Torpid Smoke: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin. (Studies in Slavic Literature and Poetics, 35). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 246 p. ISBN 90-420-0719-2
José Ángel García Landa
Universidad de Zaragoza, 2001
Web edition 2004
[Reseña aparecida originalmente en Miscelánea 24 (2001, pub. 2003): 169-73]
This is the fourth published book of criticism on Nabokov's stories, three of them being fairly recent (1993, 1999, 2000). I confess that I do not see the title of this work as especially apposite to its subject matter: although it is the title of one of Nabokov's stories, I would have opted for "Terra Incognita" or "Ultima Thule". As academic books go, there are some initial limitations in this one: there is no name index, and a different reference system is used in each paper. That is, this volume, like the earlier A Small Alpine Form, is a collection of individual papers rather than a unified volume. The unity comes from the remarkable coherence in the corpus of Nabokov's short stories. Marina Turkevich Naumann had written a book on the short stories of the 20s (Blue Evenings in Berlin, 1978); Maxim D. Shrayer's The World of Nabokov's Stories 1999 is a more sophisticated monograph on the short stories, although it addresses a relatively small number of them and on occasion from a rather narrow perspective. It usefully complements A Small Alpine Form, which remains the best volume written yet on Nabokov's short fiction. Torpid Smoke ranks third.
A book on Nabokov's stories might bother to refer the reader to a bibliography on such matters (e.g. the Zembla page). But the contributors to this volume are not overly given to refer to previous studies, to differentiate their readings from previous ones, or to show much awareness of what is going on in the Web (though there are a couple of references to electronic materials). And, for a book published in a series on Slavic literature and poetics, surprisingly little attention is paid to the Russian text of many of Nabokov's stories, which in many cases is the original version which preceded the translation by Nabokov and his collaborators.
Barbara Wyllie's "Memory and Dream in Nabokov's Short Fiction" is one of the most readable essays in the collection. She contends that "Nabokov's self-imposed 'problem' was how to overcome the regressive, destructive force of time" (5). This is plausible enough. Her analysis of Nabokov's mnemonics would have benefited, however, from a dialogue with other works on memory in Nabokov, especially John Burt Foster, Jr.'s Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism, or, for that matter, with theoretical works which focus on the problem of how narrative art tries overcome the destructive force of time, such as Gary Saul Morson's Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. Wyllie comments percipiently on the symbolic associations of several of Nabokov's stories, but there is no dialogue with the secondary literature, and the approach is overall a New Critical one.
J. E. Rivers offers an analysis of the original French text of "Mademoiselle O" which throws light on the nature of the transformations both the story and Mademoiselle underwent in later translations and rewritings. The notion of Nabokov playing with generic attributions and conventions to create a "hyper-genre" which conflates biography, autobiography and fiction is suggestive, as is Rivers's analysis of the way Nabokov gradually dissociates himself from Mademoiselle as a fellow-exile in later rewritings. Rivers then focuses on the strangely attractive O of the title, and provides a juicy analysis of the role of o's, round shapes and orotundity in the story. The analysis succeeds, not least in that it manages to leave one open-mouthed and pulling faces.
Maxim D. Shrayer's paper is one of the high points in the collection. Alas, it had already been published shortly before in Shrayer's book The World of Nabokov's Stories, which I warmly recommend to anyone interested in things Nabokovian. We find in this paper, exceptionally in the Torpid Smoke volume, a close familiarity with Nabokov's literary circle, with the peculiarities of his Russian stylistics, and with a good deal of secondary literature on Nabokov. The Russian quotations are transliterated (unlike those in Shrayer's book) and translated; the last paragraph has been cut and some minor adjustments are made, but otherwise Shrayer's analysis of Nabokov's "Vasiliy Shishkov" is the same. The title adds a theoretical move, proposing an "Author=Text Interpretation" of the story, and a brief theoretical introduction has been added. Shrayer argues that this "Author-Text" interpretive model is "Nabokov-specific", and that it "eliminates a critic's need to draw an impossible and meaningless line where the authorial dimension supposedly ends and the textual begins" (2000: 135). I confess that to me that seems a hermeneutic choice which cannot claim to be "Nabokov-specific", that is, unless Shrayer chooses to treat other writers in New Critical fashion. Anyway, "Vasiliy Shishkov", being based on a real-life hoax played by Nabokov on the critic Adamovich, cannot but be addressed through biographical materials. Perhaps Shrayer's point would be better proved through any of the seemingly more autotelic works-e.g. through the kind of analysis of "Christmas" or The Real Life of Sebastian Knight sketched by Boyd in his biography. Shrayer intends his analysis to serve as a refutation of twentieth-century anti-intentionalism, and he argues that "notions as Barthes's 'death of the author' or Foucault's 'author-function,' which deny the author his creative powers and violate the indivisible author-text continuum, are inapplicable to Nabokov's text" (135). Rivers, too, suggests that Nabokov's practice refutes Derrida's theory that "il n'y a pas de hors-text" (126, sic). To me, the relationship between theory and practice does not work that way, and post-structuralist theories do not necessarily have the implications ascribed to them by Rivers or Shrayer. The engagement with post-structuralism is cursory, but these critics sound as if they had merely a hearsay acquaintance with the theories they reject.
Linda Wagner-Martin's feminist reading of Nabokov uncovers the distance between the implied author and the narrator in "The Vane Sisters", with the narrator as insensitive male chauvinist and the implied author as an ethically aware observer. Her terminology in discussing the role of the reader might have benefited from a similar terminological split between narratee and implied reader. As it is, though, "the reader too accepts the devaluing of Sybil's passion" (235). Surely not the actual reader (Wagner-Martin), nor the implied reader as the implied author's interlocutor. Wagner-Martin argues that Nabokov perceived his marginal position in an American university as having analogies with women's marginal position in a heterosexual love relationship. This is the kind of reading which should be complemented with biographical investigation in an "author=text" continuum.
The remaining papers are of more limited interest. Julian W. Connolly notes the evolution in Nabokov's stories from an explicit (though often parodic) use of religious symbols to a more implicit and subtle personal symbolism to deal with metaphysical subjects. All in all, the volume suffers from an excess of "friendly criticism" and a lack of resisting reading and critical distance from the subject. R. H. W. Dillard's essay on Nabokov's Christmas stories is marred by an anxiety to bring the author back to the Christian fold, which results in a neglect of the specifically Nabokovian approach to the otherworld (as described by Alexandrov or Shrayer). Dillard spells out the implied authorial meaning of "Christmas", but fails to comment on the autobiographical roots of the story which are perhaps the most interesting symbolic actions in connection with this story. Some of these are traced in Boyd's autobiography. But, like many of the contributors, Dillard's New Critical approach is concerned only with the story Nabokov wanted us to read, not with the one he wrote. There are limits to his reading even in this limited sense, as he does not seem to grasp the full extent of the authorial irony, for instance on the source of the Soviet writer's inspiration at the end of "The Christmas Story", and therefore the story seems quite simple to him. Boyd's brief account in Nabokov: The Russian Years was more percipient aesthetically speaking, but then Dillard's essay does not quote a single critical work. Nassim W. Balestrini follows an intertextual Nabokovian clue towards "The Kreutzer Sonata", but follows it far too far away-even Nabokovian echoes fail to reverberate indefinitely. I enjoyed Steven G. Kellman's essay on "breaking the news" of death as a communicative event, "of how, with the reader's collusion, a late but lingering son is finally put to posthumous rest" (82). Christian Moraru draws some post-structuralist implications from the play between narrative and filmic language in "The Assistant Producer", but on the whole stays within the bounds of a friendly gloss on the author's aesthetic project. Irving Malin begins an inconclusive exercise on "reading madly" inspired by the "referential mania" psychic disorder in "Signs and Symbols". The limits of "referential mania" as a critical strategy are obvious: the essay remains a minor exercise in irrelevance, as it follows some of the authorially inscribed pathways but does not even attempt to provide a wholesale reading of the story (a much better try following that tack was published some years ago by Álvaro Garrido in Miscelánea 16).
I will not end with a list of misprints, though there are quite a few. Some of them seem mechanical in origin: a scanner (possibly) has kept changing some y's into v's and suchlike mistakes, yielding on p. 34 alone "Demonologv" and "Textv-Matreski" instead of "Teksty-Matrëshki" , or Sogliaclataj instead of Sogliadataj on p. 56 n. Other mistakes are plain silly ones: on p. 75 the 1973 collection A Russian Beauty and Other Stories is given the date 1958; on p. 193 Andrew Field's VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov is confused with the previous Nabokov: His Life in Part and given the date 1977. The price is $ 38, which is expensive but comparatively cheap within the context of Rodopi's price lists, established with often inscrutable criteria.
In spite of the previous strictures, I read the volume with pleasure and freely recommend it to students of Nabokov. It is high time that Nabokov the short-story writer should come into his own. What I mean is, maybe you are reading reviews on Nabokov criticism and you have not read his stories yet? Then... read them, and once you have done that, think back and reflect on the priorities of your reading before you did. That will be a real eye-opener.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Dmitri Nabokov. New York: Knopf, 1995; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996.
Naumann, Marina Turkevich. Blue Evenings in Berlin: Nabokov's Short Stories of the 1920s. (New York University Studies in Comparative Literature). New York: New York UP, 1978.
Nicol, Charles, and Gennady Barabtarlo, eds. A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction. (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1580). New York: Garland, 1993.
Shrayer, Maxim D. The World of Nabokov's Stories. Austin: U of Texas P, 1999.
Zembla web page. http://www.libraries.psu.edu/iasweb/nabokov/