NABOKV-L post 0000093, Mon, 23 Aug 1993 09:05:46 -0700

John Lavagino's CHORB1 initiated the CHORB discussion and linked
it to the earlier exchange that focussed on MARY. In the following I
present myown rather primitive remarks on CHORB's themes.

Nabokov's title, THE RETURN OF CHORB, points to his major theme.
Chorb's return takes place on two levels: the geographical, and the
psychological. The former merely frames and provides a set of cues for the
latter's world of memory. Nabokov's central thesis, one common to much of
his work, is the relationship of the memory of things past and present
"reality." If Chorb succeeds in recreating his bride in memory, he thinks
he will have exorcized the tragedy and possess her forever. He will be
able to live again. This is the goal of his reverse journey through space
and time. Reality proves him wrong. Although momentarily relieved of his
tragic burden after he awakes, he immediately faces the tragicomic denouement
with his in-laws. One cannot successfully live in a world of idyllic
memories, no matter how richly reconstituted.
The story also has a subtle undercurrent of the supernatural. The
wife dies the purest of deaths, killed by that same stream of electricity
that pours into glass bulbs and gives the brightest light. It is not by
chance that Chorb is unaccountably distressed by the gently swaying
lightbulb in the hotel room. As Nabokov once remarked in a discussion of the
occult: "Electricity. Time. Space. We know NOTHING about these things."
The always laughing wife may have returned to play a joke on the husband
(the comic fiasco of the ending), or to try to jolt him into the loving
realization that he must live in the present, not in shared memories of
their brief past.
Chorb is perhaps not fated to become a great writer, for he lacks
the toughness of mind to live in the present. There is a hint that his
mind has snapped as he sits with his mad, flame-filled eye peeping
through his hands and then gazes at the prostitute with "a meaningless

THE RETURN OF CHORB is a fine, early example of Nabokovian
technique. It employs an omniscient narrator who focuses upon the Kellers
in the opening and closing sections (both set in the present), and on
Chorb in the longer middle section which alternates between the presnet of
Chorb's return and the past of his memories. Events in the present trigger
memories of related scenes from the past. The mention of the wife's
present-tense "illness" evokes Chorb's memory description of her death and
his slow return journey; the picture in his grubby hotel room evokes the
lovers' wedding and flight to the hotel; and Chorb's walk---his
wedding-eve stroll with his fiancee. The striking thing about Nabokov's
narratorial technique is that it proceeds in two dirrections at once. The
present tense narration beginning with Chorb's return moves in the normal
formal direction; the past tense narration stages Chorb's tragedy in
reverse chronological order: the death and the return trip, the wedding
night, the wedding ever stroll. The two counterposed time lines
are linked by the web of memories just as in the image of
the two telegraph lines spanned by the irridescent spider web.
Nabokov's development of the characters is also noteworthy. The
narrator's contempt for the unimaginative, ultra-bourgeois Kellers is
evident. Both are stout, and Herr Keller's face is "simian." Their level
of taste is satirically reflected in the slippers (his -- large, checkered
ones; hers -- tiny red ones with pompons) placed by the newlyweds'
intended bedside. They sit side-by-side on a bedside throw rug with its
incongruously prophetic motto "We are together unto the tomb." The Kellers
stand in grotesque contrast to the sensitive Chorb, an artist caught up in
his subtle perceptions of th wonder of reality. These wonders are shared
by his laughing, namely bride, who is mysteriously and fatally linked with
images of electricity and falling leaves.
"The return of Chorb" is full of the precise verbal detail that
characterizes Nabokov's "mature" writing, e.g., "The same black poodle with
apathetic eyes was in the act of raising a thin hindleg near a Morris
pillar, straight at the scarlet lettering of a playbill announcing
"Parsifal." Detail is also sometimes used for narrative purposes. A good
example is the "lovely blond hair" found in the hotel room washbasin by
Chorb's bride. The hair belongs to the blond prostitute, a frequent
"guest" at the seedy hotel, who later spends the night with Chorb. There
is even a faint suspicion that Keller may have been her client at the time
the hair was left. Also to be noted is the humorous irony in which the
narrative's elegaic tone is deliberately shattered by the abrupt, if
understated comic fiasco of the ending.
D. Barton Johnson