Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000602, Sun, 21 May 1995 10:05:44 -0700

RJ:In Praise of L.I.Shigaev (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: NABOKOV-L presents British Nabokovian Roy Johnson's latest
installment from his book manuscript on Nabokov's short stories. These
analyses are presented for discussion purposes. Please address your
comments to NABOKV-L.
This week's story - IN MEMORY OF L.I.SHIGAEV

With 'In Memory of L.I.Shigaev' (April 1934) Nabokov returns for
his subject to the Dostoyevskian figure of the neurotic petty-
bourgeois. Viktor works in an emigre publishing house but is
sacked for persistent lateness. He goes to pieces, takes to
drink, and begins to have hallucinations of ugly creatures
crawling around him in the squalid room he rents. When he is
thrown out of it he is rescued by the eponymous Shigaev - a
helpful, generous, but not very imaginative Russian bachelor.
Viktor recovers, but when Shigaev leaves to take up a job in
Prague, Viktor sinks back into the moral quagmire from which he
had emerged: "My life is a perpetual good-bye to objects and
people, that often do not pay the least attention to my bitter,
brief, insane salutation" (TD,p.168).

The story is short but curiously unsatisfactory in a number of
senses. Andrew Field discusses it alongside 'The Eye' as a piece
in which Nabokov is exploring alienated and neurotic narrators
(LA,p.223) and certainly at the outset it appears that Nabokov
is setting up Viktor as unreliable. In a first person account he
describes his appalling behaviour to a girlfriend who has chosen
another man: "It all ended with the circuslike whump of a
monstrous box on the ear with which I knocked down the traitress"
(p.160). But then he tells us that this may not in fact be a
truthful account: "this is but one of the conceivable versions
of my parting with her" (p.160).

We take the point, but then no further use is made of this
unreliability: the only subsequent statement he makes which the
reader is in a position to judge independently is when he wonders
"What, then, was the secret of his [Shigaev's] charm, if
everything about him was so dull?" (p.167) when it is obvious
that this charm lies in his kindness and helpfulness to others -
something Viktor will never understand.

The majority of the story is taken up with Viktor's account of
his alcoholic dementia and the character sketch of Shigaev.
Herein lie two further principal weakness of the story. First the
description of the "clammy mass of thick-skinned clods" (p.163)
which haunt Viktor goes on far too long, and second there is no
meaningful relationship between these hallucinations and Shigaev.
The demand for internal coherence in the short story is very
strong: elements which have no logical or necessary connexion
with each other breach the need for harmonisation.

Nabokov has Viktor call his DTs "the most Russian of all
hallucinations" (p.161) and it is obvious that we are being
invited to regard Shigaev as a *positive* example of Russian
society, but any relationship between them is as tenuous as that.
The story may have been intended as a demonstration of Viktor's
*failure*, in his neurotic self-obsession, to give a coherent
account of his experience; but in choosing the first person mode
Nabokov for once fails to provide any compensating authorial
coherence of his own. It is just possible, though unlikely, that
the lack of formal coherence in the narrative is supposed to
reflect the imbalance of Viktor's mind; but if it does so it
illustrates that neurosis is not of itself aesthetically

Next week's story - A RUSSIAN BEAUTY

Roy Johnson | Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk
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Manchester 20 | Fax +44 0161 443 2766