"Christmas", miracles and a query
V.Nabokov writes, in Pale Fire: “We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.” *
There’s a footnote in “Nabokov's Theatrical Imagination” by Sigrun Frank (2012) that describes an aspect of VN’s use of the word “miracle” : “Apparently, Nabokov does not distinguish between mystery and miracle play. The Russian ‘misteriia’ is not translated as ‘mystery play’ but as ‘miracle play’ (KQK,11), the Russian equivalent of which would be ‘mirakl’. It is tempting to speculate that Nabokov opted for ‘miracle play’ because of its potential to create and ironic tension between its religious, pious connotation and Martha’s use of the word when referring to any incident which furthers her scarcely pious aim to kill her husband as ‘a miracle’ (for instance, KQK,133;160).”
According to Brian Boyd, this time concerning V.Nabokov’s 1924 short-story (“The Magic of Artistic Discovery”,140): “In ‘Christmas’ we as readers also see at once the irony of the ‘miracle’ that refutes Sleptov’s conclusion that the world is ‘devoid of miracles’ […] That life gives no direct signs of anything beyond life the mature Nabokov accepts as a condition of his exploration of the hereafter…”
When I consider my rereader’s fresh reaction to Christmas I find it hard to agree with Brian. For me, miracles are possible in VN’s fiction ( I cannot proffer special quotes now but I think we all agree that as a writer VN sees himself as the god of his creations). He might not have been ironic when he chose to have a dark butterfly take wing at the exact moment when the dead boy’s father (Sleptsov) despaired of life. Outside of his fiction it also appears to me that VN left “a transcendental world or design” an open question (he might have entertained a critical view of John Shade’s own divine attributes, though).
I hope to return to “Christmas” some other time, relating it to VN’s peculiar blend of despair and joy in that story. Today I’d like to consult you in connection to its opening sentence: “After walking back from the village to his manor across the dimming snows, Sleptsov sat down in a corner, on a plush-covered chair which he never remembered using before. It was the kind of thing that happens after some great calamity.” I wonder what “he never remembered using before” means in the overall context - if its construction was deliberately misleading.
* - Miracles, in the sense of what he called an “organic miracle” * are not simply conjuring tricks, although VN seems to imply it: “I am witnessing a physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse. And I experienced the same thrill as when in my early boyhood I once watched across the tea table in my uncle’s castle a conjurer who had just given a fantastic performance and was now quietly consuming a vanilla ice. I stared at his powdered cheeks, at the magical flower in his buttonhole where it had passed through a succession of different colors and had now become fixed as a white carnation, and especially at his marvelous fluid-looking fingers which could if he chose make his spoon dissolve into a sunbeam by twiddling it, or turn his plate into a dove by tossing it up in the air … Shade’s poem is, indeed, that sudden flourish of magic: my gray-haired friend, my beloved old conjurer, put a pack of index cards into his had – and shook out a poem.” (Pale Fire)
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