Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025872, Tue, 2 Dec 2014 17:36:29 -0200

"Christmas" miracles
In a former posting I wrote that: “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. ..”

Concerning miracles in VN’s fiction and the writer as God: “ the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal; he must create them himself” * or, as Leona Toker concludes: “For Nabokov, the fragment of the divine within every human being belongs not only to the transcendent dimension but also to this very real world of ours: the ‘inner’ mystery of feeling, genuine love, tenderness, stoicism, considerateness, and mutual understanding bind the two worlds.”**

And now, back to “Christmas”, from where I’ll only extract a few paragraphs to contrast the father’s deep despair and his reluctant openness to perceive and admit inside himself the world around him - to illustrate a Nabokovian instance of “miracles” by presenting a lush verbal scenery surrounding a personal calamity and indicating a grieving father’s capacity to “wonder at trifles”*** in relation to an unknown inside and outside ourselves.

“The following morning, after a night spent in nonsensical, fragmentary dreams totally unrelated to his grief, as Sleptsov stepped out into the cold veranda, a floorboard emitted a merry pistol crack underfoot, and the reflections of the many-colored panes formed paradisal lozenges on the whitewashed cushionless window seats. The outer door resisted at -first, then opened with a luscious crunch, and the dazzling frost hit his face. The reddish sand providently sprinkled on the ice coating the porch steps resembled cinnamon, and thick icicles shot with greenish blue hung from the eaves.

[…] He was amazed to be still alive, and able to perceive the brilliance of the snow and feel his front teeth ache from the cold. He even noticed that a snow-covered bush resembled a fountain and that a dog had left a series of saffron marks on the slope of a snowdrift, which had burned through its crust.[ ] Somewhere far away peasants were chopping wood—every blow bounced resonantly skyward—and beyond the light silver mist of trees, high above the squat isbas, the sun caught the equanimous radiance of the cross on the church.”

[…] " ‘I-can't-bear-it-any-longer,’ he drawled between groans, repeating even more slowly, ‘I—can't—bear—it—any—longer....’

‘It's Christmas tomorrow,’ came the abrupt reminder, ‘and I'm going to die. Of course. It's so simple. This very night...’

He pulled out a handkerchief and dried his eyes, his beard, his cheeks. Dark streaks remained on the handkerchief.

"... death," Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence.

The clock ticked. Frost patterns overlapped on the blue glass of the window. The open notebook shone radiantly on the table; next to it the light went through the muslin of the butterfly net, and glistened on a corner of the open tin. Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible—and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles....

At that instant there was a sudden snap—a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst at its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table
[…]. And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.”


* - Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (New York:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1980),2.
Quoted, among other similar instances, by David Field in “Sacred Dangers: Nabokov’s distorted reflection” in “Anatomy of a short story: Nabokov’s Puzzles,Codes, ‘Signs and Symbols’,” edited by Yuri Leving (Continuum, 2012), a collection in which we encounter a wealth of Nabokovian scholarship, information, thoughts and wisdom ( I’m only half-way through the edition but entranced already by its representativity of Nabokovian insights, words and his metaphysics).

** - Leona Toker,’Signs and Symbols’ in and out of contexts ,in “Anatomy of a short story”(cited above), 214.
Toker’s words refer the reader to Bend Sinister, 173-4: “what is more important to solve; the ‘outer’ problem (space, time, matter, the unknown without) or the ‘inner’ onde (life, thought, love, the unknown within) or again their point of contact (death)?”

Another example in this collection is found in Terry J.Martin in “Ways of knowing in ‘Signs and Symbols”(op.cit.pg.101) who quotes “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” in LL,374: “The capacity to wonder at trifles – no matter the imminent peril – these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good,” while he points out two epistemological errors by readers of VN’s short storyin : “the mother’s commonsense view of life which measure human happiness in terms of external signs” and “the tilt in the opposite direction, which is that of the unrestrained and indiscriminate play of imagination”(p.112) and before he adds “If those two ways of knowing stand in dialectical opposition to each other, there is a third way of knowing which in a manner synthesizes and transcends the other two: it is that of the artist.”

*** - I had planned, at first, to write more extensively about “Christmas” but the collection edited by Yuri Leving contained so many diverging and converging theories about VN’s work and vision besides their original theme from “Sign and Symbols” that it turned any additional comment of mine, at this point, into sheer arrogant redundancy. I let the initiative stand because it relates to the approaching Christmas season.

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com
AdaOnline: "http://www.ada.auckland.ac.nz/
The Nabokov Society of Japan's Annotations to Ada: http://vnjapan.org/main/ada/index.html
The VN Bibliography Blog: http://vnbiblio.com/
Search the archive with L-Soft: https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A0=NABOKV-L

Manage subscription options :http://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?SUBED1=NABOKV-L