IX. The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.
"Theses On Feuerbach"
Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One, p. 13 – 15.
Prior to reading some of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov this week, my exposure to the author consisted of reading volume two of Boyd's biography and scanning at age 15 every page of a paperback of Lolita I found packed away among my mother's college notebooks. (I didn't say read, but scanned; after hours of frustration, I gave up and moved on to The Olympia Reader.)
(N.B. Lolita is one of the great U.S. novels of horrific obsession, echoing all the way back to that other heartbroken poet of kingdoms by the sea, Edgar A. Poe, and published four years before Robert Bloch's Psycho.)
Nabokov has the reputation for being something of a monster to his readers and characters. He certainly has no truck with moralizing. Nabokov's people do not "learn better." They just keep doing what humans do. Which is very uncomfortable for a reader.
For instance, by the end of "The Dashing Fellow," my fondest desire was that the fellow, dashing away from a woman he has seduced without telling her her father is minutes from dying, would get crushed by a train. No such luck. He feels happy he escaped a messy scene. Nabokov folds the story closed, and the reader is left very practically seething.
Similarly, I felt the French instructor in "The Vane Sisters" and Pilgram in "The Aurelian" needed smacked until they were instilled with a modicum of human solidarity. But solidarity is not an everyday sentiment in an epoch of imperialist decay. Nabokov clearly sneers at it; for him any sentiment is just another way the human animal kids itself.
The material sensuality of Nabokov's prose suggests whole centuries of backstory to each brief tale. The narrator of "The Visit to the Museum" finds himself in a building much larger inside than outside; so large an exit door leaves him stranded in another country.
"Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster" puts the entire bitter existence of conjoined twins into ten pages, and we feel nothing essential has been omitted.
"Signs and Symbols" has such a lifetime's poignancy it brought tears to my eyes.
The stories I read were perfectly crafted works of realism. But it would be very hard to take that level of realism, to live with it, at novel-length.
20 August 2017
A few excerpts I found striking:
The Dashing Fellow (early 1930s)
....The taxi pulled up in front of an old, coal-black house with green shutters. They climbed to the fourth landing and there she stopped and said, “And what if there’s somebody else there? How do you know that I’ll let you in? What’s that on your lip?”
“A cold sore,” said Kostya, “just a cold sore. Hurry up. Open. Let’s dismiss the whole world and its troubles. Quick. Open.”
They entered. A hallway with a large wardrobe, a kitchen, and a small bedroom.
“No, please wait. I’m hungry. We shall first have supper. Give me that fifty-mark note, I’ll take the occasion to change it for you.”
“All right, but for God’s sake, hurry,” said Kostya, rummaging in his wallet. “There’s no need to change anything. Here’s a nice tenner.”
“What would you like me to buy?”
“Oh, anything you want. I only beseech you to make haste.”
She left. She locked him in, using both keys. Taking no chances. But what loot could one have found here? None. In the middle of the kitchen floor a dead cockroach lay on its back, brown legs stretched out. The bedroom contained one chair and a lace-covered wooden bed. Above it, the photograph of a man with fat cheeks and waved hair was nailed to the spotty wall. Kostya sat down on the chair and in a twinkle substituted the morocco slippers for his mahogany-red street shoes. Then he shed his Norfolk jacket, unbuttoned his lilac braces, and took off his starched collar. There was no toilet, so he quickly used the kitchen sink, then washed his hands and examined his lip. The doorbell rang.
He tiptoed fast to the door, placed his eye to the peephole, but could see nothing. The person behind the door rang again, and the copper ring was heard to knock. No matter—we can’t let him in even if we wished to.
“Who’s that?” asked Kostya insinuatingly through the door.
A cracked voice inquired, “Please, is Frau Bergmann back?”
“Not yet,” replied Kostya. “Why?”
“Misfortune,” said the voice and paused. Kostya waited.
The voice continued, “You don’t know when she will be back in town? I was told she was expected to return today. You are Herr Seidler, I believe?”
“What’s happened? I’ll pass her the message.”
A throat was cleared and the voice said as if over the telephone, “Franz Loschmidt speaking. She does not know me, but tell her please—”
Another pause and an uncertain query: “Perhaps you can let me come in?”
“Never mind, never mind,” said Kostya impatiently, “I’ll tell her everything.”
“Her father is dying, he won’t live through the night: he has had a stroke in the shop. Tell her to come over at once. When do you think she’ll be back?”
“Soon,” answered Kostya, “soon. I’ll tell her. Good-bye”
After a series of receding creaks the stairs became silent. Kostya made for the window. A gangling youth, death’s apprentice, rain-cloaked, hatless, with a small close-cropped smoke-blue head, crossed the street and vanished around the corner. A few moments later from another direction appeared the lady with a well-filled net bag.
The door’s upper lock clicked, then its lower one.
“Phew!” she said, entering. “What a load of things I bought!”
“Later, later,” cried Kostya, “we’ll sup later. Quick to the bedroom. Forget those parcels, I beseech you.”
“I want to eat,” she replied in a long-drawn-out voice.
She smacked his hand away, and went into the kitchen. Kostya followed her.
“Roast beef,” she said. “White bread. Butter. Our celebrated cheese. Coffee. A pint of cognac. Goodness me, can’t you wait a little? Let me go, it’s indecent.”
Kostya, however, pressed her against the table, she started to giggle helplessly, his fingernails kept catching in the knit silk of her green undies, and everything happened very ineffectually, uncomfortably, and prematurely.
“Pfui!” she uttered, smiling....
The Aurelian (1930)
....the stroke which had almost killed him some time ago (like a mountain falling upon him from behind just as he had bent toward his shoestrings)....
Spring in Fialta (1936)
....We wandered by a café where the tables were now almost dry but still empty; the waiter was examining (I hope he adopted it later) a horrible foundling, the absurd inkstand affair, stowed by Ferdinand on the banisters in passing. At the next corner we were attracted by an old stone stairway, and we climbed up, and I kept looking at the sharp angle of Nina’s step as she ascended, raising her skirt, its narrowness requiring the same gesture as formerly length had done; she diffused a familiar warmth, and going up beside her, I recalled the last time we had come together. It had been in a Paris house, with many people around, and my dear friend Jules Darboux, wishing to do me a refined aesthetic favor, had touched my sleeve and said, “I want you to meet—” and led me to Nina, who sat in the corner of a couch, her body folded Z-wise, with an ashtray at her heel, and she took a long turquoise cigarette holder from her lips and joyfully, slowly exclaimed, “Well, of all people—” and then all evening my heart felt like breaking, as I passed from group to group with a sticky glass in my fist, now and then looking at her from a distance (she did not look …), and listened to scraps of conversation, and overheard one man saying to another, “Funny, how they all smell alike, burnt leaf through whatever perfume they use, those angular dark-haired girls,” and as it often happens, a trivial remark related to some unknown topic coiled and clung to one’s own intimate recollection, a parasite of its sadness.
The Visit to the Museum (1939)
....The very notion of seeing sights, whether they be museums or ancient buildings, is loathsome to me; besides, the good freak’s commission seemed absolute nonsense. It so happened, however, that, while wandering about Montisert’s empty streets in search of a stationery store, and cursing the spire of a long-necked cathedral, always the same one, that kept popping up at the end of every street, I was caught in a violent downpour which immediately went about accelerating the fall of the maple leaves, for the fair weather of a southern October was holding on by a mere thread. I dashed for cover and found myself on the steps of the museum.
"That in Aleppo Once..." (1943)
....During several preceding weeks, my dear V., every time she had visited by herself the three or four families we both knew, my ghostly wife had filled the eager ears of all those kind people with an extraordinary story. To wit: that she had madly fallen in love with a young Frenchman who could give her a turreted home and a crested name; that she had implored me for a divorce and I had refused; that in fact I had said I would rather shoot her and myself than sail to New York alone; that she had said her father in a similar case had acted like a gentleman; that I had answered I did not give a hoot for her cocu de père.
There were loads of other preposterous details of the kind—but they all hung together in such a remarkable fashion that no wonder the old lady made me swear I would not seek to pursue the lovers with a cocked pistol. They had gone, she said, to a château in Lozère. I inquired whether she had ever set eyes upon the man. No, but she had been shown his picture. As I was about to leave, Anna Vladimirovna, who had slightly relaxed and had even given me her five fingers to kiss, suddenly flared up again, struck the gravel with her cane, and said in her deep strong voice: “But one thing I shall never forgive you—her dog, that poor beast which you hanged with your own hands before leaving Paris.”
Signs and Symbols (1948)
....The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” Herman Brink had called it.
In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy—because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings—but alas it is not! With distance the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being.
Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster (1950)
....We emerged upon the highway, a few feet from the audible sea—and there, waiting for us under a cypress, was a carriage we knew, a cartlike affair on high wheels, with Uncle Novus in the act of getting down from the box. Crafty, dark, ambitious, unprincipled little man! A few minutes before, he had caught sight of us from one of the galleries of our grandfather’s house and had not been able to resist the temptation of taking advantage of an escapade which miraculously allowed him to seize us without any struggle or outcry. Swearing at the two timorous horses, he roughly helped us into the cart. He pushed our heads down and threatened to hurt us if we attempted to peep from under our cloak. Lloyd’s arm was still around my shoulder, but a jerk of the cart shook it off. Now the wheels were crunching and rolling. It was some time before we realized that our driver was not taking us home.
The Vane Sisters (1951)
....It was four or five months after her sister’s death that I began seeing Cynthia fairly often. By the time I had come to New York for some vacational research in the Public Library she had also moved to that city, where for some odd reason (in vague connection, I presume, with artistic motives) she had taken what people, immune to gooseflesh, term a “cold water” flat....
....What attracted me was neither her ways, which I thought repulsively vivacious, nor her looks, which other men thought striking. She had wide-spaced eyes very much like her sister’s, of a frank, frightened blue with dark points in a radial arrangement. The interval between her thick black eyebrows was always shiny, and shiny too were the fleshy volutes of her nostrils. The coarse texture of her epiderm looked almost masculine, and, in the stark lamplight of her studio, you could see the pores of her thirty-two-year-old face fairly gaping at you like something in an aquarium. She used cosmetics with as much zest as her little sister had, but with an additional slovenliness that would result in her big front teeth getting some of the rouge. She was handsomely dark, wore a not too tasteless mixture of fairly smart heterogeneous things, and had a so-called good figure; but all of her was curiously frowzy, after a way I obscurely associated with left-wing enthusiasms in politics and “advanced” banalities in art, although, actually, she cared for neither. Her coily hairdo, on a part-and-bun basis, might have looked feral and bizarre had it not been thoroughly domesticated by its own soft unkemptness at the vulnerable nape. Her fingernails were gaudily painted, but badly bitten and not clean.
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov