NABOKV-L post 0002444, Thu, 9 Oct 1997 10:56:16 -0700

VN & Dovlatov's story "Life is short" (fwd)

A while ago I came across a short story by Sergei Dovlatov called "Life is
short" ("Zhizn' korotka", published originally in "Vremya i my", New York,
1988, No.102, and republished in "Zvezda", St Petersburg, some time in
1995 or 1996 I think). I thought the list might be interested, as it's
clearly, if not directly, about VN. A brief synopsis - The emigre Russian
author Ivan Levitsky wakes up on his 70th birthday in the hotel in
Switzerland where he lives, and mulls over some half-forgotten metaphors
that had occurred to him overnight. He thinks of some choice birthday
phrases for journalists before being warned by his maid Gerlinda that a
woman is waiting for him in the lobby with a present. The story switches
briefly to the woman in question, Regina Gasparian, who had been brought
up in a prominent intelligentsia family, enjoyed a typical Soviet
childhhod, and had emigrated in the 1970s along with most of her friends.
The story of her preoccupation with Levitsky allows us to glean a few more
details about him: son of a prominent Menshevik, butterfly-collector and
amateur boxer, emigrated in 1919, studied in Prague, settled in France.
The war forced him to flee to the US, where he switched his writing to
English. Regina, having heard on "Voice of America" that Levitsky does
not have a copy of his first book, a slim volume of poems called
"Awakening" published in Petersburg in 1916 (referred to by Levitsky as
being"sketches of my subsequent novels"), decides to find one before she
leaves the USSR in order to present it to him in Switzerland. Eventually
she gets hold of one, and years later writes him a letter, to which he
replies: "You know the address. I work after six. So come in the
morning. And please don't bring any flowers, as they have a habit of
wilting. PS: don't trip over my boots, which I leave outside my door
every night." They finally meet in the hotel lobby, and Regina gushes
about her favourite books of his "Daleki bereg", "Shar", and
"Proiskhozhdenie tango" (which don't really translate very well, I'm
afraid! - TP). She presents him with the book, which he opens to find a
poem called "Tropinki sna" ("Paths of sleep?") with the famous enjambment
"smushch - enie". In addition Regina proffers him a manuscript of her
most recent short stories, and asks embarassedly if he could find the time
to send her a brief indication of his opinion. Levitsky makes his excuses
and returns towards his room; on the way he throws both his "Awakening"
and her "Summer in Karlsbad" down the rubbish-chute, already composing the
words of the warm review he will write about the unread stories. In my
opinion the story is very well-balanced between the not very endearing
Levitsky (described mostly through third persons as haughty, misogynist,
inaccessible (becoming acquainted with his cook is considered a great
achievement), "too egotistical to be religious" etc., and the similarly
unappealing Regina, with her pretensions of literary genius and her taking
offence at Levitsky not showing any particular interest in her. One can,
I suppose, take the story as reflecting rather badly on Levitsky/VN, but
it doesn't have to be read that way. As well as a couple of slips, there
are a few nice touches - an early mention of Levitsky's dislike of Wagner
echoed obliquely later on, and the title of Regina's latest short stories
- but I'm not sure how successful the story is ultimately. The title
comes from an apparently sincere moment when Levitsky unexpectedly
whispers to Regina "Don't forget the most important thing - life is
short..." - I'm unclear what this is meant to signify. I'd be very
interested in anyone else's opinion about the story - there are doubtless
Nabokovian echoes which I've failed to pick up (did VN play a game called
"akulina", and if so what is it?!). Dovlatov often mentioned Nabokov in
his interviews (as I remember, always positively), and was very proud to
have been the second ever Russian story-teller published in "The New
Yorker", after the man himself. If I've encouraged anyone out there to
read Dovlatov (a particular favourite of mine - read "Zapovednik"!) for
the first time, then I'll be happy! Please excuse my longwindedness.

Tom Pedrick