30 – Breaking the News
a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories
‘Breaking the News’ (March 1934) is another light character sketch combined with a study in dramatic irony. We are given what James would call the donée of this story immediately at its outset: ‘Eugenia Isakovna Mints was an elderly émigré widow who always wore black. Her only son had died on the previous day. She had not yet been told’ (RB,p.37). The son has fallen to his death down an elevator shaft, and a group of friends are faced with the task of giving her the information. This is obviously embarrassing for them – especially so since the widow is deaf. One of them wonders ‘What gradual preparation can there be when one has to yell?’ (p.38).
The widow shuffles about her daily business in Berlin, shut off from the world by her affliction but sustained by the fact that her son corresponds with her regularly from his own exile in Paris (the second centre of Russian emigration). She has even just received the last postcard he sent: ‘I continue to be plunged up to the neck in work and when evening comes I literally fall off my feet’ (p.38).
Fortunately Nabokov does not overdo this sort of grim irony in such a short piece. In fact the ending of the story is focused upon an excellent example of restraint. The group of friends finally assemble at the widow’s flat, but still they cannot bring themselves to say anything. She actually holds out her deaf aid for them to speak into, and it is because of their reticence – ‘they … were careful to keep their voices away from her’ (p.44) – that she eventually realises that something very serious must have happened.
There is no need for Nabokov to spell out the drama of what will be inevitable. The characters in the story all know what will happen, and the reader knows too. As in the case of ‘The Return of Chorb’ we are offered not a dramatic confrontation but a study of what is more interesting – what leads up to it and how it comes about. The obvious climax and ending are withheld: Nabokov is following that post-Chekhovian strategy of understatement and the subsuming of dramatic in structural interest which characterises the work of those in the forefront of the development of the short story around this time.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Vladimir Nabokov links
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