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Notes on The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

November 9, 2010

1. The earliest ones aren’t very good. I’m struck by how finite their achievements are. You know, they lack the sort of categorical virtuosity you get from something like Lolita or Pale Fire.

2. It’s one thing for Humbert Humbert to admire the nape of someone’s neck, and another thing for the numerous Russian emigres and literati of these stories admire the napes of people’s necks. What Nabokov did with Lolita and Pale Fire was find settings in which his ridiculous prose style is appropriate. In those books there’s a lovely dissonance between what’s being said and the way it’s being said – between the smarminess of the narrators and the floweriness of their voices; on top of which you get this coyness, this playfulness (“you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” p. 1, Lolita), which makes the narrator weirdly endearing. Nabokov’s habit of directly addressing the reader, his alliteration, his willingness to use a word like “ablaze” to describe the way light hits a metal roof…it’s inevitably over the top, and it needs the complex, undercutting context of Lolita or Pale Fire to work.

3. What can you do with a story like “Bachmann”? It centers on a drunk, emotionally pained pianist and the frail, soothing woman who understands him. What do you think, in the end she dies and he goes insane. The patness of these characters and their relationship is pretty complete.

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