Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000434, Sat, 21 Jan 1995 09:08:24 -0800

EDITOR'S NOTE: NABOKV-L presents its weekly installment from Roy=20
Johnson's book manuscript on VN's short stories. Comments may be=20
addressed either to Roy Johnson <Roy@MANTEX.DEMON.CO.UK> or to the list. DB=

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This week's story - A BUSY MAN

'A Busy Man' (1931) is a typically post-Chekhovian story in that
it concerns the gradual revelation of character rather than any
series of dramatic events arranged to reach a climax. And it is
a further variation on Nabokov's favourite theme - death -
featuring yet another of his Gogolian petty-bourgeois small men.

Grafitski is a writer of topical poems for newspapers: he is
friendless, shabby, and he leads a completely empty life - "a
life that [makes] little sense - the meagre, vapid existence of
a third-rate Russian =82migr=82" (DS, p.168). He is also neurotically
self-obsessed, but cultivates his sensibility in a manner which
Nabokov renders quite positively. However, he is haunted by a
presentiment that he will die at the age of thirty-three, and
this idea eventually obliterates everything else from his puny
life. He meditates on Death and how it could be avoided or
prepared for. When he reaches what he believes will be his fatal
year he sinks into "transcendental cowardice" (p.176) but
survives to celebrate his thirty-fourth birthday. The story ends
with his feeling relieved but vaguely aware that there was
something he had not understood or thought through properly.

This 'something' is of course the fact that he has wasted his
life waiting for an event which has not taken place, that it was
only this arbitrary notion which gave his life any meaning, that
he has not learned from his own stupidity, and that Death still
awaits him anyway at some unspecified time in the future. The
story is Nabokov's version of the subject Henry James made famous
in 'The Beast in the Jungle'.

It is one of Nabokov's slighter pieces: he seems at his best when
he is handling more energetic narratives full of dramatic ironies
('The Return of Chorb') or when his static meditations are based
upon more complex material ('Spring in Fialta'). What this story
has to commend it however is its development of the subtle
narrative voice Nabokov seemed to be working on at this time.

As his style in general became more self-conscious and baroque
Nabokov began to mingle together a variety of narrative modes.
In this story we have third person omniscient mingled with a form
of first person interlocutor as well as a frequently
indeterminate mode which seems to be something like unspoken

"the dream he now remembered was but the recollection
of a recollection. When was it, that dream? Exact date
unknown. Grafitski answered, pushing away the little
glass pot with smears of yoghurt and leaning his elbow
on the table. When? Come on - approximately? A long
time ago. Presumably, between the ages of ten and
fifteen: during that period he often thought about
death - especially at night" (p.165)

For all his modernity (and his neologisms apart) Nabokov very
rarely invents anything new. What he offers is a virtuoso display
of change-ringing on existing narrative modes and rhetorical
devices. He makes more demands on the reader in doing so of
course - but then he also offers more aesthetic rewards to those
prepared to do the work.

Next week's story TERRA INCOGNITA