Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000422, Thu, 12 Jan 1995 09:31:37 -0800

RJ:A Bad Day
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>

EDITOR'S Note: The following discussion of a Nabokov short story is part
of a weekly series on NABOKV-L. Please direct your comments to NABOKV-L
or directly to the author, Roy Johnson. DBJ

This week's story A BAD DAY

'A Bad Day' (1931) is one of a pair of stories (the other is
'Orache') which for Nabokov are unusual in two senses. First,
they have a young boy, Peter Shishkov, as protagonist, and second
they are set in pre-revolutionary Russia "around 1910" (DS,
p.44). The impulse behind the stories is quite clearly a
combination of evoking the past and making a biographical record
of a lost age. This is understandable given the prominence of
personal loss in Nabokov's life, but rather surprisingly, the
stories seem to suffer because of it.

In 'A Bad Day' Peter is taken to name-day celebrations at a
neighbouring estate, although he would prefer to be at home,
playing alone. He tries to be co-operative with the adults he
encounters, but in general he feels cut off from his
surroundings. Obliged to joint other children, he is both ignored
and rebuffed by them, and whilst playing hide and seek they
abandon the game without telling him. He eventually rejoins them,
only to be rebuffed again.

The reader is given every reason to sympathise with Peter
throughout his boredom and his humiliation. As a character sketch
it is a perfectly credible portrait of a sensitive young
adolescent. He "did not want to hurt people" (p.29); he behaves
co-operatively even though he feels bored; he has a crush on a
young girl and admires his slightly older cousin, Vasily. The
children are hurtful by saying that they will not speak to him
any more and accusing him of being a poseur. It is precisely for
these reasons that Field sees the story as "a universal
experience shared by all children" (LA, p.50) and he is surely
right to say that this is "one of the comparatively small number
of Nabokov's works which seek directly to engage the reader's
strong sympathy" (LA,p.50).

But this is not all one may say of Peter Shishkov - for when he
thinks the other children have gone on a picnic without him he
plans to fake his own suicide: he

"thought that somewhere near ... there must be a lily
pond and that he might leave on its bank his
monogrammed handkerchief and his silver whistle on its
white cord while he himself would go, unnoticed, all
the way home" (p.41).

We may not judge him severely for such self indulgence, but there
is perhaps *some* justification for his peers calling him "the

But as a composition the story is flawed in two important
respects. There are far too many named characters who make no
contribution to it or have no special significance, and by far
the greatest amount of attention is given simply to an
atmospheric and sensory evocation of what we know to be Nabokov's
own past. The journey merely to arrive at the estate occupies a
quarter of the story, and almost all Peter's actions are used as
a vehicle for the sort of linguistically baroque ornamentation
for which Nabokov is so well known:

"between turns some of the players sought the bilberry
jungle under the trees of the park. The berries were
big, with the bloom dimming their blue, which revealed
a bright violet luster if touched by beslavered
fingers" (p.35)

This degree of wordplay and alliterative ingenuity may be
poetically impressive, but it seems excessive given the demands
for strict significance and compression demanded by the short
story as a literary form. Perhaps it belongs more properly with
the chapters of biographical reminiscence which go to make up
*Speak, Memory*.

Next week's story A BUSY MAN