Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025739, Sun, 28 Sep 2014 11:18:52 -0500

The Nabokovs and Spring in Fialta
I’ve been writing a book about the works and lives of four twentieth
century authors: Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, Graham Greene and H. G. Wells. In one of the chapters, I linked “Spring in
Fialta” with Nabokov’s relationship with Irina, which I am reproducing
here. I would be enormously grateful for
criticism and comments. Here goes….


Then, a
month later, Irina appeared quite suddenly and unexpectedly at the beach where
Nabokov and just arrived for a morning swim with Dmitri.

Although he still loved her, he told her, he felt too much for his
wife. He asked her to leave, but she
would not, and when he and Dmitri settled on the beach she sat down some
distance off. An hour later Vera joined
her husband and son. When the family
left for lunch, Irina still remained.
Later, Nabokov told Vera about Irina’s vigil. It was the last time he and Irina ever met.[i]

Nabokov never regretted his decision to honor his marriage and monogamy. Brian Boyd notes that at exactly the time of
the end of his affair with Irina, Nabokov was completing The Gift, which ends with a reference to a scene in Eugene Onegin,
in which the married Tatiana renounces her love for Onegin. Like Pushkin’s scene, Nabokov’s writes this
scene of Fyodor and Zina together in stanza form and describes Fyodor as
blessed with faithful love. Boyd points out that Pushkin’s Tatiana continues to
love Onegin, tearfully re-reading his letters.
Not Nabokov.

Nabokov, in contrast, was absolute in his decision. He sent Irina’s letters back to her and asked
her to return his: they contained so much invention, they were not worth
keeping. [...]Nabokov resolutely put the past behind him, and he and Vera soon
found their old footing. Ahead lay
another forty years of serenely happy marriage.
To those who saw Vladimir and Vera Nabokov at closer range, they seemed
like young lovers even in their sixties and seventies.[ii]

Nevertheless, it is necessary to examine what Irina meant to Nabokov. He was forced to make a choice, which he
never regretted, but that does not mean that the runner up was unimportant to
him, or that it cost him nothing to relinquish her. And I believe that his feelings for her most
likely surface in one of his finest stories, “Spring in Fialta”, a story of a
brief almost meaningless adulterous affair, which is nevertheless haunting. The
story is modeled on Chekov’s story “The Lady with the Lapdog”.

in Fialta” was in some semblance of manuscript form before Nabokov left for
England ---we know that he allowed Moura Budberg to attempt a translation and
commented on her effort in his letter of February 20 a letter that also
referred to “all the Irinas in the world”. The timing of the story, and the
subject of adultery, suggests the likelihood that the story has some of the
emotion of this affair. Much, if not all, of it was written before Vera was
told about Irena, but it was published afterward, in 1938. It is impossible to
know how or if the story changed throughout the affair and its ending.

hero-narrator begins his story upon rapturously returning to misty and mystic
Fialta, an imaginary location which borrows its geography from Yalta. “ 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 reference to his family is out of keeping with the rest of the story, and
seems uncharacteristically awkward.

It is
1932. As he meanders about the town, he happens to see a woman who had been his
friend and then lover. Their relationship started innocently as teenagers in
1917 when he stole a kiss. This meeting in Fialta, will be their last, (she
will soon be killed in a car accident) and little hints of her impending death
are dropped by the narrator, like Hansel dropping crumbs in the woods, the
pathos increasing with each crumb.

spend the day together, her husband Ferdinand goes off with his friend and
driver Segur (ironically named, as in Spanish this means safe or secure) in
Segur’s big yellow Icarus car, to buy trinkets. The flying car will soon be
brought low.

story is gorgeously constructed. The first person narrator interrupts his tale
of this last day together five times as he stumbles upon various announcements
of the arrival of a circus—descriptions of four variously lurid posters and
finally a pageant heralded by trumpets and zithers as the circus, like death,
inexorably approaches. Three times he happens upon another visitor, an Englishman in plus fours
who is always examining something--drying sponges in the window of a pharmacy,
Nina (his gaze draws leads the narrator to notice her that day) and finally, a
moth, while his “bright crimson drink”
and bloodshot eyes foreshadow Nina’s bloody death. Then there are the
pauses in the flow of the story by the entry of her husband, Ferdinand, in real
time and in recollection. But most significantly, the flow of real time is
interspersed with the narrator’s story of their history together, all chance
meetings since their youth. (“Back into the past, back into the past, as I did
every time I met her, repeating the whole accumulation of the plot from the very beginning up to the
last increment—thus in Russian fairy tales the already told bunched up again at
every new turn of the story). The hours, and the telling, are turning, turning,
and back again, like the hands of a clock.” [check quote]

In past
meetings, she has always been warm but casual to him, almost dismissive, but he
has grown more and more intense about her.
At the fourth meeting, at a hotel where coincidentally they both are
staying, she takes him back to her room and they make love. From that time on, he is affected by a
“growing morbid pathos”, while she continues to be casual, “as if she has
already forgotten what occurred earlier between them.”[iii]

can’t decide “what exactly she meant to me” and “still less do I understand
what was the purpose of fate in bringing us constantly together.” He puzzles over the fact that “Again and
again she hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in
the least its basic text,” while “with each new meeting I grew more and more
apprehensive.” The crux of his feelings for her are found in the following

... my married life remained unimpaired, while on the other hand her
eclectic husband ignored her casual affairs although deriving some profit from
them in the way of pleasant and useful connections. I grew apprehensive because
something lovely, delicate and unrepeatable was being wasted: something which I
abused by snapping off pure bright bits in gross haste while neglecting the
modest but true core that perhaps it kept offering me in a pitiful whisper.
[...] No, the thing was absurd. And moreover was she not chained to her
husband by something stronger than love—the staunch friendship between two
convicts? Absurd! But then
what should I have done with you, Nina, how should I have disposed of the store
of sadness that had gradually accumulated as a result of our seemingly
carefree, but really hopeless meetings?[Italics supplied.]

There it is, an apology for Irena to read. The
narrator is in a hopeless situation with Nina/Irena. He also considers that he
is abusing her—and “neglecting” her “modest but true core that perhaps kept
offering me in a pitiful whisper.”

love is mixed with pity. Pity suggests a feeling of protectiveness and
recognition of vulnerability and a knowledge of pain. It is the kind of emotion
that Nabokov forcefully represents with children (the doomed Hazel in Pale Fire, the doomed son in Bend Sinister, the doomed daughter in Laughter in the Dark, and, of course
Lolita.) One thinks of the climactic
scene in Lolita when Humbert stops his car on a mountain road, and looks down
on the town below, hears the laughter and voices of children at play, and
finally experiences a realization of what he has done to Lolita: “and then I knew that
the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the
absence of her voice from that concord.” Humbert might add, in the words of “Fialta” that “something lovely, delicate and
unrepeatable was being wasted” –Lolita’s carefree childhood. Graham Greene does the same thing, as does
Wells in Mr. Polly. We see this in Greene’s fiction starting with
the Power and the Glory which Greene
was writing at this time, in the Priest’s feelings towards his illegitimate
daughter.[iv] These are all the heart-stopping moments of
the books. [....]

Boyd, 440, quoting from a letter to Irina in a private collection (FN 37,
Chapter 19.

Boyd 444.

[iii] p

[iv] And
later in The Heart of the Matter when
Scobie becomes involved in a hopeless adulterous affair with young woman whom
he pities.

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