Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000384, Sun, 20 Nov 1994 13:01:38 -0800

RJ:The Passenger (fwd)
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is part of a weekly series in which one
Nabokov story is presented for discussion. The treatments are drawn from
Roy Johnson's book manuscript on Nabokov's short stories. They are being
presented in chronologicla order.


In 'The Passenger' (February 1927) Nabokov takes the device of
manipulating reader-expectation and elevates it into the very subject of
the story itself, whose theme is once again the relationship between Life
and Art. 'Life is more talented than we' observes an unnamed author: 'The
plots life thinks up now and then! How can we compete...?' (DS,p.73). The
writer is discussing this relationship with a literary critic, and to
illustrate his point recounts an incident in which he was travelling on an
overnight express. The story begins with his settling happily into a lower
berth *couchette* and falling asleep.

The writer then immediately interrupts his own story to point to a
fictional convention. 'And here let me use a device cropping up with
dreary frequency in the sort of story to which mine promises to belong'
(p.74). This 'promises' alerts us to the self-consciousness of Nabokov's
narration and of course, to those acquainted with his playfulness, it
suggests that the exact opposite might occur, or at least there may be
some variation or expectation-reversal.

The conventional device is that he is woken suddenly in the middle of the
night - but then he makes light fun of the convention by revealing that he
was disturbed merely by the foot of a fellow traveller who has boarded at
some night stop and is clambering into the bunk above. The foot however is
a particularly repugnant sight to him: 'all I could visualise was that
conspicuous toenail which showed its bluish mother-of-pearl sheen through
a hole in the wool of the sock' (p.75). The fellow traveller then begins
to sob uncontrollably throughout the night, mumbling words which are
unintelligible. The scene becomes embarrassing, mystifying, and annoying
to the writer (now the 'narrator'). He cannot understand what could cause
such pitiful sobbing.

Early the next morning the train makes an unscheduled stop and police get
on board. A criminal has boarded the train in the night: he is a betrayed
husband who has shot his wife and her lover. The police make a carriage to
carriage search, but when they rouse the mysterious traveller nothing out
of the ordinary happens: 'the detective demanded his passport, distinctly
thanked him, then went out' (p.78). And that is the end of the anecdote.
The narrator's art had assembled all the ingredients in readiness for a
neat resolution. 'How nice it would have seemed' the writer comments on
his own story, 'if the evil-footed, weeping passenger had turned out to be
a murderer...how nicely that would have fitted...into the frame of a short
story' (p.79). But Art was cheated by a more inventive Life. It is not,
however, the end of the story.

The writer asks the critic (and by implication the reader) to confess that
he thought the sobbing passenger was the criminal. But no, the critic is
used to the writer's methods: 'I am well aware that you like to produce an
impression of inexpectancy' (p.79) and he goes on to argue that even when
we are baffled by life [why *is* the traveller crying?] the author owes it
to Literature to be inventive: 'You, as a writer of fiction, would at
least have thought up some brilliant solution' (p.80). And he offers the
writer a couple of alternative explanations - that the man has lost his
wallet or has toothache (both of which seem rather feeble).

What Nabokov illustrates here is a rule which for all his experimentation
and modernism keeps him firmly allied with the traditional nineteenth
century writers of fiction and shows his respect for the conventions of
the short story form. The rule is this: a writer is at liberty to play
tricks with readers, to divert their attention, mislead them, and give
them false expectations - but ultimately the writer must offer some
resolution to the story, even if this is only lightly suggested or
implied. It is not enough to create mysteries with no solution or to
baffle readers leaving them no possibility of redress.

Nabokov went on to generate many inventive strategies for reader
manipulation, but he never abandoned adherence to this rule - just as for
all the trickiness of his literary puzzles, plot intricacies, and
unreliable narrators, readers are always given a fair chance to work out
what is going on. They are given this chance if they are attentive and are
prepared, as Nabokov demands, to 'notice and fondle details'.[*Lectures on
Literature*, p.1]

And of course just because readers' expectations may be disappointed does
not mean that the story is unsatisfactory in its closure. As Susan Lohafer
observes in her comments on how stories end:

A story can lead us into disarray and yet
make us feel that we've assimilated our
information in a satisfactory - though
difficult - way. The deferred cognitive
closure may be by far the richest part of
the experience.

Next week's story - THE DOORBELL