A Phoenix From the Russian Snow : The perennial warmth of Vladimir Nabokov’s magical stories : THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV,<i> Edited and translated by Dmitri Nabokov (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 659 pp.)</i>
In the winter of 1925, the young Vladimir Nabokov, writing under the pseudonym “Sirin,” published a story called “Christmas” in an emigre newspaper in Berlin. In the story, a father overwhelmed by grief after the death of his son arrives at his estate to bury the young man. The scene is set: winter, cold, the dead beauty of the blinding landscape. The father wanders through the sparkling, ice-covered park, remembering how it looked in summertime: the sun, the bridge, his tanned son brandishing a net (the boy collected butterflies). But now it is so cold that the father’s teeth hurt. He can’t heat the entire house so he spends the night in a warm wing.
During the night he makes his way to the cold part of the house to gather his son’s things--a diary, the net, pins for his butterflies and the cocoon of a giant Indian moth that the young man had bought not long before his death. Crying, the father returns to the warm annex. Why live any longer? The servant brings a small Christmas tree: Take it away. Who needs Christmas? I don’t need anything. The father leafs through his son’s diary and finds notes on butterflies--and on some girl. So his son was in love, and he knew nothing about it. And now he’ll never know.
“Sleptsov got up. He shook his head, restraining yet another onrush of hideous sobs. . . . ‘It’s Christmas tomorrow,’ came the abrupt reminder, ‘and I’m going to die. Of course. It’s so simple. This very night. . . . Death,’ Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence.”
He presses his eyes shut. And at that moment he hears a thin, high sound. He opens his eyes. Awakened by the warmth, the Indian moth had broken through its cocoon and emerged as a huge, magnificent creature with black wings and purple markings. It crawls along the wall, stretching and spreading its wings, “and now they were developed to the limit set for them by God.”
Were it not for its extraordinary language, this early story would be almost embarrassingly schematic--so sincere and naive is its symbolism, especially in the Russian version. Some details--unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately--will remain impenetrable for the American reader. For instance, the Russian word for Christmas is rozhdestvo, or “birth.” The father’s surname, “Sleptsov,” means “blind.” Not only is he blind, failing to see that death doesn’t really exist, but he even closes his eyes at the decisive moment and the winged creature’s birth occurs without witness. The beauty of the sunlit winter landscape is described as “blinding”: the cold, unheated half of the house as a crypt.
The metaphors are so obvious that it’s even a little embarrassing to read them: “the wing (warm and small) was connected by a wooden gallery, now encumbered with our huge north Russian snowdrifts, to the master house. . . .” The wooden gallery is an umbilical cord, a tunnel that connects either side of being; the snow is death; Christmas is the day when the Son is born; the cocoon is a grave; until the grave we are all worms; after the grave, butterflies; open your eyes and you’ll see for yourself. It’s no accident that on each wing of the newborn butterfly, like a hint and a joke--is a “glazy eyespot.”
Both the theme and the message of the story were appropriate for the Christmas issue of the paper, and the marvelous description of the Russian winter probably provoked cruel attacks of nostalgia in Russian exiles pining away in the rotten January of Western Europe.
Now that the emigration of Russians after the revolution has become a page of history, and Nabokov has been dead for 18 years, the story “Christmas” stands humbly in its proper place, near the beginning of this new collection of Nabokov’s stories and in the shadow of other, better works. Sirin-Nabokov had his whole long, happy and successful life ahead of him: He was destined to become a great Russian and American writer and to tell his son before his death that he had been able to pursue all his dreams.
Nabokov was born in 1899 to one of the best aristocratic families of Russia. The family was handsome, wealthy, talented and happy. In 1917 the family escaped into emigration, first in England, then Berlin; in 1922 the writer’s beloved father was killed (shielding his political opponent with his body, he took an assassin’s bullet himself).
The family grew poorer and the writer made his living by giving lessons. Almost all Russian emigre writers had tragic lives: Discarded on foreign shores, some in youth and others in old age, they could not come to terms with the loss of their country, love, money, readers, home, former happiness, children, parents, the meaning of life and a thousand familiar little things. Too often, the tragedy of the Russian emigration ended in poverty, addiction, alcoholism, fights, heart-rending nostalgic texts and suicide.
In human terms, Nabokov lost more than many others, yet he remained constantly, surprisingly happy. His heroes--often the author’s doubles--are drowning in happiness, swimming in it; they are brimming with enthusiasm for life. Indeed, the metaphor of Nabokov’s life is Christmas (birth), rebirth, resurrection, Easter.
“You are buried in snow, Russia,” pined the poet Georgy Ivanov. Yes, the master house is also buried in snow, but Nabokov goes there at night along the magical gallery of his imagination (in the story “Visit to the Museum,” the novel “Podvig” and in his poems) and takes everything he fancies: memories of first love and a butterfly net and a cocoon. Does the language grow impoverished, fade in foreign lands? No. Nabokov creates the best literary Russian language in the 20th century--a language that still serves as a reproach to the withered style of Soviet authors.
Fate drove the writer from Germany to France and then to America; what chance does a Russian writer have in America? None. So Nabokov becomes an American writer and writes in English, rises from the ashes almost more beautiful than before. His Russian pseudonym is a magical singing bird, analogous to the sirens. Phoenix might have been even more appropriate.
These 65 stories by Nabokov, which his son gathered together in one volume for the first time, do not illuminate the mystery of the writer’s magical ability to be happy, but they do bring the reader closer to this magic. Happiness is infectious--everyone who reads this book will feel it. Even the saddest, most tragic stories--about death, loss and betrayal--are written so that the reader is left with the distinct foretaste of happiness, as if happiness were the genuine lining, the inside of being, which shines through the gloomy patchwork of reality. This happiness is directly related to art: He who possesses a creative gift (including the gift of reading!) fears nothing. Loss, transformed by art, turns to gain.
Nabokov might be considered “lucky.” After all, he escaped death in both the Russian revolution and World War II, was a successful writer and had a happy family life. But it is really we, his readers, who are the lucky ones. If Nabokov had not lost Russia (and Russia had not lost Nabokov), we Russians would not have one of the best prose writers of the 20th century, and if Nabokov had not been obliged to escape to America in the face of fascism, there would be no American Nabokov.
For Russians, he is a Russian writer; for Americans, an American writer. But for both he is a bit the foreigner, unusual, different. And his stories are different, complex, with many-layered plays on words, linguistic and semantic tricks, like the chess games that the author so loved. They are full of mirrors, reflections, transformations and twists of fate, all adroitly controlled by the writer’s hand. Ideally, he requires the attention of a gourmet reader, a picky connoisseur, a potential equal. Those who value only literary fast food will not go away hungry, but will be left with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction--as if they have swallowed a dish whole, without tasting it.
The translation of almost all the Russian stories in this collection, except for the new 13, are “the fruit of cloudless collaboration between father and son,” as Dmitri Nabokov writes in his introduction, but “the father had authorial license to alter his own texts in their translated form.”
For the bilingual reader, there’s an additional pleasure--to see how marvelously the Russian original shines through the translation. This collection can be read as individual stories or as one large text--a mirror broken in pieces but reflecting that very same Nabokovian spirit; like a bunch of keys, hints and sketches that subsequently will be used in the novels. Those who know Nabokov the novelist and have forgotten that Nabokov the story writer exists now have a precious gift in their hands.
In the mirror, reflections are reversed, so that now, 70 years after “Christmas,” the son brings out of the cold master house a huge cocoon of a book, eager to awaken. We open this book and Nabokov’s voice, like the butterfly in the story, takes “a full breath under the impulse of tender, almost human happiness.”
For those who want them, the pins are on the book cover.