a critical examination of Nabokov’s collected stories
Having published Invitation to a Beheading in 1935, Nabokov obviously felt that there was still something to say on the subject of tyranny and oppression – for two stories followed which produced variations on this theme. ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’ appeared first (June 1937) as Khodasevich suggests (LA,p.196) almost as an ‘afterword’ to the novel. The story is rather an uneasy mixture of realism, fantasy, and poetic lyricism – which eventually serve to illustrate that it is not always possible to combine successfully in the short story elements which are essentially heterogeneous.
A modest young bachelor, Vasili Ivanovich, wins a ticket for a pleasure excursion which he would rather not take, but he is obliged to do so by the ‘Bureau of Pleasantrips’ (ND,p.112). There follows a hiking expedition amongst a group of vulgar Germans who bully and humiliate him, and he is forced to participate in organised entertainment and collective enjoyment.
Before setting off he had a presentiment that he would encounter something that would make him tremendously happy, and after two days of torment this experience comes to him in the form of the vision of an idyllic landscape (the cloud, castle, and lake). Nearby is an inn kept by a fellow Russian. The setting is so beautiful that Vasili feels he would like to live there forever. But the tour leader will not allow it: the group returns to Berlin, beating and torturing Vasili on the way back. At the end of the story he reports to his ‘boss’ (who is the narrator) saying that he has not ‘the strength to belong to mankind any longer’ (p.124).
Obviously the story is a plea for the value of private and individual experience against social coercion and what Nabokov sees as the dehumanising effects of ‘the collective’. And of course this overt content acts as a completely accurate prophecy of what was to happen in Germany in the eight years to follow. As a cartoon sketch of social ugliness and menace the story is quite disturbing in the same way as was ‘The Leonardo’. But unfortunately for the artistic cohesion of the piece, the realistic and fantasy elements work against each other.
If a piece of fiction is to create an acceptably fantastic world, then it must have time to establish the credibility of this world, and the suspension of the reader’s disbelief must not be punctured or interrupted by switches from realism to fantasy and back again.
In such a short work as this , asking the reader to believe in a real Berlin, a real train journey, and a credible émigré Vasili Ivanovich are one thing. But a Bureau of Pleasantrips and the idea of a charity prize which cannot be refused belong to a different order of fictional existence. The two cannot be successfully blended, for there is too great a disparity between them, and the tone of the story is disrupted by the attempted admixture.
It is possible to combine realism and fantasy more successfully, as ‘The Visit to the Museum’ will show, but the transition from one to the other must be very subtle and much more gradual than is the case here.
Field suggests that the story is ‘indisputably a fable or allegory’ (LA,p.197) – but Nabokov’s own description, within the text, of “a hideous fairy tale’ (p.123) seems more appropriate. For the tale is a looser, less demanding form than that of the short story in its modern phase.
What the story does have to recommend it is a successful control of the narrative voice. The outer narrator – a sort of author substitute figure- pretends to be a businessman and speaks of Vasili as ‘one of my representatives’ (p.112) in a manner which recalls Nabokov’s use of substitute figures in ‘Recruiting’. For the most part this narrator is absent from the story, and we must believe that Vasili gives him the details to report in his final account of the trip. But the narrator makes one brief interjection to speak of himself and Vasili in the first person plural: ‘we both, Vasili Ivanovich and I, have always been impressed by the anonymity of all the parts of a landscape’ (p.115).
The narrative also includes addresses to an unnamed second person – ‘from somewhere there came the odour of jasmine and hay, my love’ (p.118) – which are Vasili’s thoughts (imputed to him by the narrator) addressed to a woman. This unobtrusive detail holds together three important elements of the themes which so many of Nabokov’s stories have been exploring – memory, a search for the past and a Russia that has been lost, states of aesthetic bliss as transcendent experiences, and the connection between all of these and a woman. For as Vasili believes at the outset of his trip
‘This happiness would have something in common with his childhood, and with the excitement aroused in him by Russian lyrical poetry … and with that lady … whom he had hopelessly loved for seven years’ (p.113).
When Vasili returns from his trip disenchanted and reports that he can stand humankind no longer, the narrator tells us ‘Of course, I let him go’ (p.124) – thus dissolving Vasili as a fictional construct and drawing attention to the narrator himself as a figure for Nabokov’s own narrative convenience.
© Roy Johnson 2005