29 – The Circle
a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories
It is interesting to note that as Nabokov became more firmly established as a novelist from the early 1930s onwards, he generated a number of stories which came into existence as discarded or extracted fragments of larger works. ‘The Circle’ Nabokov himself describes as ‘a small satellite [which] separated itself from the main body of the novel [Dar]” (RB,p.254). ‘Ultima Thule’ and ‘Solus Rex’ are the first and second chapters of a novel (Solus Rex) abandoned during Nabokov’s transition between France and America. ‘Mademoiselle O’ is a chapter from his autobiography, Speak, Memory.
Significant though these might be in relation to the rest of his work, they cannot command serious attention in relation to Nabokov’s contribution to the development of the short story as a literary form, since they were neither conceived nor executed as such. But ‘The Circle'(1936) does have some claim to independent existence as a story, even if some of its details have their origin in the creation of a novel.
The overt content of the narrative is the now-familiar topic of recovering the lost Russia of pre-1917, and this is linked, as it has been before, to tantalising memories of a particular woman. Innokentiy, the protagonist, is sitting in a Parisian cafe recollecting his past. He is the son of the village schoolmaster and his memories centre upon the development of his own sentimental and academic educational.
The story focuses upon his inchoate yearnings and their sudden fixation on Tanya, daughter of the local Count. Tanya’s family move to the Crimea, the war intervenes, and Innokentiy moves on to become a distinguished scholar. Many years later he meets Tanya again. She has married, and her memories of their past are not the same as his. Disappointed by this but still finding her attractive, Innokentiy leaves her and goes to a cafe to indulge his ‘sudden mad hankering after Russia’ (p.255) – that is, in circular fashion, back to the point where the story began.
This circularity is well executed and convincing: it gives a neat logic to the structure of the story. But unfortunately the content of it, Innokentiy’s memories, do not hold together with sufficient thematic coherence: one senses, no matter how much one might sympathise with the experience of exile and loss which give rise to them, that they are ultimately the loose materials of a memoir rather than the rigorously assembled and scrupulously pertinent details of a short story. They might fit easily into one corner of a novel, but for the stringent demands of the story form there are too many non-relevant characters and too many details which, though elegantly expressed, represent dilations in the narrative:
‘Olive-brown atlantes with strongly arched ribs supported a balcony: the strain of their stone muscles and their agonisingly twisted mouths struck our hot-headed uppergrader as an allegory of the enslaved proletariat’ (p.258).
Moreover there is little sense of temporal unity created. The first three quarters of the story deal with Innokentiy’s youthful experiences, all expressed in a leisurely and lyrical manner; then suddenly the story flashes through his later development in a few lines and ends with two or three paragraphs describing the final meeting with Tanya. Innokentiy’s final thoughts underscore the essentially nostalgic impulse behind the story – ‘nothing is lost’ he thinks, ‘nothing whatever; memory accumulates treasures’ (p.268)
Nobody would wish to deny the importance to Nabokov (and all the others who shared his experience) of giving expression to a whole world and culture from which he had been separated. And a work like ‘The Circle’ is readable and entertaining enough. But in the strictest analytical terms it demonstrates one of the dangers of using biographical sources and impulses as the material basis for short fiction, and the fact that even such a strong narrative device as what Nabokov calls ‘the serpent eating its tail’ (p.254) cannot generate the unity in the content if there is none.
But in one sense it might be said that if ‘The Circle’ fails to unite its elements it provided a trial run for a similar attempt which Nabokov made later the same year and was destined to become his masterpiece.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Vladimir Nabokov links
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