readers. The portrait of Vasiliys awkward descent from the tram is prefaced by two interjections fr om the narrator, which appear significantly unusual in the narrative. Shortly before the tram stops, ther e is a description of a fellow passenger, a non practicing lawyer, who was also returning fr om the cemetery and was also of little use to anyone but me (402). This first inte rjection from the narrato r rings an eccentric note in a story which had previously progresse d as a more or less traditional third-person narration. This is the first hint. The second o ccurs almost immediately after the first. As Vasiliy climbs out of the tram, the same first-person voice exclaims that was the very moment I caught, after which I never let the re cruit out of my sight (402). Aside from being unexpectedly first pe rson, this comment indicates the narrators presence somewhere within the narrative, unlike a third pers on narrator. An invested reader knows by this point that something is not as it or iginally seemed in the world of the story. These interjections set the stage for the fo llowing occurrences. Immediately after deciding to keep him within his sight, the narrator describes Vasiliys cumbersome
28 descent from the tram: V. I. got off, and, since he was heavy and clumsy, the conductor helped him clamber down onto the oblong stone is land of the stop (402). Just a few sentences down the page, the narrator describes the difficulties Vasiliy experiences earlier that day at his sisters funeral: In the churchyard it took V.I. such a long time and such effort to kneel that the singing was over by the time his knees communicated with the ground, whereupon he could not rise again; ol d Tihotsky helped him up as the tram conductor had just helped him down. (402) The juxtaposition between helping up and helping down, the elaboration upon Vasiliys declining physical statethis quote appears to have been generated from the narrators impression upon watching Vasiliy leave the tram. If one considers the narrators sudden and repeated intrusions in the previous lines, examining this link between events might hint at the narrator s hand; the progression through this sequence suggests artistic inspiration, and could signal to readers that Vasiliys life, at least in a sense, is invented. This instance spotlights the interaction between detail and artistic inspiration; much like the linden pattern, it reveals a direct link be tween the narrators consciousness and the details he observes. However, unlike the linden pattern, its authorial origin is less disguised and more poten tially apparent to the attentive reader. It suggests a direct link between the narrators voice, his visual experi ence, and the events of Vasiliys day. It also follows the direct progression of artistic inspiration and creation: the author witnesses an occurrence and then creates from it. Another aspect of Recruiting which concurs with a portrayal of the ideal Nabokovian artist is the way in which details are recorded and described. The world of
29 Recruiting overflows with vibr ant, often personified detail s. The wind which curls the edges of Vasiliys image of Professor D. is warm and joyous, a comforting, allencompassing presence which softens the gloo my ritual of death and loss. Here, the outside world seems to overcome the harsh real ity of death with its own living reality. Another passage where this pers onification is abundantly clea r is the description of the view from the bench: A wet red hose lay across the entire lawn in the center of a small public garden and, a little way off, radiant water gushed from it, with a ghostly iridescence in the aura of its spray. Between some hawthorn bushes and a chalet style public toilet, a dove-gray street was visible; ther e, a Morris pillar covered with posters stood like a fat harlequin, and tram after tram passed by with a clatter and whine. (404) The trams whine, the pillar becomes a harlequinthe narrator captures his world through dazzling personification. It is an almost sympathetic world, populated with nearly human objects. Just as in Mademoise lle O, the details in Recruiting breathe life into the story and its characters. The na rrators attention to detail acts both waysit not only initiates the constructi on of a character (who the author has been trying to create, apparently, for years), but it also exposes th e narrators appreciation for the world around him. As the narrator regards the world th rough Vasiliys eyes, it all sparkle[s] through and through with vitality, novelt y, participation in ones des tiny (404). The narrator becomes aware of the brillia nce that surrounds him by exam ining it through a creative lens. In a Nabokovian sense, this is art at it s most effective. This brings to mind the sense of literary creation Nabokov espouses in Speak, Memory :
30 I think that here lies the sense of li terary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindl y mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderne ss that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when ever y trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right. (Nabokov, S M 137) The narrator in Recruiting taps into this sense of creation when he regards the world around him; his ebullient descriptions capture the moment complete with all its inherent fragrant tenderness and vibrancy. He also imbues Vasiliy with this sense. After Vasiliy lowers himself laboriously ont o the bench, the narrat or remarks I would like to understand, though, whence comes this ha ppiness, this swell of happiness, that immediately transforms ones soul into some thing immense, transp arent, and precious (402). Following this descrip tion of happiness, the narrator lists various reasons why Vasiliy would commonly be considered unhappy: After all, just think, here is a sick old man with the mark of death already on him; he has lost all his loved ones: his wi fe left him his reader, friends, and namesake dear Vasiliy Ivanovich Maler, tortured to death by the Reds in the civil war years; his brother, who died of cancer in Kharbin; and his sister. (403) However, despite being tired, lonely, fat, [and] ashamed, Vasiliy swells with an almost indecent kind of joy of unknown origin, which more than once in the course of his life, had surprised him by its sudden onset (403). In spite of his rather grim physical circumstances, happiness transports Vasiliy, trumping the sad trappings of his day and existence. Vitality also trumps gloom in the cemetery: while Vasiliy attempts to focus on the deceased Professor D, the aforementioned warm joyous July wind keeps
31 rippling and curling [the image of the deceased ], and tearing it out of his grasp (401). Similarly, the humble ritual of the funeral is punctuated by the secular stir of the boughs overhead (401). Even in a setti ng permeated by death, the lively world repeatedly disrupts Vasiliys ability to focus on death. Even the memory of his sisters declining grave fails to depress him; desp ite Vasiliys dismay at the thought, the encroaching linden pattern and resulting erasur e of her name does not equate an erasure of her ; it instead promptly returns her to Vasiliys memory. As he imagines the shade dissolving the association between his sist er and the trappings of death, copious memories of her person and his love for her leap forthshe comes back to life: His thoughts kept slipping off into that corner of his memory where, with her inalterable habits, his sister was matter-of-factly returning from the dead (401). Just as in Gods, fiction once again overcomes death: its gene rative powers create a situation in which a man at a funeral isnt focused on mortality, but on the brilliant summer weather. When the narrator fully enters the stor y, he explains the na ture and origin of Vasiliys indecent, inexplicable happiness. As he sits beside Vasiliy, marveling at the character he has created (I was so pleased with him! He was so capacious!) the narrator declares, by an odd comb ination of emotions I felt I was infecting that stranger with the blazing creative happiness that sends a chill over an arti sts skin. I wished that V. I. might share the terrible power of my bliss (405). The bliss which overcomes Vasiliy stems from the narrators creative b liss catalyzed through creating him (Vasiliy). In Nabokovs Early Fiction Julian Connolly suggests that This unexpected surge of joy manifests a Nabokovian impulse to find an emo tional counter to the specters of death and pain (Connolly, 186). If this surge of creativ e bliss works as Conno lly suggests it does,
32 then it supports the idea which motivates the narrator in M ademoiselle O and Gods that art ultimately trumps death in the fight over memory and permanence. Recruiting is not the only story in which an author experiences the thrill of artistic creation. For instance, in an earlier story entitled Torpid Smoke (1935) a young amateur author experiences creative bliss, which removes him from his drab settings. Even through he refers to his poems as puer ile [and] perishable he is still enraptured: but no matter: at this moment I trust the ra vishing promises of the still breathing, still revolving verse, my face is wet with tears, my heart is bursting with happiness, and I know that this happiness is th e greatest thing existing on ear th (400). If Recruiting is read as a sort of how to manual for the aspiring Nabokovian artist, then the creative bliss experienced in the end is a part of th e reward. Not only does an artist experience the world unfettered by the mundane, but he or she also encoun ters the thrill of inspiration and creation, which, to Nabokov, is incomparable. However, perhaps this creative bliss has other, further reaching effects than merely pleasure for the author. Connolly suggests: This process of infection represents a vital progression in the theme of emotional communication . Solitude can devastate the human soul, and empathic communication offers a salutary out let. Here, it is the artist figure himself who wishes to share his sensations with another so that he might lighten the others perceived isolation and sorrow. This impulse displays an integral feature of the artist figures emotional orientation: he is not exclusively parasitic but rather is outer-directe d as well. He does not manipulate or interfere with the other, but uses his creative visions to fuel his art. (Connolly, 186)
33 In this light, authorial joy for ones su bject may actually inspire empathy and a desire for communication. A lthough in Recruiting one cannot assume that either the narrator or Vasiliy is a real person who exists outside of the story, the narrators desire to share his joy with Vasiliy suggests that th e yearning for communion may be inherent to the artistic process. As the narrator describe s his delight, he explains that he wishes to share it with Vasiliy in hopes that it woul d cease being a unique sensation and be accessible to two people at least, becoming thei r topic of conversation and thus acquiring rights to routine existence, of which my wild, savage, st ifling happiness is otherwise deprived (405). The narrator wi shes to express his pleasure so that it may take on an existence beyond him, and become established in the outside world. Perhaps if it did, everyone would be privy to the worldview of the Nabokovian artist, and would therefore experience life as the narrator does: shot th rough with vitality, nove lty, and participation in ones destiny (404). Connollys quote also addresses another face t of the ideal artist: his or her creative constructions do not interf ere with the subject; rather, they use the subject for inspiration. The narrator in R ecruiting does not attempt to verify his imaginings; their verity is irrelevant. At one point he exclaims What did I care if this fat old gentleman was perhaps not Russian at all? (404) His acknowledgement of the likely enormous disparities between Vasiliy and the actual person beside him negates any claim that he is being willfully indifferent or insensitive. The narrator is inspired by the man beside him, nothing more: his artistic cr eations do not lead him to pass judgment or make assumptions; he knows they are mo st likely untrue. The willful disregard for reality displaye d by the narrator in Recruiting exists in other Nabokovian narrators. Another author character who engages in a similar sort of
34 narration is the young writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in Nabokovs novel The Gift (1963). In The Gift chapter four consists entirely of the prota gonists (Fyodors) critical biography of Nikolai Chernyshevski, a prominen t utilitarian novelist and social critic from the 1860s. Fyodors biography stirs up considerable scanda l upon its publication, much like the actual publication of The Gift, which initially omitted chapter four entirely. In his biography, Fyodor treats Chernyshevski as if he were a character. He supplements factual events and dates with various imagined situations which he could not possibly verify. Rather than stick to recording ba sic facts, Fyodor, like the narrator in both Mademoiselle O and Recruiting, seek s patterns and recurring themes in Chernyshevskis life which will contribute more to creating an overall sense of the man, rather than just a two-dimens ional historical figure. Acco rding to Connolly to convey the tenor of Chernyshevskis life and fate, Fyodor adopts an unusual stance: he treats Chernyshevski as if the historic al figure were a literary char acter . he turns up subtle repetitions and connections in Chernyshevsk is life and treats them as one would themes in fiction (Connolly, 145). In th e beginning of the Ch ernyshevski biography, entitled The Life of Chernyshevski Fyodor immediately begins laying out certain themes he sees in Chernyshevskis life: Her e the author remarked that in some of the lines he had already composed there conti nued without his knowledge a fermentation, a growth, a swelling of the pea, or, more prec isely: at one or another point the further development of a given theme became manifest (Nabokov, TG, 214). This intertwines the concepts of fiction as a generative force, and the id ea of artistic pa tterns throughout everyday life. Not only does Fyodor notice themes running th rough Chernyshevskis life, but they grow before his eyes, aided only by his narration. Fyodor himself makes the
35 statement most in line with this idea in the middle of chapter four: the motifs of Chernyshevskis life are now obedient to me I have tamed its themes, they have become accustomed to my pen (Nabokov, TG 236). Here, we have an intensification of the idea that a life can only be truly underst ood through the lens of ar t or a narrative. The Gift and Recruiting both toy with readers willingness to suspend disbelief, to follow a narrator willingly into places they know that very narrator could never penetrate. In contrast with Mademoisell e O, readers of Recruiting have the rug pulled from under them. Recruiting showcases fictions unbridled generative powers. It is an example of the forceful sorts of narratives which threatened to deprive the narrator in Mademoiselle O of his memori es of his governess. For instance, in the storys final pages, the narrator reveals how he came to imagine Vasiliys sister: since something about the soft features of his full clean-shaven face reminded me of a Moscow sociopolitical lady named Anna Aksakov, wh om I remembered since childhood I made her his sister (404). Rather than try to anchor them in his memory, the narrator in Recruiting collects his childhood memories of Anna Aksakov and willfully gives them away to the character of Vasiliy, where they take on new shape and significance as his deceased sister. After describing the view from the be nch, the narrator can no longer resist entering the scene. He swiftly introduces the man with a Russian newspaper; upon his arrival the narrator remarks, It is difficult fo r me to describe this man; then again, it would be useless, since a self -portrait is seldom successful, because of a certain tension that always remains in the expression of th e eyes (404). The narrator makes his presence known, but his true relationship to Vasiliy is still unclear. The appearance of the Russian
36 man marks the great shift in the story. The voice switches entirely to first person as the narrator describes the birth of Vasiliy. After revealing to r eaders that he himself is the Russian man, the narrator immediately shocks readers by asking Why did I decide that the man next to whom I had sat down was na med Vasiliy Ivanovich? (404). After this question the narrator describes how the charac ter of Vasiliy came about, recalling various details from his surroundings and memories of his personal experien ces, and how their interactions with the man beside him formed a character: Why did I decide that the man next to whom I had sat down was named Vasiliy Ivanovich? Well, because that blend of name and patronymic is like an armchair, and he was broad and soft, with a large cozy face Professor Ds obituary occupied a prominent place in the pa per, and that is how, in my hurry to give V. I.s morning some sort of sett ing as gloomy and typical as possible, I happened to arrange for him that trip to the funeral (404). This final revelation, this litany of the creative process, even further emphasizes this storys potential use as a guide for aspi ring Nabokovian artists and readers alike. It not only hints at significant patterns throughout the narrativ e, but it is essentially a characterization of a fiction writers artistic process. Whether or not the narrator on the bench is Nabokov is irrelevant. The narrator s true identity or whether or not his identity extends beyond the storys boundaries does not affect the storys power.
37 Chapter Three Decoding the Undulation of Things: Referential Mania and the Role of the Reader in Signs and Symbols You forget, my good man, that what the artist perceives is, primarily, the difference between things. Vladimir Nabokov, Despair pg 41 In Recruiting, the reader witnesses the inner workings of an authorial mind. Although this is arguably what occurs within stories in general, the narrator in Recruiting provides a nearly step-by-step dissection of ch aracterization and narrative creation. Through this portrayal, the reader learns how to identify the hints of the authors hand, and therefore identify the artistic significance of seemingly unrelated and perhaps mundane details. Through the surprise of the ending , attentive readers can revisit the storys details a nd discern the subtle artistic patterns behind them. Although seeking patterns within the mi nutiae of life can reveal thei r beauty (as in Recruiting) and help to gain greater unders tanding (as in Mademoiselle O, ) the desire to seek out discernable and traceable patterns can easily become stifling and cont rived. In Signs and Symbols, Nabokov explores the negative cons equences of selectively shaping ones perception of details and forcing them to follow a predetermined pattern, rather than teasing out patterns from the myriad details of life. Signs and Symbols was written in Englis h in 1946. It tells the story of a day in the life of an old migr couple and their mentally ill son. Unlike Mademoiselle O and
38 Recruiting, Signs and Symbols is written in third person (omniscient) perspective, and remains consistently so for the duration of the story. It is separated into three sectionsthe third section is the only one which contains dialogue. The story begins when the couple attempts to visit their sons sanatorium in order to bring him a birthday present. Their son suffers from referential mania, a mental disorder which causes him to imagine that everything happening around him is a veiled referen ce to his personality and existence ( SS 599). Due to his affliction, most potential birthday gi fts are off limits, as he regards man-made objects as either hi ves of evil, vibrant with malignant activity that he alone could perceive or gross comforts for whic h no use could be found in his abstract world (598). With this in mind, th e couple sets out to the sanatorium with an innocent trifle for a gift, a basket of ten fruit jellies (598). Signs and Symbols is characterized by a strong sense of detachment and pervasive silence. The husband and wife are both elderly Jewish migrs, and their sense of exile permeates the story. The first pa ge instantly exposes their exile-induced dependence. Only two of the couples family members live in America, one of whom is the husbands brother Isaac. The husband who in the old country had been a fairly successful business man is now dependent on Isaac, whom he and his wife seldom [see] and nicknamed the prince ( 598). The husband has suffered two-fold from exile: he has lost his ability to communicat e and can no longer provide for his family. The other relation the couple ha s in America is, of course, their son. Yet their son is completely unreachable due to hi s referential mania, not only to them but to the entire world. Both the husband and son are rende red impotent in the world around them: one through exile, the other through madness. Moored between her husband and son, the
39 wife/mother is equally detached. The storys first two sections are told through her eyes; readers are privy to her experience of the wo rld. Whereas for the first two sections the husband is merely a vague presence, his wife connects readers to the events of the day and the nature of her sons illness. In contrast to Recruiting, the diction in Signs and Symbols is remarkably stark. The opening lines descri be the mother and father: At the time of his birth they had be en married already for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they we re quite old. Her drab grey hair was done anyhow. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age she presented a naked white countenance to the fault-finding li ght of spring days. ( SS 598) The adjectives are dull and dead (dra b, cheap) and hint at bleak monotony and age. The abrupt sentences create an austere tone, quite different than that of Recruiting or Mademoiselle O. Also, a detail typically se en as positive, the light of spring days, is instead characterized negativ ely, as fault-finding. It seems as if the sons referential mania might not be too far-fetched in a worl d where the spring light maliciously seeks out the flaws of the people upon which it shines As the couple begi ns their journey to the sanatorium, readers encount er another instance of this negative personification when the subway malfunctions: The underground train lost its life current between two stations (598). As the story progresses, this negative focu s seems more and more appropriate. By the time the couple reaches the sanatorium, it is raining. Upon thei r arrival, they are informed by a disliked nurse that their son has again attempted suicide, and they can not
40 see him because a visit might upset him (599) Upon hearing this news, the couple leaves, taking the gift with them. On their way hom e at the bus stop, the mother notices another ominous detail: A few feet away a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle (599). Back on the train, the wife gloomily watches her husbands hand clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella (599). This evokes the memory of the dying bird in the pr evious paragraph. Thus, her husband is not a source of comfort; his resemblance to the fl edgling reduces him to a symbol of death. The final depressing detail noted by the mother on the way home is a girl, weeping on the shoulder of an older woman (599). Rather th an infusing the storys world with life, the details instead oppress the characters. From the subway losing its life current, to the husbands hands reminiscent of dying birds, the narrator appear s to be imbuing the setting with death, rather than humanity and life. Upon returning home, the barrage of mise rable details reaches its climax. The wife sits alone in the living room after he r husband has gone to sleep, and ruminates on the past, including the acceleration of her sons illness. As mentioned earlier, there is no dialogue until the third secti on of the story. The couple na vigates their dreary world in silence. The lack of agency stemming fr om their exile and compounded by their silence threatens to reduce them to signs as well. When he husband retires, the mother stays in the living room, with her pack of soiled ca rds and her old albums (600). Both cards and photographs are very symbolic in nature. Cards are often used to predict fates, while photos, like the photos in Mademoiselle Os bedroom, are essentially only symbols of the people they depict.
41 In her article Nabokovs Short Fiction, Priscilla Meyer suggests that the intensely negative slant of the storys details is due to the mothers selective reading of the world through the prism of her own grief (Meyer, 131). This statement seems appropriate as the mother examines the photogr aphs, particularly the ones of her son. His increasing ages in each picture, for the moth er, are inextricably tied to the advancement of his illness, and each picture reveals a diffe rent preliminary stage preceding full-blown psychosis: As a baby, he looked more surprised th an most babies Age sixthat was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man ag ed about eight, already difficult to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passa ge .Aged ten: the year they left Europe, the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties. ( SS 600-601) Another character seems to have shared the mothers selective reading of the world. The mother comes across a photo of a certain Aunt Rosa, who lived in a tremulous world of bad news until the Germans put her to death, along with all the people she worried about (601). Aunt Rosa also saw grief everywhere, much as the mother does. She also bears some similarity to Mademoiselle O in her somewhat farcical nature her entire world was constructed by calamity and pain (Bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths (601)). Howe ver, unlike Mademoiselle O, Aunt Rosas melodrama was partially well-founded. Perh aps her sense of tragedy was so active because of the great horror lurking at the e nd of her lifethe Nazi invasion and the Holocaust. The fact that both Aunt Rosa and the old couples lives were ended or framed by the Holocaust actually seems to justify th e storys pervasive melancholy: perhaps the
42 mothers vision isnt overly selective; perh aps the world represented in Signs and Symbols is wholly negative at heart. Af ter thinking about Aunt Rosa and the slow progress of her sons illness, the section ends with the moth ers achingly bleak sense of life: This, and much more she acceptedfor after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her casemere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband ha d to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fash ion; of the incalcu lable amounts of tenderness contained in the world; of the fa te of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of b eautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches. (601) The first two sections of Signs and Symbols portray a grim and hopeless world where mortality taints every event, memory, and detail. There is also a strong sense of anticipation. The old couple must wait on the stalled train, for the bus, and in the sanitarium. On their way home, the wife runs off to buy some fish for dinner, forgetting she has the keys to their front door, forci ng the husband to wait on the stoop. After each period of waiting, their expecta tions are continuously thwa rted. The train stops, the husband gets locked out, the son does not ente r the room. This waiting escalates into a sense of impending doom in the third and final s ection of the story. As the wife sits in the living room, her husband appears, crying I cant sleep (601). These are the first
43 words of dialogue in the story, and rather surprisingly they are delivered by the husband, a silent, unknown presence who read ers have only witnessed thr ough the eyes of his wife. After entering the room he declares that they must bring their son home from the hospital: We must get him out of there qui ck. Otherwise well be responsible. Responsible! (602). The husband begins asse rting himself; abandoning the fragmented image established in the first two sections, he becomes an agent of change. The wife agrees, stating that they will bring their son home the next day. The entire tone of the story shifts at the beginning of section th ree: the waiting, detach ment and silence are discarded in favor of action and connection. The husband and wife step out of their re spective silences and speak about their son, and decide to take an active role in his life. Perhaps the settled gloom of the first two sections is impermanent. After asking fo r tea the husband leaves the room, while the wife is left on the sofa with her symbols a nd relics from the past: she retrieved some playing cards and a photograph or two that had slipped from the couch to the floor: knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades, Elsa and her bestial beau ( 602). In the face of action, and the possibility of bringing their son home, the wife has forgotten the relics and they have fallen to the floor. While the characters are acting, they are no longer bothered by potential signs of death surrounding them. The husband returns to the living room sp eaking animatedly about his plans for moving their son home. However, the telephone unexpectedly halts husbands action. At its ring, the symptoms of his de tachment return full force. On ce again his exile silences himhe does not speak enough English to answer the telephone. He childishly, toothlessly, gape[s] at his wif e; she speaks more fluent English, and must answer (602).
44 The wife answers what apparently is a wrong number: Can I speak to Charlie, said a girls dull little voice (602). Due to the om inous details hinting at death and sadness, by this point in the story both parents and readers alike are probably expecting a call form the hospital, reporting the sons suicide. The husband and wife are relieved, the wife admitting as she hangs up the phone that th e unexpected phone call frightened [her] (602). The husband resumes his excited m onologue, yet the telephone rings again: The telephone rang a second time. The sa me toneless anxious voice asked for Charlie (602). The second phone call heightens the read ers foreboding. In a story filled with apparent signs of impending doom, even b earing the title Signs and Symbols, the second telephone call easily acquires myst erious, portentous si gnificance. The description of the girls voice as toneless and anxious c ontrasts sinisterly with the husbands excited monologue. It seems to be completely in line with the adjectives which characterize the world of the story; it is dull and strangely lifeless. Describing the girls voice as dull and tonele ss, is particularly eerie, considering she may be a child. Also, the telephone fits in with the storys permeating sense of estranged anticipation. The coupled is exiled from their home country, cannot communicate with their son due to his psychosis and their only other relati ve in America is virtually unreachable. The telephone is portentous; it announces the presence of something before the presences nature. In S igns and Symbols it is a phys ical manifestation of the isolated waiting which characterizes the coupl es life. They are disconnected, waiting for the world to act on them, frequently having their expectations ove rturned. They are surrounded by signs with unclear meanings. Th e telephone encapsulates this aspect of their lives.
45 Attempting to correct the callers mistake, the wife explains that she (the girl) may be dialing the letter O inst ead of the zero (602). The couple then sits down to an unexpected festive midnight tea (602). Read ers suddenly get a cheerful, quite detailed description of th e setting, particularly the husband: He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he imparted a circular motion to his raised glass so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on one side of hi s bald head where there was a large birthmark stood out conspicuously and, a lthough he had shaved that morning, a silvery bristle showed on his chin. (602-03) This detailed physical description is more in line with the physi cal descriptions of characters seen in the two previous stories, vibrant and highly specific. It contrasts significantly with the storys previous de scriptions, characterized by spare physical details coupled with grim, qua lifying adjectives (Her drab grey hair was done anyhow. She wore cheap black dresses) (598). The scene is lively; the wife pours tea while the husband begins to read with pleasure the lu minous yellow, green, red little jars of jam they bought for their son (603). Color has entere d the picture. The ja rs are characterized as luminous, imbuing the tiny gift with beau ty and significance. It is no longer an innocent trifle, but a delicate and detailed object which the husband enjoys examining (598). The story shifts surpri singly to bright detail, which seems out sync with the first two sections austerity. Yet, ju st as we seem to be emergi ng out of the gloomy world of portents and doom, just as the husband begins reading the eloquent labels of the tiny jam jars, the phone rings and the story ends (603).
46 The storys abrupt ending shifts th e focus onto the reader. The author pulls back his hand, presenting readers with in terpretive freedom. Through the consistent focus on negative details, the mothers pre-occ upation with grief, and the very nature of the sons illness, the author has seemingly c onstructed a pattern whic h appears to indicate the sons death. However, by leaving the fi nal phone call unanswer ed, the author makes readers decide whether or not that is what the signs actually signify. As Meyer states: the reader must make an interpretive decision, thereby pa rticipating in deciding the characters fate, which places him in the role of co-author of the story (Meyer, 131) What does it mean to be co-author of a story like Signs an d Symbols? Where should a co-author turn when the sons fate is suddenly thrust in to their hands? One might examine the sons madness for clues. R eferential mania, as stated previously, has at its core the belief that everything in th e outside world is a ve iled reference to the sufferer. This excludes real people, for a pa tient with referential mania believes him or herself to be vastly more intelligent than those around them ( SS 599). The son in Signs and Symbols believ es that all objects, both man-made and natural, watch and judge his every thought a nd move: clouds in th e staring sky transmit to one another incredibly detailed inform ation regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall by darkly gest iculating trees. Ev erything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme (599). His in fluence extends into the furthest reaches of the world, where great mountains of unbearab le solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of hi s being (600). If readers take the sons illness as a clue as to how they should read th e story, then it is highly likely that the final phone call is from the hospital, indicating his suicide. On th e day story takes place it is
47 raining, the subway loses its life-current, the mother sees a dying fledgling. Every recorded detail is ominously melancholy. Sim ilarly, if readers ascribe to the mothers idea of life as a series of lossesit seems perf ectly plausible that the son is eventually going to end up as another [lost] joy (601). In Signs and Symbols, the son suffers from an inability to stop constructing the world into patterns which refer to him, and readers are tempted to do the same. Signs and Symbols is an example of the sec ond type of Nabokovian pattern delineated by Kuzmanovich in the introduction the myth of arrival : the futile attempt to foresee or control the future (Kuzmanovich, 36). At the storys close readers stretch to see beyond the ending for a glimpse of the sons fate. One could imagine the parents doing this as well, as the phone rings for the third time. In order to assuage this desire, readers might look to the collection of ominous sign s spread throughout the text for hints. Every detail potentially suggests the sons impending death. Readers assume that the third phone call will bring news of the sons death if they have taken every sign in the story to be an invocation of mortality, and not hing else. However, if this occurs, then readers are committing the same fallacy that has driven the son mad: relating every detail of the story to a single character. In a Nabokovian worl d, such pre-determination is damning. In a world where the patterns have already been discovered, there is no joyous July wind ( R 401). A world which adheres strictly to a pre-discovered pattern is a dead world, a world whose particulars lack the warm vitality of those in the other stories. The narrators in Mademoiselle O and Recruiting sift th rough lifes infinite details and attempt to tease out numerous patterns, to regenerate lost people or bu ild entirely new ones. In
48 Signs and Symbols, however, readers ge t a taste of a fixed world, a damningly oppressive world which crushes its inhabitants through its adhe rence to a fixed track. Rather than accept the apparent fixed nature of the world in Signs and Symbols, readers must fight the tempta tion to follow the symbols blindly, thus condemning the son to death. Meyer states it well: Is the third call from the hospital, reporting that the son has finally succeeded in committing suicide? Have the images of dying things been symbols of impending doom? If we answer ye s to these questions, we participate in both the sons reading of the world as fra ught with meanings re ferring to him and in the mothers selection of heart-rending detail in her view of daily life . Life cannot be read as if it were a work of fiction and fiction should not consist of clumsy, determining symbols. (Meyer, 132) Giving in to the patterns pres ented by this story, and the pa tterns in which referential mania would cause one to imagine, the story becomes formulaic and uninspired. Upon further examination, the seemingly w holly negative details in the story are not as negative as originally reported. Each negatively ch aracterized detail has another side that is ignored in order to keep up the melancholic feel ing. For instance, the light of spring days is characte rized as fault finding ( SS, 598). It is faultfinding due to its brightnessit is brilliant and illuminating. Similarly, when the underground train loses its life current between two stations, the pa ssengers are left liste ning to the dutiful beating of ones heart (598). The subway s may have stopped, but human life persists even in the darkness, in a train full of loyal hearts which continue to beat. The bus to the sanatorium, filled with garrulous high school children is just thatfilled with children
49 (598). Although they might be irritating and w ild, the children are symbols of new life and potential. Finally, as the wife gazes at her husbands hands, which she relates to the dying bird by characterizing them as twitching, (599) she ignore the fact that he is her husband, a fellow human being who has shared her experiences, as painful as they may have been, and can offer emotional support and human connection. A theme of flight emerges with the em phasis on the twitching fledgling and its associations with the fathers hands. It is further emphasized by the sons drawings of wonderful birds with human hands and feet (601). In the same vein, the motivation behind the sons previous suicid e attempt is described as follows: what he really wanted to do was tear a hole in his world and escape (599). This attempt fails because another patient intervenes: an envious fellow pa tient thought he was learning to flyand stopped him (599). The theme of flight runn ing through this story co uld be read in two ways. In line with the stor ys foreboding atmosphere, th e flight invoked through these detail could be equated with death, a flight from life and the world. However, the son attempts suicide not to escape the world, but his worldthe crippling and confining world of referential mania. These avian si gns are not necessarily connected with death, but with the desire for escape, and botched escape at that. The birds the son draws have human hands and feet; they are tied to the earth, much like the poor fledgling in the puddle. He tries to escape, but a fellow madm an thinks he is actua lly flying, and he is restrained. The son is attempting to escap e overbearing confines of his referential mania, which is very similar to the mania readers participate in when they scour the story for signs of the sons death. Perhaps re aders ought to carry out the sons reaction to his madness: he wants to transc end the mania, to escape it. He is forced to be always on
50 his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things (600). Why must readers an d the old couple do this as well? When readers are not blinded by the ne gative emphasis pervading the story, the other equally important sides of the reported de tails are revealed. Due to this revelation, the story loses much of its desolate characte r, and the third phone call no longer appears to point so blatantly at the sons impending death. Just as in Recruiting, myriad and often beautiful aspects of life ultimately overturn negativity. Vasiliy cannot ignore the July wind, just as readers of Signs and Sy mbols should not ignore the other sides of the details portrayed in the story. One could compare the son in Signs and Symbols with the amateur artist Hermann in Nabokovs novel Despair (1965). Hermanns entire artistic ability stems from his penchant for descrying resemblances and recurrences that turn out only to exist in his mind (Meyer, 137). In the novel, He rmann constructs a plan to murder and steal the identity of a man who he th inks bears a remarkable resemb lance to him. Like the son in Signs and Symbols, Hermann believes that he is artistically su perior to those around him, and therefore utterly bli nd to the fact that his doubl e looks nothing like him: He appeared to my eyes as my double a crea ture bodily identical with me He on his part saw in me a doubtful imitator. He would certainly have not understood my comments upon them, the dullard ( D 13). Meyer states that Hermanns flaw is his inattention to detail, and his resulting inabi lity to discern all those minute characteristics that lend individuality and uniqueness to people and things (Meyer, 137). Unlike Hermann, the son in Signs and Symbols is aw are of details, yet sinc e he relates them all to himself their variation is lost on him. The Nabokovian artist st udies life around him or
51 her and, due to their perceptiv eness and sense of significance they find patterns running throughout lives and occurrences. A poor artist like Hermann ignores most details in favor of those which support his view, of ten distorted due to his self-referential tendencies. An artistic lens helps us bette r appreciate all that we see, because it illuminates the innate preciousness of the world around us, like the clear window pane in Mademoiselle O. The lens of the self -referential artist warps things, dimming and twisting the scope of his or her observations. This story implicates the artist as well as the reader. There is an important difference between the patterns and themes s ought by the narrators in Mademoiselle O and Recruiting and those found by the s on in Signs and Symbols. Like Mademoiselles hyperboles, the sons elaborat e constructions divorce him from the real world. While Mademoiselles adherence to hyperbole blinds her to the beauty and variation of the world, the sons referentia l mania renders this variety unbearable and terrifying. The son is tortured by pebbles, stains, and sunf lecks, details which most Nabokovian artist figures notice as well ( SS, 599). He, like the arti st, is obsessed with detail, yet not in the way the ideal Nabokovian artist is. Instead of marveling at the worlds variety, he relates it a ll to himself. Because he im agines that his actions and thoughts dictate the actions of th e world, he inadvertently posits himself as the author. The result is disastrous; the sons life is unb earable. The artist recognizes and delights in the vast variety of life, while the son in Si gns and Symbols regards it as all referring to him, thus presumptuously assuming the unbearable burden of ultimate author, and missing the point entirely.
52 Conclusion These three stories deal explicitly with the interactions between readers, authors, and the fictions they produce; each highlights a specific aspect of the complicated relationships which exist among them. Madem oiselle O explores fictions generative nature and the effect this exerts on memori es. The narrator must simultaneously employ and harness this power and combine it appropria tely with his memories in order to write the resurrective fiction he needs to save and understand Mademoiselle. In Recruiting, readers witness the artistic process through which Nabokovian narrators/ authors create fiction. Through examining the authorial purpose behind the seemingly typical events of Vasiliy Ivanovichs life, read ers participate in a so rt of how-to guide for seeking artistic patterns and significance behind the myriad detail of life. Finally, Signs and Symbols complicates the positive portrayal of the search for patterns within lifes details. The sons referential mani a serves as a metaphor for overly selective readers/ artists who enforce constructed patter ns onto details, rather than tease out themes which have sprung organically from them. Si gns and Symbols forces readers to act as co-authors, implicating them by directly involving them in the sons fate. These stories, like much of Nabokovs wo rk, emphasize the importance of art and artistic sensibility. This is characterized beautifully in the short story A Guide to Berlin. The title suggests fact-based practicality, evoki ng images of tour books and pamphlets filled with subways maps and pinpoi nted must see destinations. The story begins with an unidentified na rrator describing the scene:
53 In the morning I visited the zoo and now I am entering a pub with my friend and usual pot companion. Its skyblue sign bears a white inscription, LOWENBRAU, accompanied by the portrait of a lion with a winking eye and a mug of beer. We sit down and I start telling my friend about utility pipes, streetcars, and other impo rtant matters. (Nabokov 155) The narrator immediately reveals a penchant for tiny, idiosyncratic details. He precisely describes the sign outside the pub, rath er than rely on a more general, sweeping description of his surroundings. He then move s on to describe the important matters, the descriptions of which make up the entire story. A Guide to Berlin is built upon the same sorts of descriptions provided in the opening lines; specific, diligently recorded detail about streetcars, bakers, the zoo, ending with the pub he s its in. At the close of his story, his irritated friend remark s thats a very poor guide . Who cares about how you took a streetcar and went to the Berlin A quarium? (159). The narrators friend condenses a six-page story into one line, st eamrolling over the narrators minute details, shaping his myriad impressions into one ge neral, unremarkable statement. The narrator in A Guide to Berlin regards the world th rough the eyes of a Nabokovian artist. In Strong Opinions Nabokov states: I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to cl ear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam" (Nabokov, SO, 7 ). This sentiment is expressed thr ough the narrator in A Guide to Berlin, as well as the narrators in Mademoiselle O and Rec ruiting. In these stories, Nabokovs narrators [Disclose] the magic in every moment by looking as if with the eyes of art
54 .[the eyes] of a man looking from a tram who can make out the beauty in something so ordinary as people at work: a dusty baker-boy on a tricycle, a postman emptying the mailbox, even a driv er unloading a side of beef. (Boyd, 250-51) Nabokovs writing is often charged with be ing purely aesthetic and therefore divorced from any meaning other than its inhe rent beauty. In perhaps his most famous statement regarding his own art (B oyd, 384) Nabokov declares himself: Neither a reader or a wr iter of didactic fiction. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. (Nabokov, qtd. in Boyd, 385-385) Clearly, the aesthetic bliss referred to here is fantastically more complicated than a mere appreciation for beauty. It is, rather, a preoccupation with a place beyond and behind the occurrences of life and ones ow n consciousness. Just as the narrator in Recruiting wishes to infect Vasiliy Ivanovich with his creative bliss, Nabokov desires to imbue his readers w ith a sense of connection, both among the particulars of life and the people within it. Here, the creativ e bliss which stems from the artistic lens becomes a beam from within the consciousne ss of the artist which illuminates the world and other people, revealing their irreplaceable beauty. The creative urge to capture the world and its characters in writing simulta neously reveals and engenders a desire for connection and communication.
55 Works Cited Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990. Connolly, Julian W., ed. Cambridge Companion to Nabokov Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Boyd, Brian. Nabokov as Storyteller. Connolly 31-47. Connolly, Julian W.. The Major Russian Novels. Connolly 135-150. Diment, Gayla. Nabokovs Biographical Impulse: Art of Writing Lives. Connolly 170-184. Kuzmanovich, Zoran. Strong Opinions and Nerve Points: Nabokovs Life and Art. Connolly 11-29. Meyer, Pricilla. Nabokovs Short Fiction. Connolly 119-134. Toker, Leona. Nabokovs Worldview. Connolly 232-247. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Despair New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ---. The Gift New York: Vintage Books, 1991. ---. Speak, Memory an Autobiography Revisited New York: Vintage, 1989. ---. Strong opinions New York: Vintage Books, 1990. ---. Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. and Trans. Dimitri Nabokov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. ---. Mademoiselle O. Nabokov 480-493 ---. Recruiting. Nabokov 401-405 ---. Signs and Symbols. Nabokov 598-603
56 ---. Gods. Nabokov 44-50 ---. Torpid Smoke. Nabkov 396-490 ---. A Russian Beauty. Nabokov 385-395
57 Works Consulted Appel, Alfred Jr. and Charles Newman, ed s. Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Connolly, Julian W., ed. Cambridge Companion to Nabokov Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Cooney, M. E. (2002). Pocket Wonderlands: Details and the Writer in Nabokov's Short Fiction Bachelor's thesis. Fowler, Douglas. Reading Nabokov Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1974. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. and Trans. Dimitri Nabokov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Proffer, Carl R. Book of things about Vladimir Nabokov Ann Arbor, Mich: Ardis, 1974. Roth, Phyllis A. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984. Wood, Michael. The Magicians Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.