12 – The Passenger
a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories
In ‘The Passenger’ (February 1927) Nabokov takes the device of manipulating reader-expectation and elevates it into the very subject of the story itself, whose theme is once again the relationship between Life and Art. ‘Life is more talented than we’ observes an unnamed author: ‘The plots life thinks up now and then! How can we compete…?’ (DS,p.73).
The writer is discussing this relationship with a literary critic, and to illustrate his point recounts an incident in which he was travelling on an overnight express. The story begins with his settling happily into a lower berth couchette and falling asleep. The writer then immediately interrupts his own story to point to a fictional convention. ‘And here let me use a device cropping up with dreary frequency in the sort of story to which mine promises to belong’ (p.74). This ‘promises’ alerts us to the self-consciousness of Nabokov’s narration. To those acquainted with his playfulness, it also suggests that the exact opposite might occur, or at least there may be some variation or expectation-reversal.
The conventional device is that he is woken suddenly in the middle of the night – but then he makes light fun of the convention by revealing that he was disturbed merely by the foot of a fellow traveller who has boarded at some night stop and is clambering into the bunk above. The foot however is a particularly repugnant sight to him: ‘all I could visualise was that conspicuous toenail which showed its bluish mother-of-pearl sheen through a hole in the wool of the sock’ (p.75).
After this semi-comic mundane detail however, the story takes a serious turn as the fellow traveller begins to sob uncontrollably throughout the night, mumbling words which are unintelligible. The scene becomes embarrassing, mystifying, and annoying to the writer (now the ‘narrator’). He cannot understand what could cause such pitiful sobbing – and nor can we.
Early the next morning the train makes an unscheduled stop and police get on board. A criminal has boarded the train in the night: he is a betrayed husband who has shot his wife and her lover. The police make a carriage to carriage search, but when they rouse the mysterious traveller nothing out of the ordinary happens: ‘the detective demanded his passport, distinctly thanked him, then went out’ (p.78).
And that is the end of the anecdote. The narrator’s art had assembled all the ingredients in readiness for a neat resolution. ‘How nice it would have seemed’ the writer comments on his own story, ‘if the evil-footed, weeping passenger had turned out to be a murderer…how nicely that would have fitted…into the frame of a short story’ (p.79). But Art was cheated by a more inventive Life. It is not, however, the end of the story.
The writer asks the critic (and by implication the reader) to confess that he thought the sobbing passenger was the criminal. But no, the critic is used to the writer’s methods, and he replies ‘I am well aware that you like to produce an impression of inexpectancy’ (p.79). He then goes on to argue that even when we are baffled by life (why is the traveller crying?) the author owes it to Literature to be inventive: ‘You, as a writer of fiction, would at least have thought up some brilliant solution’ (p.80). He offers the writer a couple of alternative explanations – that the man has lost his wallet, or has toothache (both of which seem rather feeble).
What Nabokov illustrates here is a rule which for all his experimentation and modernism keeps him firmly allied with the traditional writers of fiction and shows his respect for the conventions of the short story form. The rule is this: a writer is at liberty to play tricks with readers, to divert their attention, mislead them, and give them false expectations – but ultimately the writer must offer a resolution to the story, even if this is only lightly suggested or implied. It is not enough to create mysteries with no solution or to baffle readers leaving them no possibility of redress.
Nabokov went on to generate many inventive strategies for reader manipulation, but he never abandoned adherence to this rule – the reader must be given the opportunity to work out what is going on. For all the trickiness of his literary puzzles, his plot intricacies and unreliable narrators, Nabokov’s readers are always given a fair chance. They are given this chance if they are attentive and are prepared, as Nabokov demands, to ‘notice and fondle details’.
And of course just because readers’ expectations may be disappointed, this does not mean that the story is unsatisfactory in its closure. As Susan Lohafer observes in her comments on how stories end:
A story can lead us into disarray and yet make us feel that we’ve assimilated our information in a satisfactory – though difficult – way. The deferred cognitive closure may be by far the richest part of the experience.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Vladimir Nabokov links
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