35 – A Slice of Life

a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories

In ‘A Slice of Life’ (September 1935) Nabokov returns to the seedy and vulgar side of émigré existence to explore a part of it which is almost the polar opposite of the joys of literary creation – the world of shabbiness and moral squalor which he had touched on in ‘An Affair of Honour’ and ‘A Dashing Fellow’.

A Slice of LifeAll the characters in ‘A Slice of Life’ are horrendously degenerate, self-seeking and crude. In dealing with them Nabokov sets himself two problems in terms of narrative mode. First of all he chooses one of this vulgar company as first person narrator, and it is not easy to convey vulgarity via the mind of someone who is vulgar whilst at the same time being both logically and aesthetically coherent. The second novelty (a strategy he used only once in all of his work) is that the narrator is female.

Maria Vasilevna is a slattern (by her own admission) who has previously been enamoured of Pavel Romanovich, a crop-haired slob of a man whose behaviour becomes worse and worse as the story progresses. He is obsessed with the fact that his wife has left him for another man, and he enlists Maria’s help in a plan which purports to warn the wife of her folly.

Pavel drunkenly concocts the scheme in a mood which ignores Maria’s feelings for him and swings violently from braggadocio to maudlin self-pity. They arrange for Maria to bring his ex-wife to a bar for an ‘important discussion’ but when they arrive there Pavel pulls out a gun and wounds her. There is a fracas in the bar from which everyone is led away, leaving Maria to be picked up then abandoned by a complete stranger.

As an exercise in revealing squalid behaviour the story is very successful indeed and a typically Nabokovian study in the grotesque. But unfortunately its coherence is undermined by an unusual failure to control the narrative mode. He creates a reasonably credible female point of view: “Yes, I wear mourning, for everybody, for everything, for my own self, for Russia, for the fetuses scraped out of me” (DS,p.142). But problems arise when he confronts the difficulty of dealing with two aspects of the narrative which are essentially in opposition to each other.

First of all there is the problem of having this narrator reveal her own vulgarity: would such a person really confess herself honestly as being “in the rumpled dress of a slatternly after-lunch siesta, and no doubt still bearing the pillow’s imprint on my cheek” (p.141)? Even allowing a certain amount of suspension of disbelief for the poetic rhythms of her expression, surely one of the hallmarks of vulgarity is a lack of self-consciousness. It does not seem psychologically credible to have fictional characters aware of their own lack of judgement and taste. And though it is credible for a woman with little of either to be enamoured of a brute, Nabokov has not created a completely convincing manner to have her reveal this to us.

The second problem concerns fictions narrated from limited points of view. Smurov in ‘The Eye’ is a liar who even tries to deceive himself – but at least he is reasonably well educated, so we could believe that a character like him could offer such a narrative. It is possible to circumvent the limitations of a naive or a simple narrator who must deliver an account of morally complex events, as Huckelberry Finn or Diary of a Madman show, and in ‘A Slice of Life’ it might have been possible to stay within the consciousness of a slovenly and presumably uneducated woman for such a relatively short span (3,000 words) without boring the reader.

Nabokov has certainly engineered this feat successfully on other occasions; but here he cannot resist the desire to stray outside that limitation and creep towards the intelligent and perceptive inventions of some of his other narrators. It is simply not possible to maintain suspension of disbelief when this supposedly stupid woman describes Pavel’s descent into drunkenness thus:

En passant, he managed to finish the decanter, and presently entered … the final part of that drunken syllogism which had already united, in keeping with strict dialectical rules, an initial show of bright efficiency and a central period of utter gloom’ (p.147)

Women like Maria do not, could not think in such terms. Nabokov is too clearly present in what is supposed to be someone else’s narrative at such points, and the thread connecting our credulity to the story snaps. This is a fairly rare lapse in what is normally one of his strong characteristics as a writer – the skillful control of narrative and narrators.


© Roy Johnson 2005

Vladimir Nabokov Collected Stories   Vladimir Nabokov: The Collected Stories – Amazon UK
Vladimir Nabokov Collected Stories   Vladimir Nabokov: The Collected Stories – Amazon US

Vladimir Nabokov links

Red button Vladimir Nabokov – life and works

Red button Nabokov’s Complete Short Stories – critical analyses

Red button Vladimir Nabokov: an illustrated life

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4 Responses to “35 – A Slice of Life”

  1. Tom Settle says:

    Why do you assume the female narrator is stupid? Her diction suggests otherwise, as do the books in her room, as does pretty much everything else in the story. She used to be ‘enamoured with a brute’, but she now has the self-consciousness you say she lacks and seems kinda repulsed by him. Maybe she is just KIND, and sees other people as human beings, and Pavel as someone who is in PAIN, like herself. I think your reading is pretty darned lopsided.

  2. mantex says:

    Well Tom, you will see that in my analysis of the story I deal with the issue of her diction as something which does not seem altogether convincing.

    She is also enamoured of a thug, has lots of failed relationships behind her, and the things she finds attractive in Pavel are clearly chosen by Nabokov to be repellent details.

    But maybe my use of the term stupid is a little harsh. She is a sad and pathetic character.

  3. Tom Settle says:

    But I don’t understand what makes the diction unconvincing. Because she has been in failed relationships? To me she seems really perceptive, her comment about people who don’t read being interested in dictionaries could be spoken by any of Nabokov’s other (male!) narrators, and I didn’t feel like this jarred with her character. Surely it’s things like this that make her character? I agree she is sad, but she is way less pathetic and more dignified than Pavel, despite the fact that she just gets buffeted around by everyone in the story. I know we only get her account, but it seems safe to assume that she doesn’t try and shoot people who’ve maligned her. She tells US her relationships have all been failures, and that she no longer desires Pavel. I don’t think that Nabokov is saying ‘look what she finds attractive, isn’t she silly’. Is Pavel not repellent because she is describing him when her feelings for him have cooled?

  4. mantex says:

    Her diction is unconvincing because a woman of this kind would not have the sort of voabulary at her disposal that Nabokov gives her – not the gift for metaphors and poetic turns of phrase.

    You put up a spirited defense for her – and I admit that my judgements are coloured by the fact that Nabokov very rarely makes women (apart from whispy love objects) sympathetic characters in his work.

    We might have to just agree to disagree on this particular story Tom.

    But thanks for the response.

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