Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025715, Sun, 21 Sep 2014 01:37:24 -0700

Spring in Fialta
“Spring In
Fialta” is of course one of Nabokov’s best and most appreciated stories. It has
a complex structure as well as a somewhat paradoxical center, so I think
careful chronological analysis is a terrific idea. I’d like to examine the first
six paragraphs of the story, which comprise a kind of scene-setting prologue in
panoramic view that takes us to the point where Victor, the narrator, runs into
Nina. These paragraphs establish not
exactly a present tense from which the flashbacks are able to depart, because
the time frame of the story itself, in the first sentence of the second
paragraph, is established as already past (“It was on such a day in the early
thirties that I found myself…on one of Fialta’s steep little streets”) but a
kind of balancing point, so that nothing is quite stable, everything layered.
Using internal clues placed here and there we can establish the platform of the
Fialta time-frame fairly exactly, I think. It takes place during Lent, in 1932.
Lent began February 10th of that year and ended Easter, March 27th.
As the story’s title tells us the season in Fialta is Spring, and going by the
astronomical calendar Spring officially begins on either the 19th or
20th of March, which means that the events in Fialta probably took
place sometime the week before Easter—that is if one goes by Western dating and
several clues in the story suggest this to be the case.

The first
paragraph not only builds Fialta as an impressionistic place for the story to
unfold in, as Maxim Shrayer noted in his intensive analysis of Fialta in his
book The World of Nabokov’s Stories,
it also establishes an existential, metaphysical sense of the world as perception:
past and present, real and unreal, specific and individual, trite and commercial—before
revealing in the second paragraph that the story is a first person narrative. One
of the things I’ve not seen much discussed are two elements wriggling through
the story: the first would be what Nabokov would call “the theme” of kitsch
touristy souvenirs. In the first para, second sentence he writes: “…the blurred
Mt. St. George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture
postcards which since 1910, say….have been courting the tourist from the
sorry-go-round of the prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the
mantelpiece dreams of seashells.” This
theme will be re-iterated and developed incessantly, not only funning the tacky junk
sold to bolster unreal versions of well-traveled exotic spots, but more importantly,
it works as a form of miniaturized theatricality which subtly parodies the
scenes and dreams of Victor’s false, tawdry and rather two dimensional
understanding of the world, including his own motivations. But this isn’t a
moralistic self-righteous satire. Nabokov gives trash it’s amusing, poetic due,
adding humorous depth to his tragic-erotic fantasia. Also, about St. George Mountain. St. George
was a Christian martyr who was beheaded April 23, 303 AD, a date N. would no
doubt have noted with pleasure. And, apropos the story, according to Wikpedia,
there is a legend about St. George’s slaying a dragon. Here is the citation: “a
dragon or crocodile makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of
"Silene" (perhaps modern Cyrene in Libya or the
city of Lydda in the Holy
Land, depending on the source). Consequently, the citizens have to dislodge
the dragon from its nest for a time, to collect water. To do so, each day they
offer the dragon at first a sheep, and if no sheep can be found, then a maiden is the
best substitute for one. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this
happens to be the princess. The monarch begs for her life to be spared, but to no avail. She
is offered to the dragon, but then Saint George appears on his travels. He
faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign
of the Cross,[30] slays the dragon, and rescues the princess.”

I think it’s
possible to read several parallels between Nabokov and this legend, which I
think acts as an ironic subtext to the story. Victor, who’s no victor, fails to
best his rival, Nina’s husband Ferdinand, who is described in the story’s last
para as a “Salamander of Fate” and a “Basilisk […] of good fortune,” a mythical
snake and a lizard-like creature respectively, who may be read as a kind of
lower form of dragon or crocodile, un-slain at story’s close—the point being
that Victor in his action or inaction is a kind of coward, which becomes more
obvious later in the story if not quite understood by the narrator himself.

The second
para carries forward the “souvenir trash” theme, combining it with the second element
of the tale not much noted previously, that is Christian mythical imagery: “coral
crucifixes in a shop window.” In the same sentence Victor spots the first of
the circus posters—Spring’s most famous recurring motif—warning of the fatal
car crash that will kill Nina, even before she as a character arrives on the
scene. Nabokov also puts in one of his
delightful reflexive images to comment on the story’s own structure, which is
about to commence in the second part of the story: “…and the yellow bit of
unripe orange peel on the old, slate-blue sidewalk, which retained here and there
a fading memory of ancient mosaic design.” As the story unfolds it too uses a
misty mosaic design that elegizes and mythicizes the events described. And
remember the yellow orange peels. This color, along with the blue and the mist
and the sea, constantly come back.

In paragraph
3 we are told that the narrator will only be in Fialta a short time on leave
from his family: “I had left my wife and children at home, and that was an
island of happiness always present in the clear north of my being, always
floating beside me, and even through me, I dare say, but yet keeping on the
outside of me most of the time.” This is one of those interesting sentences
which manages to unsay the point it's trying to make by the end, that is that
his home life is happy—he leaves us feeling that the happiness he speaks of though
always present in the “clear north of his being” by remaining outside himself “most
of the time” means he’s really quite alienated from his banal life. The health
of this marriage is a huge question mark over the story, because the narrator’s
insistence on it later makes getting a handle on the narrator’s dilemma
difficult, though I won’t jump ahead. Note too, the train description in this
paragraph: “I had come on the Capparabella express, which, with that reckless
gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, had done its thundering best
to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible.” Trains and
traveling will crop up throughout the story taking on intense metaphorical and
existential meaning, which is fully spelled out in Victor’s described dream
about Nina later on. This Para also contains more touristy souvenirs sold by a
man cruelly described by the narrator as a brigand “hawking local lollipops, elaborate-looking
things with a lunar gloss” on a balustrade separating a café’s terrace from the
sidewalk. The para ends with the second
fatal circus poster: “…the fast colors of a circus advertisement featuring a
feathered Indian on a rearing horse in the act of lassoing a boldly endemic
zebra, while some thoroughly fooled elephants sat brooding upon their
star-spangled banner.”

The 5th para is very interesting because Nabokov, through Victor, uses a feint that
doesn’t pay off until near the end. A plus-foured Englishman, noticed in the
previous paragraph, is now noticed by Victor noticing, he thinks, Nina: “…I
happened to notice the sudden side-roll of his big blue eye straining at its
crimson canthus, and the way he rapidly moistened his lips—because of the
dryness of those sponges, I thought [Victor saw the man go into a shop with
said sponges in the previous para]; but then I followed the direction of his
glance, and saw Nina.” This is an odd
entrance for Nina, I think, the character who will obsess the narrator’s
fancies, as the object of someone else’s lust, but then Victor will often wonder
about her relations with other men, always intent upon proving how attractive
she is to nearly everybody, even homosexuals, and girding a jealousy he cannot
quite articulate. The small joke here is that later he will realize that this
plus foured Englishman was noticing not Nina, but a moth, oft used symbol of
the soul.

The 6th para points out the flimsy nature of the narrator’s and Nina’s relationship—he “fail[s]
to find the precise term” for it in fact. So shallow is it that Nina doesn’t
usually immediately recognize Victor when she comes across him, despite their
having had sex on more than one occasion. She doesn’t recognize him this time
either: “…she remained quite still for a moment, on the opposite sidewalk, half
turning toward me in sympathetic incertitutde mixed with curiosity, only her
yellow scarf already on the move, like those dogs that recognize you before their
owners do—and then she uttered a cry, her hands up, all her ten fingers
dancing, and in the middle of the street, with merely the frank impulsiveness of
an old friendship (she would rapidly make the sign of the cross over me every
time we parted), she kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning…” The yellow scarf connects to the yellow theme
that won’t be completed until it is applied to her husband Ferdinand’s car,
which will carry her to her death—Nina’s fate is color coordinated as any
fashionable woman’s fate should be. Also her making the sign of the cross gives us
more Christian imagery that may perhaps be a callback to the St. George legend.
In any case, these gestures not only play motivic parts in the structure of the
story, but characterize Nina as much as her underwritten part will be, from her
ten-fingered wave, to her slit brown skirt, to her vivacious assumption of
friendship without their really being much more than amorous acquaintance
between them. Her light, glamorous, fair weather approach to living is here
dramatized compactly, and is charming and attractively rendered, but it creates
questions which the narrator, while conscious he’s begged them, seems unable to
resolve, though a distinct unpleasant ambivalence about Nina won’t begin to
surface until the introduction of her husband Ferdinand later on.

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