The Poetics of Subliminal Awareness:
Re-reading Intention and Narrative Structure
in Nabokov’s “Christmas Story”
José Angel García Landa
Universidad de Zaragoza
“The Christmas Story” was not included in the collections of Vladimir Nabokov’s stories
published in his lifetime. 1 Nabokov, it has been thought, considered it was too avowedly
political or didactic in aim for it to qualify as a first-rate story. 2 It contains, indeed, a
caricature of the Soviet (soon to become official) social-realist aesthetic, and a
denunciation of its simple-minded version of reality through a case study of bad faith in a
writer. The value of the story, I will be arguing, goes well beyond Nabokov’s polemics
with the Soviet régime and with poshlost’ (vulgarity). 3 Still, the story is intrinsically
linked to those polemics. It reveals the deepest groundings of Nabokov’s rejection of
regimented writing as it takes us on a tour through the inner workings of imagination,
memory and desire. Showing the way in which this work is more complex than may seem
at first sight will involve tackling some characteristics of Nabokov’s narrative poetics
which account for his elaborate representations of consciousness. It will also involve
going beyond the consciously designed aspects of the story as an aesthetic construct, in
order to relocate the intended aesthetic effect within a wider interpretive frame.
The first hermeneutic step in criticism, though, requires an interpretation of the
story as a conscious aesthetic construct. This involves r econstructing the author’s designs,
both experiencing (at the level of reading) and describing (at the level of critical
metalanguage) a number of semiotic structures and relationships. For instance, the title
places the story within an intertextual framework: the genre of Christmas stories, well
known to readers through such paradigmatic works as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or
The Bells. 4 “The Christmas Story” (“Rozhdestvenstkii rasskaz”) is not the only Christmas
1 “Rozhdestvensskii rasskaz” (signed by “V. Sirin”); Rul’ 25 December 1928: 2-3. The English translation
by Dmitri Nabokov appeared in the New York Review Of Books 42.18 (November 16, 1995): 18-29, and in
the 1995 collection The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Boyd notes that it is the last of Nabokov’s stories that
he did not later publish in book form or have translated (1993: 287).
Tolstaia and Meilakh (1995: 647-48); Kuzmanovich (1993).
To this extent I agree with Kuzmanovich’s contention that “the story possesses levels of complexity
beyond its condemnation of Soviet typology” (1993: 87), although I will argue that the story is far more
complex in ways not calculated by Kuzmanovich ² or even Nabokov.
Naumann (1978 : 114) notes a further intertextual echo of two stories by Dostoevsky, “The Christmas Tree
and the Wedding” and “The Boy at Christ’s Christmas Party”; the latter provides an intertextual analogue
for the starving figure looking through a window at an expensive Christmas symbol. Actually, the window
motif is somewhat of a trademark for Christmas fictions, as seen for instance in some of the promotional
posters for the Nicholas Cage film Family Man, a recent filmic specimen of this genre. Incidentally, this
film also brings out quite explicitly the motif of the doubling of possible worlds which is another of the
potentialities of the genre underpinning Nabokov’s story.
story written by Nabokov, as he had alread y published “Christmas” (“Rozhdestvo”) in the
Christmas 1924 issue of Rul.' R. W. Dillard has compared as follows the gist of each of
the two stories:
Two men on Christmas Eve, one in pre-revolutionary Russia, the other in the
Soviet Union: both of them are distracted by the events in their lives and do not
realize what day it is, and even when it is brought to their attention, neither of
them reflects on the spiritual meaning of the day. One rejects the Christmas tree
that is set up for him on a table, while the other is concerned only with the way he
might write a Christmas story to enhance his pallid literary reputation. Both men
are given providential gifts of great importance that lead one to open his eyes, to
see, and the other to turn away with chagrin from what he has seen. (2000: 33).
In the latter work (“The Christmas Story”) the conventions of the sub -genre are upheld:
the protagonist is an emotional Scrooge (Dillard 2000: 51), thirsty for petty fame not for
his happiness or his soul. But these conventions are also given a metafictional twist, since
this is a Christmas story about the writing of Christmas stories, and ultimately about
writing and (spiritual) insight.
Reflections in an I
A brief summary may be in order. The setting is the Soviet Union, some years after the
1917 revolution. Novodvortsev, a third-rank writer and would-be pride of Soviet letters,
receives in his room an aspiring proletarian writer, Anton Golïy, who is being introduced
to him by a Communist critic. Golïy, like Novodvortsev, writes run-of-the-mill socialist
realism, that is, politically correct Communist Party propaganda (I will refer to such
writing as PCCPP). Novodvortsev scarcely pays any attention to the beginner, being
completely engrossed in a self-aggrandizing view of his oeuvre, which he feels lacks
adequate recognition. The critic, far from acknowledging Novodvortsev’s significance,
taunts him with a reference to the Christmas stories he and other writers would have been
writing on a day like this before the Revolution. Novodvortsev rejects the critic’s
insinuation that he is a turncoat, but once he is alone he abjectly clings to the critic’s
suggestion that he should write a “new - style” Christmas story depicting the class
struggle ² he fantasizes to the effect that such a story might consolidate his literary
reputation (and his political one too, one gathers). As he faces the blank page struggling
Actually on 6-8 Jan. 1925, as the émigré community kept on using the Julian calendar.
Possibly not later than 1922, curiously enough, if we take seriously the reference to Neverov as a living
writer ( Stories 223). Neverov (the pseudonym of Aleksandr Skobelev) died in 1923. Otherwise, the story
would rather seem to be set in the late 20s ² or even later!
Kuzmanovich points out that Nabokov cannot have been satirizing Socialist Realism, as that doctrine
became official only in 1932, but “the dialectical - materialist creative method” (1993: 94 n.1). Actually, the
stage for the political implementa tion of PCCPP was set at least since Lenin’s article “Party Organisation
and Party Literature” (1905), and its aesthetic rationale harks back to the critical writings of Chernyshevsky,
Dobroliubov and Pisarev in the previous century ² all three would be mercilessly lambasted by Nabokov in
The Gift, with Chernyshevsky being given pride of place.
with several Christmas motifs, his concentration is interrupted by his neighbour, a card-
holding Communist, who drops in to ask for a pen. Alone again, Novodvortsev is
distracted by an involuntary flash of memory as he fiddled with the idea of Christmas
trees (a motif first mentioned by Golïy): he remembers one particular Christmas long ago,
the woman he loved in those days, and all of the tree’s lights reflected as a crystal quiver
in her wide-open eyes when she plucked a tangerine from a high branch. It had been
twenty years ago or more ²how certain details stuck in one’s memory....”
The memory flash has an ephiphanic vividness well described by Boyd (with reference to
another Nabokov story): “the unique complex of particulars becomes an instant
unbearably vulnerable and poignant, fading even now from memory ² but surely, surely,
preserved in the past?” (1990: 238) . That is the effect produced on the reader. But
Novodvortsev rejects this memory and tries again to concentrate on his story. As he hits
upon an adequate PCCPP theme involving Christmas trees, Nabokov’s story is brought to
With triumphal agitation, sensing that he had found the necessary, one-and-only
key, that he would write something exquisite, depict as no one had before the
collision of two classes, of two worlds, he commenced writing. He wrote about
the opulent tree in the shamelessly illuminated window and about the hungry
worker, victim of a lockout, peering at that tree with a severe and somber gaze.
“The insolent Christmas tree,” wrote Novodvortsev, “was afire with every hue
of the rainbow.” ( Stories 226-27)
The aspect of the story which immediately strikes most readers is its dimension as
political satire. As such, the story is a merciless attack on the clichés of Soviet-sponsored
social “realism.” It drives its point home by offering itself as a specimen of writing which
is far more complex aesthetically, and provides a more complex and intelligent approach
to reality, than social realism. Some satirical points are overt enough. Thus, the critic
works for the Communist-sponsored periodical Red Reality . The insolent Christmas tree,
lighted up with all the colors of the rainbow, stands thus as a fit emblem of the reality
which is overlooked by those who only see red. It is also adorned with God’s plenty,
while the name of Anton Golïy (“naked”, “bare”, “cropped”) sugge sts the impoverished
notion of reality, realism and writing the “new times” have brought along. The
protagonist began his writing career in the old régime, but it is now that he has come into
Stories 226. In the Russian text, melochi , ‘details’, carries a stronger suggestion of contempt: ‘small
change’, ‘knicknacks’, ‘trivialities’.
Krasnaia Iav’, a jibe at the Soviet journal Krasnaia Nov’, as noted by Naumann and Kuzmanovich.
his (scant) own and has really become novodvortsev, the “new courtier” within a new
system of privilege.
Novodvortsev’s point of view is presented through psychonarration, merging with
the narratorial description and re- emerging from it only to be held up for the reader’s
ironically detached contemplation. Consonant psychonarration often opens the way to
Which is what happens here ² only, the consonance between
narrator and character is ironic. The character’s subjective distortions become all the
more flagrant as his point of view is reconstructed and ascribed to him by the reader
within the framework of an authorial narrative, for instance in this passage in which
Novodvortsev overestimates his influence on Golïy and others:
This was not the first time he had been subjected to such glum, earnest rustic
fictionists. And not the first time he had detected, in their immature narratives,
echoes ² not yet noted by the critics ² of his own twenty-five years of writing; for
Golïy’s story was a clumsy rehash of one of his subjects.... ( Stories 222)
This opinion, for all the apparent objectivity of its consonant psychonarrative form, is
loaded with authorial irony. Irony upon irony, since the ironic stance towards Golïy is
shared by Novodvortsev and the consonant narrator’s discourse. But from the implied
authorial viewpoint, the question of whether Golïy and the other rustics have been
inspired by Novodvortsev is a moot one, as both the master and the hypothetical disciples
are mere mouthpieces for the official “spirit of the age” (cf. Kuzmanovich 1993: 87). Far
from being a conveniently impartial peephole for the omniscient narrator’s account,
Novodvortsev is shown here to be a vain and pompous focalizer. Such reflectorial
coloring of a seemingly-authorial psychonarration may be easily misread by those not
at tuned to Nabokov’s irony² as is the case with Naumann, who interprets descriptions
like the foregoing as the kindly portrayal of Novodvortsev by an omniscient narrator, and
describes the language of the story as being “direct and neutral” (1978: 113, 115).
The reader’s correct understanding of Novodvortsev’s distorted perception is thus
a central constructive principle in the story, and is also reflexively thematized in it ² what
is at issue in the story both as narrated action and as aesthetic construct is the need for
critical clear-sightedness and an adequate recognition of the mainsprings of writing and of
perception. Part of the satirical effect of the story consists in Novodvortsev’s failing to
note that the image he chooses for the opening of his story expresses his own frustration
and nostalgia, in a self-defeating way that only readers (and the implied author) note. This
crucial aspect of the story’s intentional construction is recognized by Boyd. I will quote
his comment in full:
There may be as well in this name an echo of the name of Nabokov’s onetime lover
Novotvortseva, an émigré would-be poet who inspired the figure of Alla in Glory. Perhaps a displaced and
unwanted memory of “the woman he loved in those days” may have contributed to the genesis of the story?
Cohn (1978: 25ff). Cf. also the analysis of subjectivized third-person narrative in Collier (1999).
Although unusually t endentious for Nabokov, ‘A Christmas Story’ fortunately has
more to it than its dismissal of Novodvortsev’s crude concoction. Nabokov limns
with uncanny accuracy the petty egoism and self-centered ambition of a writer
without talent and contrasts that with what Novodvortsev expects will be read as
the noble altruism of his theme. In a subordinate line of the plot Novodvortsev
rejects as irrelevant the memory of a Christmas tree reflected in the eyes of a
woman he loved, as she reached for a mandarin on the tree, but he fails to realize
that the first words of his story spring from that very memory. The pretended
transcendence of the self in the social struggle, Nabokov’s story suggests, is a lie.
(Boyd 1990: 287)
Still, that intended ironic effect fails to account for the overall effect of the story.
As Derrida and other (post-)structuralists hold, authorial intention is a necessary element
in the text’s machinery but there are unintentional meaning structures as well. This is so
even in the case of a preternaturally conscious author like Nabokov.
A failure to grasp
the story’s structure beyond the satirical elements may account for the surprising neglect
and the generally low critical estimate of the story. Even Boyd, who at least has grasped
Nabokov’s satirical plan, sounds dismissive. Field (1967: 173) praises the story as a
portrait of philistine writing, but does not elaborate on the aesthetic complexity of the
In a recent monograph on Nabokov’s stories, Shrayer provides readings of many
stories which are both aesthetically acute and historically informed. However, his passing
comment on this story is surprisingly short- sighted: “Nabokov’s short fiction makes a
leap between the loose texture of ‘Rozhdestvenskii rasskaz’ (A Christmas Story, 1928)
and the astounding power of ‘The Aurelian’ (1930)” (1999: 122). As I hope my reading
will make clear, “A Christmas Story” is about as loose, structurally speaking, as a Swiss
watch, and the otherworldly subjects which are elsewhere the object of Shra yer’s
suggestive analyses are equally inscribed, if ever so subtly, in this story.
Other readings of the story are equally unsatisfactory. Naumann tentatively points
to the polemical dimension in the story and argues that “this is one of Nabokov’s least
satisfying stories” (1978: 116)² and it is clear from her account that she does not grasp
the basic “point” of the story as described by Boyd. Dillard’s article on Nabokov’s
Christmas stories ignores previous discussions of the story and is biased by a Christian
perspective which tries hard to bring out the covert Christian in Nabokov. Dillard does
not seem to grasp the intentional structure of the story as described by Boyd, the ironic
vantage position that author and reader enjoy over Novodvortsev in being able to relate
his flashback memory and the central image of the tale he writes ² the point of the story
Shrayer (2000: 134) voices perhaps the o pinion of many “friendly” critics of Nabokov when he argues
that “Nabokov’s artistic experience ... puts into question the validity of the Poststructuralist views of the
author and authorship”² a claim which sounds naive to me, aiming, as such claims routinely do, at a straw
man (‘Post -straw- cturalism’ might be a convenient shorthand for such cases).
for Dillard being merely the rejection of the spirit of Christmas. It is no wonder, therefore,
that he should consider that the story “does not approac h the artistic complexity of
‘Christmas’” (2000: 47).
Zoran Kuzmanovich’s reading stands out as possibly the most critically informed,
though perhaps it is not as aesthetically percipient as Boyd’s. It teases out many
dimensions of the story’s involvemen t with current debates on art and imagination, but is
less satisfactory in dealing with their role in the structural dynamics of the story. For
instance, Kuzmanovich traces the image of the tree reflected in an eye back to other
Nabokovian satires of naive materialism. According to the “Life of Cheryshevsky”
Fyodor writes in Nabokov’s novel The Gift, “Chernyshevsky explained, ‘We see a tree;
another man looks at the same object. We see by the reflection in his eyes that his image
of the tree looks exactly t he same as our tree. Thus we all see objects as they really exist’”
( The Gift 490). This intertextual link accounts for the satirical element in the reflected
tree image, but not for its concrete narrative articulation in “The Christmas Story” as an
epipha ny which opens an otherworldly vista into the character’s experience. The tree
image performs in the story an experiential role (the refutation of materialism) contrary to
the one ascribed to it by Kuzmanovich. Overall, Kuzmanovich’s article on the story stays
within the bounds of ‘friendly criticism,’ mostly following the interpretive moves of the
implied reader inscribed by the author in the story (his subliminal treatment of the
proxemics in the story, I will shortly argue, is symptomatic of the limits of his reading).
We face here the problem of defining which is a work’s ‘main’ subject, as
different truths may exist at different planes of the story and depend on the reader’s level
of critical engagement with the story. Nabokov’s writing seems to fores tall critical
reading in that it articulates translucent planes of superimposed subjects. Many elements
which are perceived subliminally by the reader are consciously intended by the author
(according to some of his best critics). It appears, though, that given this principle of
construction no clear limit can be established between the inferences stemming from the
deliberate and conscious semiotic relationships and those based on the subliminally
intended relationships. To this we must add the wider issues of interpretation, the ones we
might characterize as ‘unfriendly’ criticism or ‘resisting reading,’ which identify themes
or structures beyond the author’s intention or in opposition to it.
Some of the issues concerning intentionality can be exemplified through an
analysis of the work’s focalization. Internal focalization is restricted to Novodvortsev. As
we have seen, the stream of his consciousness is directed by a smug egolatry; his thoughts
betray his thirst for recognition, and he is shown to misinte rpret other people’s attitudes,
as if everybody were as attentive to him as he himself is. In this sense the character is
On “Christmas,” the other Christmas story by Nabokov, see García Landa (forthcoming).
On the importance of such ‘otherworldly’ windows in Nabokov’s writing, see Alexandrov (1991) and
mercilessly exposed through a narrative equivalent of dramatic irony, a structural irony
which does not necessitate the narrator’s ove rt judgment. The presence of irony is not a
matter of interpretive choice: a reading which ignored this level of the character’s
depiction would be a misreading (which is not to say that there may not be further
complications in the character’s presentatio n). We need, therefore, to establish a well-
defined implied authorial voice design in order to make sense of the satirical/ironic aspect
of the story. This strongly defined implied author is part of what Couturier has called
I am awa re that the concept of “implied author” has been criticised by some
narratologists as unnecessary.
In my view, an implied authorial attitude potentially
exists as a constructive element in narrative, although it may be more or less clearly
defined in a given work. Both consciously communicated authorial intention, and the
wider interpretive inferences which make up a reader’s image of the implied author, must
be granted a structural role. They cannot be discarded as non-existent or irrelevant, most
particularly in the cases in which they are strongly defined, as in satirical works generally
or (closer to hand) in the present story by Nabokov.
The implied author is not an
equivalent of “the whole textual structure” or of abstract and collective norms, as s ome
definitions would have it. The reader’s image of the author cannot account for all textual
effects or stylistic traits ²still less the reader’s notion of the author’s conscious intention.
Being an aspect of composition and, in the last analysis, an illocutionary element, the
communicated implied authorial attitude cannot dictate the overall response to the work,
a matter which belongs to quite another communicative plane (perlocution, reception,
reading, critical activity). Finally, the critique of ideology necessitates the concept of an
implied author, since a resisting reading must resist something or someone.
Reading irony, therefore, is an interactive exercise in consciousness which
requires establishing the mutual limits of at least four consciousnesses: that of the ironist
(the implied author here), that of the butt of irony (the character), that of the ideal witness
necessary to conjure up a laughing party (the implied reader) and that of the actual
witness (the reader). But there exist other intentional elements in composition which need
not be read as consciously designed in order to function within an intentional aesthetic
This is the case, for instance, of specular textual models, of proxemic or
paralinguistic notations, or of symbolism. We will examine each of these in turn.
See e.g. Genette 1983; Nünning 1997. Darby (2001) provides an overview of the debate and defends the
necessity of this concept. See García Landa (1998: 391-408) for a preliminary approach to the question of
the implied author on the interface of narratology and pragmatics.
To be more precise, it is an even more limited rhetorical phenomenon that is at issue here ² not every
(implied) aspect of the author that the reader may construct from the story, but merely the relevant part of
the author’s attitude and intentions invoked by the author for the reader to construct as a reliable
regulative device in literary communication.
For a preliminary discussion of the differences between (modes of) intentionality and consciousness, see
e.g. Searle (1983).
The story includes several mise en abyme structures. Some are works inside the work. In
Novodvortsev’s story “The Verge” we find the intellectual Tumanov, who, unbeknownst
to Novodvortsev, mirrors some of his attitudes ²e.g. “He recalled that, in ‘The Verge’,
Tumanov felt nostalgia for the pomp of former holidays” ( Stories 225). Observe, too,
Novodvortsev reflecting contentedly on a critic’s use of the word “Tumanovism”²
“there was something infinitely flattering about that ‘ism’, and about the small t with
which the word began in Russian.” Which is, presumably, a practical exercise in
A similar mise en abyme is noted by Kuzmanovich: “the plot of the story [Golïy]
has just read become s mirrored in what transpires in Novodvortsev’s room” (1993: 88).
According to Kuzmanovich, this mirroring is then reversed, since Novodvortsev the
sputnik intellectual triumphs over Golïy the “proletarian writer.” Or perhaps, rather, the
two are manipulated by the critic who is in ironic control of the situation ( ² a weak
control, though, and one structurally subordinated to the implied author’s).
Nabokov’s fiction is uncommonly rich in its use of kinesic, proxemic and paralinguist ic
elements (see e.g. the opening sections of King, Queen, Knave describing the characters’
attitudes in a train compartment, or the episode in Pnin about the home movie of typical
Russian gestures). The use of proxemics is one more element contributing to the rich
structure of the unsaid in “The Christmas Story.” One of the story’s constructive
principles and themes is, as a matter of fact, what happens in the back of our minds as we
perceive, create, invent, and symbolically associate elements of experie nce. Nabokov’s
treatment of non-codified body semiotics evinces an awareness of proxemics and of the
unconscious kinesics of the body as being cognitively motivated. Thus Novodvortsev
walks to the window “as if following in the critic’s recent footsteps” ( Stories 224). His
bodily movements, of which he is unaware, show his imaginative and ideological
subordination. But they are significant not as an allegory but as an “organic symbol,” in
the sense that the symbolic meaning is cognitively grounded on the bodily semiotics
shared by character, author and reader.
Poyatos (1994) has attempted a general theory of the functions of proxemics,
kinesics and paralanguage in narrative . Many useful indications are provided there, but
t he framework suggested by Poyatos should nonetheless be extended: a continuum of
interpretive cooperation between author and reader fleshes out the textually
This “T” resurfaces a few lines later in Dmitri Nabokov’s English translation, establishing a further
link between Novodvortsev and Tumanov, when we are told that Novodvortsev’s new life “suited him to a
T” ( Novaia zhi zn’ byla dushia ego vprok i vporu, ‘his new life was, to his mind, advantageous and it suited
him’). ‘Tuman’ means ‘fog’ in Russian.
According to Andrew Field, “Nabokov acknowledged to me that Pnin’s interest in gestures was really his
own. A book on ges tures was yet another book he had considered writing but put aside” (1986: 289).
schematized interaction from the level of the represented action (the object of
Poyatos’s main attention) to the level of the author’s implied descriptions and
judgements. The concepts of dialectic interaction (Goffman 1981) and the
pragmalinguistic theory of politeness (e.g. Leech 1983) would be indispen sable in
order to establish adequate foundations for narrative pragmatics to bridge the gap between
what is verbally and non-verbally communicated. Here, of course, we can provide only
a few practical indications of the directions such an analysis might take.
Let us examine more proxemic notations: “The critic lit a cigarette. Golïy, without
raising his eyes, was stuffing his manuscript into his briefcase. But their host kept his
silence....” The characters’ movements are all interactional markers (the critic and Golïy
are waiting for Novodvortsev to evaluate the story). At the level of the author-reader
interaction, the use of the conjunction ‘but’ shows that the author is aware of the
communicative- interactional import of the characters’ actions. This conjunction does not
join two propositions at the same semantic level; instead, it joins two proxemic
descriptions which thanks to the conjunction are made to stand for the unstated
propositions the reader is then forced to construct. The “but”, then, goads the reader into
perceiving the descriptions as interactive moves ² whether at a conscious or at a
subliminal level on the part of the readers, it activates their own intuitive proxemic
strategies. As I argued before, Kuzmanovich’s reading could be used in this respect as a
test case of Nabokov’s “creating wit in others”² like Falstaff ² in the area of proxemics
and unvoiced intuitions. Kuzmanovich’s accounts of Nabokov’s proxemic and
paralinguistic notations show that this critic is subliminally aware of their importance, but
that awareness never rises to the surface of the critical discussion in an explicit theoretical
The “making explicit” of nonverbal communication is, then, structurally similar to
other hermeneutic dimensions of the work, such as the retroactive creation of coherence
or intertextuality through rewriting and interpretation.
² Or the more commonly
acknowledged fact that “The writer himself is one quarter unaware as to whither he is
steering. It is the critics who will afterwards discover ‘tendencies’ and rules and method
and hidden implications.”
Nabokov’s fiction thus ties in with much contemporary work in psychology which studies
the activity of the brain as an ‘interpreter’ which constructs reality, rather than pasively
recording it (Gazzaniga 1998). Our conscious, self-aware mind, acting deliberately in the
world, the world itself appearing as a transparent instrument for our deliberate action on
it, are not the unmediated basis of reality, as the cogito and positivism would have it.
Cf. my analysis of thie phenomenon on the subject of Nabokov’s “Christmas.”
Gerhardie (1974: 86), qtd. in Sell (2001: 42).
They are representations, elaborately resting on perceptual processes and symbolic
structures which remain unconscious. By ‘unconscious’ I do not mean, of course,
‘repressed’ through the deliberate action of an all -perceiving, all-controlling self or a
social super- ego. ‘Unconscious’ means that consciousness is an effect, a superstructure
which needs much scaffolding and machinery in order to exist at all, and that the
scaffolding and machinery remain by definition outside the subject’s field of perception,
just as an eye is meant to observe whatever lies in front of it and not what lies behind it ²
the retina, optical nerve, muscles, bone socket and brain which enable the phenomenon of
A scientific rationale for this conception of consciousness may be found in the
work of contemporary cognitive neuroscientists. The (post-)structuralist conception of the
subject and consciousness as structural effects and not as originating (transcendental)
prime movers may therefore be further theorized with reference to some neuroscientists’
conception of the interpretive activity of the brain. Among the functions performed by the
brain, the system Gazzaniga calls the interpreter constructs our ‘reality’ for us, organizing
the information provided by other neurological sub-systems whose activity remains
outside conscious awareness:
A special system carries out this interpretive synthesis. Located only in the brain’s
left hemisphere, the interpreter seeks explanations for internal and external events.
It is tied to our general capacity to see how contiguous events relate to one
another. The interpreter, a built-in specialization in its own right, operates on the
activities of other adaptations built into our brain. These adaptations are most
likely cortically based, but they work largely outside of conscious awareness, as
do most of our mental activities. (Gazzaniga 1998: 24).
The ‘interpreter’ allows us to account for many oddities of perception and behaviour,
such as blindsight, false memories or dpjà vu. The brain ‘automatically’ organizes
responses and patterns of behaviour, and then projects (part of) these as deliberately
produced by ‘someone in charge’² the conscious self; some are given a fully conscious
elaboration, others remain subliminal (or are retroactively perceived as subliminal when a
conscious reelaboration is constructed). Thus, as I drive home from work I feel that I am
in full control of my choice of route along the way, although quite often my thoughts have
been busy with other matters and I may well realize that I didn’t choose at any point to
take a gi ven lane or turn rather than another. No matter: my brain did the work for ‘me’,
as usual, and usually ‘I’ get the impression that ‘I’ am in charge. The interpreter creates a
conscious order out of subconscious materials. Among other things it creates a sense of
The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions,
thoughts, and dreams. It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of
being a whole, rational agent. It brings to our bag of individual instincts the
illusion that we are something other than what we are. It builds our theories about
our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior pervade our awareness.
(Gazzaniga 1998: 174)
Nabokov’s story dramatizes precisely such a cognitive gap be tween action and
interpretation: as the story ends, Novodvortsev’s consciousness is shown to be building
an ad hoc ‘objective’ narrative to bolster his sense of self with materials whose
subconscious origin is quite another. The story is therefore, among other things, a story
about consciousness and about the circumstances and processes that contribute to the
making of a sense of self (here emotional self-censorship is the primum mobile that
allows some of the character’s memories to become conscious while others can surface
only subliminally or in a symbolically displaced version).
compositionally central to this story, stands out as a crucial instance of the narrative
appropriation of subliminal cognitive processes. Reflection is a natural symbol for
awareness and consciousness: thus, we speak of the reflexive quality of conscious
processes in the brain, of reflexive fiction, etc. The reflected image of an object has to be
processed with greater intensity than the direct visual image of this object. It is my
contention that a reflection, even a represented reflection, makes us (subliminally) aware
of the working of the mind as an interpretive re-projection: we need to construct the
reflected image, mapping it onto a conceptual-perceptual pattern, in order to make sense
of it. The active projection of conceptual patterns which is characteristic of conscious
experience thus becomes more evident in the cognitive processing of distorted images,
Another neurological excursus. According to Weiskrantz, the generation of
‘thoughts about thoughts’ may be constitutive of conscious awareness, rather than simply
a heuristic device for the representation of awareness. In the case of visual awareness,
these commentary thoughts may ² perhaps ² be neurologically realized as back
projections, from neurological subsystems specialized in particular types of visual
processing back to the main cortical area for visual input (Weiskrantz 1999: 216-17; cf.
75-76). That is to say, the brain acts, already at the level of basic neurological processes,
as a projective apparatus attuning itself to specific types of input, and not merely as a
receptor. It is a long way from such explorations of the workings of neural paths to a
neurological explanation of the retroactive and projective processing of conceptual
information, but there are promising signs that the constructivist theories of knowledge
and perception (frame analysis, for instance) may eventually tie in with the work of
I therefore disagree with Couturier on the psy chological significance of Nabokov’s imagery. Nabokov’s
images have a strong psychological and perceptual anchoring, which provides a cognitive basis for the
reader’s construction of central narrative elements (point of view, epiphany, etc.). Of course, th e imagery
may perform additional functions as well.
neurologists. My suggestion that the processing of reflections is itself reflective or
conducive to awareness must remain, for the time being, neurologically speculative (from
speculum, mirror). At least, neurologists like Weiskrantz are now facing the study of
consciousness as a scientific issue, instead of dismissing it as a metaphysical pseudo-
problem. As to the relevance of all this for the study of Nabokov’s writing, let us just
remember the emphasis he placed on “the marvel of consciousness” in an interview
(quoted as the epigraph in Boyd 1990). The suggested existence of an inherent
relationship between the intensification of the theatre of consciousness and the processing
of distorted images and reflections would certainly do much to explain the role of the
latter in Nabokov’s fiction.
This might be, then, one reason for Nabokov’s taste for perceptually complex
images in his intensely visual fiction. In the Christmas Story , one such image has a
pivotal role. The reflection in an eye is used to convey ² to make us aware of ² an
intensity of re- cognition which suddenly opens up a glimpse of the character’s past as a
Symbols, riddles and memories
The dramatization of (un)consciousness combines in Nabokov’s aesthetics wi th game-
like symbolic problems set for the reader to experience ² or to solve (I am referring here
to a more reflective or critical level of intended readership). Let us examine a few
1). Subliminal religious intertextuality. Novodvortsev is negating the spirit of Christmas,
with an amount of bad conscience which surfaces only between the lines, for the reader to
perceive, and which remains altogether beyond the character’s conscious awareness. The
critic from Red Reality teases him by observing that it is Christmas Eve, and that “[i]n
the old days, on this date, you and your confreres would be churning out Christmas copy."
Now it turns out this is also an Easter story, as, like a second St Peter denying Christ,
Novodvortsev promptly replies “Not I.” At a pre -conscious level, though, he is aware of
the Biblical parallel, and that is why the expression “Golgotha of the Proletariat” used by
his neighbour comes to his mind. Here Nabokov is subtly leading the reader’s textual
toward a coinciden ce with the character’s subconscious processes. Therefore,
this intertextual indication will be active to some extent whether or not the reader
identifies it in a fully conscious way.
The notion of a textual memory may be further theorized in terms of the ‘implicit
memory’ described by Tulving and Schacter (1990, 1994). According to Pillemer’s
account, the perceptual representation system (PRS) underlying implicit memory can
function apart from explicit memory:
I borrow this notion from Couturier (1993). It is essential for an adequate description of Nabokov’s
The PRS is an early developing system that is involved in the identification of
specific perceptual objects. Access to the stored information is inflexible, or
‘hyperspecific’; expression of implicit memory is tied to specific cues. Once an
implicit memory is expressed, however, it is potentially accessible to explicit
memory. (Pillemer 1999: 103)
‘Priming effects’, or nonconscious cognitive memories, can also be conceptually driven
as new information is added to semantic memory, resulting in “the acquisition of new
associations between unrelated w ords” (Tulving and Schacter 1990: 304). Nabokov’s use
of the reader’s textual memory involves the stimulation of text -specific webs of word
connections ²thus, the intertextual allusion to the “Golgotha of the Proletariat” generates
its own text-internal web of subliminal associations as the reader goes through the text.
2.). Literary intertextuality: Setting the stage for an elusive vision. The neighbour who
was said to use the expression “Golgotha of the Proletariat” surfaces later in the story
in the (paper) flesh, performing a new intertextual role. This time he is, implicitly, a
“Person from Porlock” who interrupts Novodvortsev’s pathetic attempts at finding a
suitable Christmas subject within the bounds of PCCPP ²the neighbour’s presence
serves, therefore, to suggest a parodic inversion of the ideal of a free creative
imagination epitomized by Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”
It is worth noting that Dillard calls Novodvortsev’s neighbour “his own Person
from Porlock.” The phrasing suggests that Dillard has been subliminally following
here the reading path devised by Nabokov, in which the Person from Porlock motif is
a carefully calculated item. That is, my Dillard believes the parallel with Kubla Khan
is an analogy generated by himself as a critic, rather than by the implied author, as is
the case. (In the 1940s Nabokov would use The Person from Porlock as a working
title for Bend Sinister, a novel in which interruption plays a prominent role).
3). Color symbolism and reflexivity. Novodvortsev’s fame is “pallid, pallid” in contrast
with the multicolored beads of the abacus and with the bright colours of the Christmas
just like his life has become a pale simulacrum of the one he expected at the
beginning of his career, before the Revolution, during the Christmas he remembers
“twenty years ago or more.” Colour symbolism is also significant elsewhere.
Novodvortsev has a “thick, white hand” which shows he is a fraud by Soviet standards, a
bourgeois rather than a proletarian. His emotional life is, clearly, as pallid as his fame. It
is obvious he lives alone (although he shares a flat) a bleak, loveless life of frustration and
petty ambition under a façade of relative social success and intellectual disinterestedness.
Novodvortsev is subliminally attracted to the colored images which symbolize the
inaccessible otherworld in this story: the beads of the abacus he sees through a facing
window prepare our mind (and his) for the final imagistic synthesis involving also a warm
The Russian adjective tusklaia suggests dimness, lack of brightness, as well as weakness or pallor.
indoor image seen through a window. The whiteness of the paper he is unable to write on,
the whiteness of the “so - called Christmas snow” both characterize Novodvortsev as
occupying an anomic colorless space between Red Reality and “all the hues of the
rainbow”( vsemi ogniami radugi, “[with] all of the lights of the rainbow”² the last word
as well in the Russian text). The concluding phrase is retaken in a stylistically similar
context nearly twenty years after the writing of “The Christmas Story”, in Bend Sinister.
Here the phrase is used by the wri ter of an Ekwilist (≈Communist) pamphlet, and once
again it evokes both the vulgarity of the writing in its hackneyed image, and the richness
of the otherworld negated by the Communist writer’s aesthetics, and symbolized by the
many-colored rainbow. In the Bend Sinister passage the rainbow motif is also a figurative
one, in this case a description of those archi-Nabokovian otherworldly symbols,
butterflies, which are denounced by the Ekwilist writer as capitalist propaganda. Here is
the passage from Bend Sinister :
The most popular photograph which appeared in all capitalist newspapers of that
period was a picture of two rare butterflies glittering vsemi tzvetami radugi [with
all the hues of the rainbow]. But not a word about the strike of the textile workers!
( Bend Sinister 1964: 141).
Both the Russian transliteration and the translation are present in the original text. These
coinciding images (like those of the reflection of the tree in the girls’ eyes, as I will soon
argue) may be read by some as deliberate intertextual markers; at the very least, they are
‘obsessional symbols’ which show the remarkable coherence of Nabokov’s figurative
The motif of colored glass may also suggest the decoration of the Christmas
tree, although only paper ornaments are mentioned. Perhaps paper is a surrogate for
the colored glass of original experience? The reflection in the eye nonetheless suggests
(to me) similar reflections in the glass balls of Christmas trees. In Nabokov’s personal
mythology, c olored glass is associated with childhood at Vyra, the object of
otherworldly vistas, and the ‘paper ornaments’ used by the pmigrps can refer,
reflexively, to Nabokov’s Christmas story itself² literature being too, in a sense, a
surrogate for the original experience. As to the rainbow motif, note that the Noah
myth in the Bible explains the origin of the rainbow as the sign of a covenant between
God and men after the Flood. Both the multicolored ra inbow and the Christmas tree
(like the multicolored butterflies) are signs, therefore, of the sacred dimension of
existence, the ‘otherworld’ that Novodvortsev strives to negate.
4). Epiphany and repressed memories. At the epiphanic center of “The Christmas Story”,
Novodvortsev experiences a memory flash, which can be interpreted as an attempt at self-
communication. Pillemer has emphasized the importance of memories of individual
events in structuring a sense of self. He notes that the memory of an individual event is
nonetheless “reconstructed and transformed in the retelling”: we might extend this
principle of transformation to the ‘retelling’ which is the memory itself: an event is
reconstructed and transformed to yield a memory image. Novodvortsev is upset by the
memory, which has an epiphanic importance he is not ready to recognize.
Moments of illumination frequently have a self-reflective quality. The people
affected appear to be self-consciously aware of and even startled by the intensity
of their ideas and feelings. (Pillemer 1998: 45)
Nelson’s (1993) concept of autobiographical memory may also be relevant to Nabokov’s
narrative poetics of memory. According to Nelson, “certain events have a privileged
status in memory because they matter to the individual’s evolving ‘life story’” (Pillemer
50). We might describe the relationship of such memories with the life story as
compositional, part of the individual’s memory -system rather than exact mimetic
analogues of “what really happened”; Nelson argues that “[m]emories do not need to be
true or correct to be part of that system” ( Nelson 1993: 8, qtd. in Pillemer 1998: 50). We
may interpret the artist of memory’s symbolic action as an extension of this principle.
Vivid memories are rich articulations of symbolic meaning at a life-experiential narrative
level, but that articulation of meaning can then be further displaced through a secondary
modelization system and used as constructive elements in a written narrative. Whether the
narrative is fictional or not, the roots of this textualized memory extend into the author’s
life-experience. Playing on the different terminology of Pillemer (1998) and Nelson
(1993), we might define Novodvortsev’s memory as a personal event memory which is
censored, repressed, and therefore will not become an autobiographical memory. The
memory remains nonet heless a relevant biographical memory of Novodvortsev’s for the
implied reader. And part of the flashback’s symbolic charge returns² dulled and
camouflaged after a process of displacement ²in Novodvortsev’s story. Writing his story
is for Novodvortsev an ambivalent move: partly a symptom of the illness, partly a
pathetically inadequate attempt at a cure through indirect symbolic action.
Actually, the ending of the story sketches a recursive structure of symbolic
displacements. The worker in Novodvortsev’s story, trapped in the cold and peering “with
a severe and somber gaze” at the rainbow -colored Christmas tree behind the glass
window, is for Novodvortsev a symbol of the oppressed working classes, humiliated and
insulted by the luxury of the aristocratic Tsarist régime or of the capitalist class. For the
reader, the illuminated store window becomes all too readily the symbol of a past time of
happiness, tradition, abundance and emotional satisfaction in contrast with the “frozen
Cf. Pillemer: “adding narrative description, interpretation, and authority to stark, unintegrated sensory
images is a prominent component of psychotherapeutic treatment of trauma” (1999: 166); “Once raw
perceptual images are tied to narrative representations, feelings of dissociation diminish. The alien image
becomes part of the self” (1999: 170). The split between present and past selves experienced by
Novodvorsev, or by Nabokov for that matter, may be interpreted as a low-intensity trauma.
sidewalk” of the Soviet pres ent ² the
Novodvortsev’s frustration is therefore enacted, ‘shown’ rather than simply told, shown
through an act of creation which must be dismantled by the reader; the striking power of
the symbol is greater insomuch as readers must make and unmake the symbol themselves,
experience the symbol-making process undergone by the character, only at a higher level
of awareness, since they must at the same time deconstruct the symbol. The story ends
thus in a truly devastating symbolic climax. Unbeknownst to himself, Novodvortsev has
pulled his emotions to pieces under the pitiless gaze of the implied author and reader.
Only the gaze is not so pitiless, after all. At a deeper level, the irony is
complemented by sympathy and pity towards Novodvortsev.
This sympathy and pity
spring in part from self-pity for a loss in which the author and the character share: the loss
of the past, of youth and illusion. It is the story of a pathetic experience in which author
and reader share ² and thus the story goes beyond its political occasion, to tell a universal
tale of loss and symbolic compensation. The story offers a unique combination of pity and
scorn, intertwined in a way which can only be accounted for through a description of the
story’s construction, of the way the reader constructs the different narrative levels of the
story: the fictional character’s creative process, and the implied author’s calculated
codification of a judgement which is both moral and aesthetic. The implied reader
understands ² re-experiences, rather ²the aesthetic limits of Novodvortsev’s writing and
cannot choose but pronounce that Novodvortsev’s aesthetic blindness is the result of
moral impoverishment. Thus the story provides a unique experience of ethical and
aesthetic communication which is inseparable both from its structure ²Nabokov’s
technique of constructing a self-contained narrative memory, as described by Couturier
(1993) ²and from its historical occasion, both at the level of the writer’s occasion and of
the contents portrayed in the diegesis.
Deep intentions and intertexts
Loss is an all- important theme in Nabokov’s fiction, which is in one sense a vast attempt
to come to terms ² to symbolic terms ² with the loss of childhood, of Russia, of teenage
love, of the family house and of the father. Imaginative variations on fictional
autobiography crop up everywhere in his works ²not just as ‘raw material’ for fiction,
but as a deliberate exploration of possible, rejected or unacknowledged sides of the
author’s persona lity.
Such is the case even with a satirized character like Novodvortsev. Nabokov
would perhaps have rejected as preposterous any parallel between Novodvortev as a
Here Kuzmanovich and Dillard grasp an aspect of the story which is easily overlooked by readers:
“Dismissal and condemnation are not its center, but rather, sympathy for Novodvortsev as a kind man and
fellow writer whose world is being diminished ” (Kuzmanovich 1993: 87); “Nabokov does have sympathy
for Novodvortsev, and that sympathy gives the story its human humidity, its richness beyond the satire”
(Dillard 2000: 49).
quasi-official writer of the Soviet régime and Nabokov himself as a quasi-official writer
of the émigré Russian community in Berlin. Note, though, the N-v bracket linking their
names. There are a number of other parallels between the author and his unfortunate
puppet (or “galley slave,” to use a Nabokovian expression). The satire on literary van ity
draws from materials known to any author from the inside, and it necessarily contains
elements of self-parody. This is clear in the case of other Nabokovian authors, such as
Fyodor in The Gift, more closely modelled on Nabokov himself. The reflexive motif of
structuring a story around the overcoming of a writer’s block likewise draws from
personal experience. Such use of the author’s personal experience is hardly confessional
or autobiographical, since it is refracted through the ‘prismatic bezel’ of th e various
narrative layers and carefully used as a calculated compositional element.
Still, it is my
contention that in such artistic re- elaborations there remains an excess or ‘margin,’ one
which escapes the intentional aesthetic project of the work, and may return to haunt it.
Not that Nabokov does not keep his peripheral vision on that marginal element; far from
it, he uses it as a compositional element of his oeuvre (not necessarily of the individual
work) at another level, a level at which the author himself is at risk, since it is the level at
which his work is the imprint of his life. At this level of writing, Nabokov is no longer
in full conscious control, as he was as long as we remained within the story he
(deliberately) wanted us to read. Instead, he shows us the underside of his constructed
authorial persona, half pointing to the things he cannot tell, half turning away from them.
In many stories of the twenties, and in his first novel, Mary, Nabokov plays
imaginative variations on the theme of lost love, usually a version of Nabokov’s teenage
lover Valentina Shulgin, “Tamara” in Speak, Memory. Here the Tamara motif surfaces as
Novodvortsev suddenly remembers “the woman he loved in those days, and all of the
tree’s lights reflected as a crysta l quiver in her wide-open eyes when she plucked a
tangerine from a high branch. It had been twenty years ago or more ² how certain details
stuck in one’s memory....” ( Stories 226). Both Nabokov and Novodvortsev ² and we
might add Tumanov ² have lost a Russia associated to a sense of rootedness, of family
warmth and a happy childhood. Insofar as Nabokov is Novodvortsev, he is also imagining
a future self, in which professional achievements do not redeem the losses involved, and
art is only a partially successful sublimation of frustrated desire.
It is worth noticing that the image of the Christmas tree reflected in the woman’s
eyes also has an autobiographical source. In Speak, Memory, it is associated to adolescent
sexuality rather than to early maturity (and thus suggests a closer connection of the image
with Nabokov’s own experience of Christmas in pre -Revolutionary Russia):
The Prismatic Bezel is one of the fictional novels written by Nabokov’s Seb astian Knight.
Cf. Iser’s (1989) definition of fictional constructions as necessarily grounded on and defined with
reference to the real.
The little girls in neat socks and pumps whom we and other little boys used to
meet at dancing lessons or at Christmas Tree parties had all the enchantments, all
the sweets and stars of the tree preserved in their flame-dotted iris, and they teased
us, they glanced back, they delightfully participated in our vaguely festive dreams,
but they belonged, those nymphets, to another class of creatures than the
adolescent belles and large-hatted vamps for whom we actually yearned. ( Speak,
Here again, the Christmas tree is not remembered directly but rather through its reflection
in the girls’ eyes² the image, once again, indissolubly associates eroticism and
It expresses, too, a mismatched desire for the past, and a nostalgia for
adolescent eroticism ² a desire which can only be retrospectively acknowledged, and only
in part at that. The use of the word ‘nymphet’ from Lolita is telling in this connection. In
the fictional reworking of the image, the “adolescent belles” and the little girls have been
retropectively synthesized, as it is a young lover whose eyes reflect the tree, but this
retroactive fulfilment of desire only emphasizes the extent of the loss. The loss of
Christmas, associated in the story to the 1917 overhaul, is imaginatively reinforced with
the personal overtones of Nabokov’s loss conjured up by the Tamara motif.
Thus, the roots of the emotional experience articulated by the story extend beyond
the character’s past as presented in the story, into the author’s own sense of loss of self
and of the past. The difference between the autobiographical roots and the story itself is,
of course, a vast one. Nabokov forcibly articulates his own integrity and emotional
coherence against a representation of hypocritical, emotionally frustrated Novodvortsev ²
who, as far as we know, has no love life or family connections now, and is little more
than a public façade, the official portrait on his complete works, which in turn are mere
There is in Nabokov’s handling of Novodvortsev a danger of overkill, of the
author intellectually brutalizing a subordinate. Authors’ forcible articulations of their own
integrity are not to the taste of contemporary critics.
Nowadays (i.e. late 20th c. and
beyond) ‘we’ tend to like it better, as far as the dynamics of writing is concerned, when
the element of viciousness one finds in satire backfires and returns to plague the inventor.
Can i t be argued that this ‘return of the repressed’ is present in the story in any way,
plaguing not merely Novodvortsev (which would yield only the overt subject of the story,
necessary for its understanding) but also Nabokov (which would yield an ‘overstanding’
of the story)?
This reflection applies to aesthetically sophisticated criticism. Actually, ‘friendly criticism’ which
endorses authorial self-righteousness abounds in those critical approaches mainly concerned with political
I borrow the term ‘overstanding’ from Wayne Booth (1979: 242ff).
Novodvortsev thinks of the Russian dissidents or pmigrps (Nabokov’s immediately
intended audience of “The Christmas Story”) as “people who had formerly been
somebody, people who were terrified, ill-tempered, doomed (he imagined them so
clearly...) ( Stories 225)." Part of the irony here lies of course in the fact that most émigrés
would not recognize themselves in Novodvortsev’s imagining of them. The power of
irony is present, too, in Nabokov’s very ability to assume t he detached stance that makes
this description possible. But the irony backfires in two different directions: first, through
the element of truth there is in Novodvortsev’s depiction. Nabokov was a maverick, but
there was a good deal of frustration and ill-temper among the Russian émigrés, just as
there were among them some highly visible Tsarist aristocrats, nostalgic have-beens, and
yes, even taxis drivers and White Army generals. Nabokov was often at pains to keep his
distance from that section of the emigré population, and often satirized them as pitilessly
as any Soviet writer (and with a far more devastating accuracy). There is, therefore, a
disturbing pinch of truth in Novodvortsev’s vision, which in principle might have been
supposed to be a mere Aunt Sally for the authorial irony. Maybe this means merely that
the author’s stance is not what we would expect it to be, catching the reader off -guard so
to speak. Still, the irony also backfires in another sense ² in the sense that there emerges a
further parallel (albeit a half-conscious one) between Novodvortsev and the author. Just
as Novodvortsev’s emigrps are an unfair caricature with an element of truth, so
Novodvortsev himself is a caricature, an exercise in ‘imagining so well’ an official Soviet
writer which yields a caricatural version of the truth. There is a mirror logic between
Novodvortsev trying to picture the life of the émigrés, a life forbidden to him but which
nevertheless he can imagine “so well,” and Nabokov trying to picture, for his own
Christmas story, the mind and life of the Other. As often happens, the Other is pictured
with elements extracted from the bad conscience of the self.
The structure of such
mirror logics and play of self and other is announced by the title en abyme of the story.
The metafictional title guides the reader through various interpretive manoeuvres: first,
the title is read as self-descriptive (being the title of a story published in a newspaper on
Christmas day); then the title is shown to describe the subject of the story, not the story
itself, and finally the title becomes self-descriptive again, in a more complex sense ²“The
Christmas Story” consisting in the paradoxical relationship between the text written by
Nabokov and the one written by Novodvortsev. Such double duty is done, too, for
instance, by the title of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work which likewise plays
dangerously with the abject image of the author’s inner Other (Dorian’s image in the
picture, Wilde’s in The Picture ). The logic of the Doppelgänger , applied to the ‘other
Cf. Wolfgang Iser: “fictionalizing acts as boundary -crossings should not be taken as a process of
transcending, but, rather, of doubling, because whatever has been left behind is dragged along in the wake
of the individual acts and remains a potential presence” (1989: 222). In the case of Nabokov’s Soviet
fictions, Iser’s term ‘boun dary- crossing’ should be read quite literally, in its geopolitical sense.
life’ in the Soviet Union, appears in several fictions by Nabokov, such as the story “The
Reunion” or the play The Man from the USSR.
The mirror logic is also at work in the twin central images of the story: the
Christmas tre e reflected in the woman’s eye and the hungry worker looking at the
Christmas tree through the shop window. Novodvortsev first thinks of émigrés weeping
as they gather around a Christmas tree. He then displaces the image into an even safer
cliché dictated by Socialist Realism, into Western Europe (with no explicit suggestion of
émigré circles) with an as yet unliberated worker peering at the tree in a shop window
“with a severe and somber gaze.” Notice that Novodvortsev thinks this initial image is
“the nec essary, one-and- only key,” etc., in terms which may be displaced to Nabokov’s
finding the exquisite formula for his story’s conclusion: once again, the structural
symmetry is significant here. At the overt level of the story, that of Nabokov’s literary
communication with his readers, the worker is a figural displacement of Novodvortsev:
the image is created by Novodvortsev, and formulates in terms acceptable to his
consciousness and his social face the sense of deprivation and loss he does not want to
express overtly: just as the worker is separated by the glass pane from the Christmas tree,
love and the spiritual communion with others symbolized by Christmas are figured by a
reflection in an eye ² but there is no way Novodvortsev can get to the inside of that eye
now. So, Novodvortsev is communicating on one level with his implied Communist
readership and on another (a censored and subliminal one) with himself. This model of
communication reproduces en abyme the communicative structure of “The Christmas
Story, ” with Nabokov writing satire for his pmigrp readership on the one hand, and a
more private, subliminal reflection on time and loss through his deeper engagement with
writing. This is a level of meaning which can be bodily experienced through a reading of
the story, but which can become fully visible to consciousness only through an
In abstract terms, one might argue that irony and pity should cancel each other,
that the satirical strand in the story is at odds with the compassionate sharing in the
experience of loss. In practice, however, it is the complex emotional fabric made up of
these attitudes working at different but interacting levels of interpretation that makes the
story so successful a work of art. The story establishes a chain of successive symbolic
mediations to stave off loss and grief, a symbolic chain longer than the overt one
- the worker cut off from the Christmas tree by the shop window,
- the worker’s author (Novodvortsev) cut off from his past h opes by the thicker glass of
In Kuzmanovich’s words, “at Christmastime 1928, Nabokov the pmigrp is writing a Christmas story about
an imaginary Soviet writer who in turn is attempting to writer a Christmas story in which he imagines an
pmigrp Christmas” (1993: 88).
- the author’s author, Nabokov, cut off from Russia and from his childhood by exile (as
well as by time and the nature of things).
- the readers who experience in a half-subliminal way the figural relationship between
the se elements, and respond emotionally to Nabokov’s story, finding in it a vehicle for
any feelings of loss and grief they may entertain.
- the critic (e.g. me) who responds to this element in the story and tries to give an explicit,
discursive account of the figural and subliminal elements in the story.
The ironic distance between the first and the last links of this semiotic chain
should not make us forget the intensity of the feeling of loss which binds it together and is
the precondition for the chain’s viability. So, in spite of the irony, there is a continuum
between the deliberate, intentional links in the chain of meaning, those which emerge
from a “naive” reading and understanding of the story, and those which emerge only
through critical interpretation. As I have pointed out with reference to the proxemic
element, there is no absolute contrast between a naive and a critical reading, as Nabokov
establishes a symbolic circulation of desire which turns any (reasonably percipient) naive
reading into an informed one to some extent. Interpretation does not create the relevance
of the subsequent symbolic links ex nihilo: they are a linguistically objectifiable element
in the story, and they contribute to the effect and successful structure of the same, but,
unlike the consciously designed intentional elements, they are not conceptually available
in an immediate way. We read them with the body, or with the brain (Gazzaniga 1998),
not with our conscious mind. Similarly, Nabokov may be said to have written them with
his brain and body, beyond the epiphenomenal control of consciousness.
So, perhaps my attempt to ‘overstand’ Nabokov is doomed to failure, at least as
far as this line of reasoning is concerned. I may claim that I have brought up aspects of
the story which are subliminal for the author, but if they go beyond the conscious
aesthetic project of the story it is only to contribute to a more impressive (‘deeply
intentional’) aesthetic structure which binds together many levels of semiotic action:
intentional and conscious actions, deep intentions, proxemic perceptions, subliminal
non-codified symbolic articulations of attitudes.
Deconstructing the story may well crack up the impressive satirical determination of its
ironic structure ²but, to use the words of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” on the Liberty Bell,
“Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the
light gets in.” An artist like Nabokov builds his work with a material that will crack, a nd
let the light ² the light of all our Christmas trees, perhaps ² shine in, unexpectedly.
Narratology and beyond
Finally, I will recapitulate some implications of my analysis for narrative theory ‘beyond’
I. A. Richards’s term for subconscious bodily semiosis (1967).
The analysis of focalization, represe nted thought and represented speech must be
expanded and refined to include a number of levels of perception and consciousness a) in
the character, b) in the narrator’s account of the character, c) in the implied author’s
stance towards both, and d) in the reader’s construction of these diverse modes of
consciousness. An elaborate narrative art like Nabokov’s articulates in unprecedented
ways elements of focalization, proxemics, non-codified semiotic processes, and implicit
readership. It thus requires a corresponding refinement of interpretive and narratological
analyses. The logic of supplementarity, the play of center and margin described by
deconstructive criticism may offer a semiotic model for the dynamics of fully intentional
vs. subliminal narrative representations of consciousness.
The narratological description of perceptual and experiential phenomena in narratives
may benefit from ongoing research into the psychological roots of such phenomena. The
personal poetics of idiosyncratic writers may exploit in original ways some cognitive
processes whose distinctiveness is only now being recognized. Such would be Nabokov’s
use of subliminal memory processes and of visually complex images.
Intention is a relevant piece of the textual machine. It cannot be bypassed or denied, nor
can it be described as a simple phenomenon. Intentionality manifests itself in many
degrees, and at many different psychological and aesthetic levels. The interpreter is
actively involved in the construction of intention, as well as in ascribing degrees of
consciousness to intentional manoeuvres. Needless to say, interpretation is also crucially
involved in making explicit (bringing to the reader’s consciousness) elements whose
semiotic-inferential relationship would otherwise remain implicit: these range from
proxemic or paralinguistic notations at the level of the characters’ action, to underscoring
the lines to draw constellations of meanings at the textual level (e.g. the symbolic
meanings of “white” or “glass” in this story) or at the intertextual level (e.g. the game of
doubles which becomes visible only through a comparison with other texts by Nabokov).
Therefore, there can be no proper rhetorical analysis of narrative which does not fully
engage with an author’s personal poetics, and the specific context in which a work is
written and read. A work functions (can be read) at many levels, many of which are
invisible from the horizon of author-contemporary readership. A narratological
description must take into account these different interpretive contexts, since the relevant
elements of the work’s structure are not the same in just any context. Put more succintly,
there can be no adequate narratological analysis which bypasses hermeneutics ²
hermeneutics both in the sense of co ming to terms with the author’s concrete linguistic
universe and in the sense of attending to the increment in meaning derived from re-
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² oOo ²
A shortened version of this paper was published in the European Journal of English
Studies 8.1 (2004): 27-48.
I wish to thank Beatriz Penas for her suggestions and her help in revising the
manuscript ² and for the reflections in her eyes.