Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000496, Fri, 3 Mar 1995 16:57:59 -0800

RJ:The Reunion (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: NABOKV-L presents its weekly excerpt from Roy Johnson's=20
critical study of VN's short stories. Please address your comments to=20

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 15:55:32 GMT
From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>
To: nabokv-l@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu
Subject: The Reunion

This week's story - THE REUNION

Andrew Field describes 'The Reunion' (1932) as a "Chekhovian
study in noncommunication" (LA,p.116) and it is also a study in
failure - a meeting at which nothing of any significance takes
place. But this failure is itself significant in what it tells
us of the two people who meet.

The protagonist of the story is Lev, another in the long line of
Nabokov's Gogolian litterateurs. An =82migr=82 living in Berlin, he
has completed his interrupted university studies in Prague and
now lives in abject poverty, writing occasional articles for
newspapers. He is just about to celebrate the Russian Christmas
with a few friends when he learns that his brother (who has
stayed in the USSR) is going to visit him that evening. Worried
by the potential embarrassment, he cancels the celebration and
wonders what he can possibly talk about with someone he has not
seen for ten years. The brother Serafim arrives, and Lev's worst
fears are then justified. They exchange painfully dull small
talk, fail to make the slightest connexion with each other, and
Serafim leaves after a short while, leaving Lev to wonder if he
can still celebrate with his friends.

Once again closure to the story is offered not by any dramatic
outcome to the meeting, which is an embarrassing non-event for
the two participants (though not for the reader, who is offered
two contrasting views of Russian character under the pressure of
twentieth century events). Instead we are presented with the more
delicate and subtle epiphany of Lev's which emphasises his more
sensitive consciousness and his sense of cultural continuity.

The significance of this failed 'reunion' lies in what we are
invited to see as a contrast between the two brothers who stand
for two different responses to the Russian revolution. Lev has
become an =82migr=82, but he has preserved his links with Russian
culture, studying "Slavophile influences on Russian literature"
(DS,p.128) and keeping its traditional festivals. Towards the end
of the meeting they are both trying to recall the name of a dog
which featured in their childhood: Serafim gives up, but Lev
pursues the issue and eventually remembers the name. He is
keeping the memory of pre-revolutionary Russia alive in this
small act of reverence for the past.

Serafim is completely unlike him: large and overweight where Lev
is thin; insensitive and boorish where Lev is considerate to
others; and almost aggressively philistine: "I don't do much
reading ... Never have enough time" (p.133). Despite this
statement he goes on to give Lev a tedious precis of a trashy
novel he has picked up on a train, and he then delivers a lecture
on magnetic fields. Serafim is a product of the new Soviet Russia
as Nabokov perceived it - unimaginative, vulgar, and time-
serving. In one of Serafim's speeches Nabokov catches the empty
jargon of the apparatchik:

"inasmuch as the fundamental prerequisite of
industrialisation ... is the consolidation of
socialist elements in our economic system generally,
radical progress in the village emerges as one of the
particularly essential and immediate current tasks"

Serafim is a rare instance of a Soviet Russian straying into
Nabokov's work, but the inferences to be drawn from this
character sketch are unmistakable.

In terms of narrative mode there is in this piece further
evidence of the experiments which Nabokov was making in
developing what was eventually to become the hallmark of his
literary style - the conversational, self-conscious narrative
voice which draws attention both to itself and to the realm of
fiction in which it operates. The opening of 'The Reunion'
illustrates well his ability to shift subtly from third person
omniscient mode, into interior monologue, back out again, and
then cheekily pop up to speak directly to the reader in the first
person, drawing attention to his own fiction:

"Lev had a brother, Serafim, who was older and fatter
than he, although it was entirely possible that during
the past nine years - no, wait ... God, it was ten,
more than ten - he had got thinner, who knows. In a
few minutes we shall find out" (p.127)

This "we" may be Lev thinking of his brother's impending arrival,
but there is more than a hint of Nabokov-as-narrator peering over
his shoulder. This foregrounding of the narrator is pushed a
stage further in the stories which followed.

Next week's story - ORACHE