Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026056, Tue, 3 Mar 2015 14:45:54 -0300

A story by V.Nabokov as Vasily Shalfeev in Harpers
<http://harpers.org/archive/2015/> 015 /
<http://harpers.org/archive/2015/03/> MARCH

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<http://harpers.org/departments/miscellany/> MISCELLANY — From the March
2015 issue

The Man Stopped

A story

By <http://harpers.org/author/vladimirvladimirovichnabokov/> Vladimir
Vladimirovich Nabokov

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This untitled and undated piece may well be the last complete unpublished
short story by Vladimir Nabokov. It was probably written and rough-sanded in
the summer of 1926, when Nabokov read the prose by a new crop of Soviet
writers who indulged in an ornamental, oversaturated pseudo-folk style. It
seems that he set out to write a breezy parody, cramming his sentences with
rustic idiom, especially bombastic in dialogue, often recherché and forced.
But as he went on, the tongue left the cheek alone. A clown is juggling
hollow dumbbells, grimacing and puffing, pretending they are pig iron, only
to discover toward the end of his act that they have somehow become true
weights and he should mind not to drop one on his foot, lest his tears
become unfeigned.

The theme Nabokov chose was raw and twinging, the stuff of some of his
subsequent fictions: a man risking his life by crossing, in disguise, the
lethal Soviet border in order to catch a glimpse of his home, from which he
had been brutally ousted, the hope of seeing it ever again dwindling with
every passing year. There was a real chance that one might never return to
the tragic safety of exile, but the pull of the thrilling risk was too
strong not to keep nursing the scenario.

A year after he had drafted the story, Nabokov composed “The Execution,” one
of his most poignant poems, which begins (in his own translation): “On
certain nights as soon as I lie down / my bed starts drifting into Russia, /
and presently I’m led to a ravine, / to a ravine led to be killed.” The hero
of Nabokov’s last novel, who shares with his author more than all three
initials of his name, does venture behind the Iron Curtain, half a century
later and with a false passport, but about the only vestiges of Russia that
had not been trampled out by the U.S.S.R. were the special hue of Saint
Petersburg sunsets and the “shadow of railings on granite” of the Neva

That Nabokov copied the story in fair hand and signed it with a faintly
burlesque botanical pen name “Vasily Shalfeev” — sounding to the Russian ear
somewhat like “John Wort” or “Rod Golden” — seems to suggest that he might
have considered publishing it in an émigré newspaper, perhaps as a
half-leg-pull. In translation, some of the gnarls mentioned above are
carefully reproduced; others had to be smoothed over.

— G. B.

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