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”. 

 “Spring 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.

  The 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.

   They 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.

 The 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]

 He 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 paragraph:

... 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.” 

   Here 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.


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

[ii] Boyd 444.

[iii] p 416.

[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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