NABOKV-L post 0000563, Thu, 20 Apr 1995 19:31:04 -0700

RJ:The Admiralty Spire (fwd)
EDITORIAL NOTE: This week's excerpt from Roy Johnson's book manuscript on
VN's short stories examines "The Admiralty Spire." Please address any
comments to NABOKV-L.
This week's story - THE ADMIRALTY SPIRE

In preparation for writing 'The Admiralty Spire' Nabokov read all
of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and although he
claimed not to like them his claim is rather like that which he
makes for Dostoyevski: the influence seems present nevertheless.
'The Admiralty Spire' (May 1933) successfully combines a number
of the themes and topics Nabokov had explored in his fiction in the
previous decade - keeping the past alive; the relationship between
art and life; an unhappy love affair; and fictions about fiction. And
he pushes the conversational narrative mode a little further than he
had done before by having his narrator 'speak' to someone else
directly through the medium of a letter.

The narrator is unnamed and he is writing to the author of a cheap
novel (*The Admiralty Spire*) to protest that fictional use has been
made of a love affair he has had in his youth. The author of the
novel purports to be Serge Solntsev, but the narrator claims that he
can detect a female writer behind this *nom de plume*: "Every
sentence of yours buttons to the left" (TD,p.126). First of all he
criticises the authoress for her literary style, then he gives his own
account of the love affair, which he had with a girl called Katya.
The year was 1917, and against the backdrop of a provisional
government (that is, during the *summer* of that year) he recounts
the joy with which they loved each other. He also corrects the
authoress for what he considers her novelistic blunders in portraying
the couple discussing the political events going on around them: he
points out that they were too happy and too absorbed in each other
to notice.

But then the affair comes to an end in the autumn and winter of
that year (that is, *after* the October revolution) when he suspects
that she is losing interest and may have someone else. Desperately
unhappy, he asks to meet her one last time and then they part
forever. All this is related in a manner which mixes a lyrical
evocation of his lost happiness with some amusing buffoonery:

"Do you wish to know what happened? Glad to
oblige. As you lay massively in your hammock and
recklessly allowed your pen to flow like a fountain (a
near pun) you, Madam, wrote the story of my first
love" (p.127)

He then reveals that he imagines the authoress to be Katya herself,
and he wonders how she could so abuse the memory of their affair
by turning it into such cheap fiction: "there was no point in rejoicing
and suffering ... only to find one's past besmirched in a lady's novel"
(p.139) - "lady's" here being pejorative of course [an attitude
occasionally evinced by VN himself]. He appeals to her to stop
writing fiction, and just in case he has made a false identification,
apologises to "colleague Solntsev" (p.139).

He is an amusing enough narrator, but it is possible that he is also
unreliable. For we have two differing accounts of the end of the
affair from which to choose. In his own he walks around St
Petersburg with Katya quite silently, kisses her hand, and then
leaves her. But in her novel he passionately entreats her not to go
and even threatens her with a gun in front of her future husband.
Which of these two accounts are we to believe?

Somehow this second version fits more credibly with what we know
about him already from his own account:

"Sobbing and moaning as I walked, I would try to
persuade myself that it was I who had stopped loving
Katya ... for the hundredth time I tried to make her
tell me with whom she had spent the previous
evening" (p.136)

It is open to us to believe that she has become irritated by his
jealousy and possessiveness (as is the case with so many of
Nabokov's other fictional couples) and that the stoic endurance of
his younger self facing disappointment is itself a wish-fulfilment, a
re-writing of history.

Against this it might be argued that the narrator's other
observations concerning Russia and its culture are realistic and
historically accurate - and that he should therefore be regarded as
reliable. But there is no shortage in Nabokov's work of narrators
who are intelligent, cultivated, and well-informed - and yet
emotionally unhinged in some way: they range from the neurotic
Smurov of 'The Eye' to the university teacher-cum-madman
Kimbote of *Pale Fire*, and of course to the greatest of all his
creations, Humbert Humbert of *Lolita*.

But any unreliability in 'The Admiralty Spire' does not affect the
essential stability of the story, which is principally concerned with
a recording of the past and an assertion of the value of memory.
Nabokov is using the fictional framework to write another passage
(albeit an amusing one) in the sad account of his relationship to
Russia, and especially its culture.

When the narrator and Katya are in their happy phase he recounts
how they tried to store memories against the possible extinction
wreaked by time:

"we were preparing in advance for certain things,
training ourselves to remember, imagining a distant
past and practising nostalgia, so that subsequently
when that past really existed for us, we would know
how to cope with it, and not perish under its burden"

And Nabokov stuffs the story full of literary references drawn from
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Pushkin, Lermontov,
Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and Blok are all
mentioned - and that alongside European writers such as Louis
Bouillet and Verlaine as if to show the contiguity of these as a
cultural heritage (though the choice of French writers is curious).
He also has the narrator explain to Katya the sham of phoney
culture in the form of what were popular fads at the time:

"this was no longer authentic Gypsy art such as that
which enchanted Pushkin ... but a barely breathing,
jaded and doomed muse; everything contributed to
her ruin: the gramophone, the war, and various so-
called *tzigane* songs" (p.130)

On top of this there emerges, reinforced by the descriptions of
Petersburg during the period, a picture of Nabokov's opposition to
the revolution and his feeling of sadness and betrayal as well as loss
at having this culture swept away. And it is one of many instances
in his work in which the loss or betrayal of his country is paralleled
with the betrayal of a woman. Katya betrays the narrator, so does
Russia: he even calls them "two traitresses" (p.138)

This is the serious thematic core of the story, but it should not
obscure the lighthearted fictional construct in which it is contained.
'The Admiralty Spire' is a story which itself offers a critique of story
writing as did 'The Passenger', and in addition to that it toys with
the philosophic relation between one fiction and the meta-fiction
that contains it. The narrator complains about the lady's novelistic
cliches (although we do not have many quoted examples to judge
independently the validity of his claim) but he makes more telling
jibes concerning her prose style:

"How dare you write, 'The pretty Christmas tree with
its *chatoyant* lights seemed to augur to them joy
jubilant'? You have extinguished the whole tree with
your breath, for one adjective placed after the noun
for the sake of elegance is enough to kill the best of
recollections" (p.119)

And it is because the narrator's own style is so lively, supple, and
amusing that we are persuaded to trust his judgement on this

Next week's story - THE LEONARDO