Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000492, Sun, 26 Feb 1995 16:07:55 -0800

RJ: Lips to Lips (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following discussion of VN's "Lips to Lips" is drawn=20
from Roy Johnson's <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk> book manuscript onVN's short=
stories. The stories are presented in chronological order. Comments are=20
invited. If they are of general interest, please address them to the=20
list;otherwise, they may be sent directly to Roy Johnson.----DBJ

This week's story - LIPS TO LIPS

'Lips to Lips' (1932) is a story which contains within itself a
critique of the creative process. Rather like Nabokov's other
works which are autobiographically based it is somewhat weaker
than his more obviously inventive fictions, but it has its own
amusing qualities and it does cast light on Nabokov's own
practice as a writer.

Ilya Borisovich Tal is a semi-retired businessman with an itch
for literary fame but no talent for writing. He completes a
trashy romantic novel and is persuaded to submit it to an =82migr=82
review. The editors lavish praise on his work and compare him to
classic writers but regret that publication will not be possible
due to lack of funds. Tal out of vanity gives them money to
produce the review, and its next issue contains a measly three
page extract from his novel with a 'To be Continued' notice.
Swollen with self regard, Tal then discovers that he has been
tricked, and that the editors regard his work as vulgar rubbish.
He reacts indignantly, but then realises that if he wishes to see
the rest of the work in print he must forgive them: "He reflected
that he was old, lonely, that his joys were few, and that old
people must pay for their joys" (RB,p.63)

The principal interest in the story is what it reveals of
Nabokov's literary *credo*. Tal is hopelessly untalented because
he believes that creating fiction is a matter of emotional
outpourings, and he cannot be bothered with the practical
concrete matters of creating verisimilitude:

"His leanings were strictly lyrical, descriptions of
nature and emotions came to him with surprising
facility, but on the other hand he had a lot of
trouble with routine items such as, for instance, the
opening and closing of doors" (p.48)

The story contains extracts from the novel - "Their two hearts
were beating as one" (p.47) - so we know just how effective this
"facility" is. And when he boasts to a colleague that he is
"polishing [his] phrasing" (p.51) the re-write of his novel takes
only one single day. Nabokov is obviously poking fun at Tal's
essentially romantic notion of literary creation, which is in
stark contrast to Nabokov's own belief in the importance of
details, of concreteness, and the creation of precise effects.

He even illustrates the point he is making by offering a
practical example which connects the inner and outer fictional
worlds of Tal's novel and Nabokov's story which 'contains' it
(and to which he gives the same name). As Tal is writing his
novel we learn that the Hero Dolinin is escorting a young woman
out of a theatre. Tal makes several clumsy attempts to describe
the detail of his transactions: "Dolinin went up to the
cloakroom, and after producing his little ticket (corrected to
'both little tickets') - " (p.47). He then creates for him an
elegant cane to carry, without thinking ahead to its
implications: "[he] did not foresee, alas, what claims that
valuable article would make ... when Dolinin ... would be
carrying Irina across a vernal rill" (p.48). That "vernal rill"
creates here perfectly the cliche and romanticism of Tal's
manner; carrying a heroine across raises it to a higher power of
banality; and the forgotten cane is a detail which both
illustrates Tal's ineptness and forms a link between the inner
and the outer narrative. For at the end of the story Nabokov has
Tal himself visit a theatre to do the very thing he could not
successfully describe for his hero; "Ilya Borisovich relinquished
into the hands of an old woman in black his cane, his bowler, and
his topcoat" (p.61)

This is a very typically Nabokovian form of amusing the reader
by having one of his fictions echoed by its meta-fiction. But
what makes it doubly clever and therefore more acceptable is that
he then introduces a variation into his own detail - for on
leaving the theatre Dolinin forgets his cane and has to go back
for it, back to confront the people he has decided to forgive,
which is the ostensible 'point' of the story.

The two separate fictions are thus united and focused onto a
detail which therefore exists on three levels - in Tal's clumsy
invention, in his own life, and for us in Nabokov's story. And
at the same time it serves to act on two other planes,
illustrating the theme of what is required to create successful
fiction - for Tal's lack of skill with a small detail is
illustrated by Nabokov's own dazzling variations upon it and his
own successful integration of these variations into a cohesive

Next week's story - THE REUNION