Like Oscar Wilde and Charles Kinbote, Nabokov plays-has been playing now for many decades-a game to which self-appreciation is intrinsic. His invented selves even appreciate one another. John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. in his foreword to Lolita tells us how to admire what Humbert Humbert accomplished in the 69 chapters of the narrative proper: "How magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!" Then Vladimir Nabokov, closing the huge parenthesis, supplies for our retrospective delectation in an afterword an inventory of the more magical bits: not the "good parts" of a porn novel-that's the list he's parodying-but Lolita playing tennis, or "the tinkling sounds of the valley town coming up the mountain trail ( on which I caught the first known female of Lycaeides sublivens Nabokov)."
(If we want to know where that trail really was, incidentally, we shall have to track down the museum where that specimen is kept with its locality label. He drops the hint, cites two possible museums, and prompts us to imagine " some twenty-first century scholar with a taste for recondite biography" who shall devote a career to such errands.)
Ada concludes with a lyrical blurb for itself. The introduction to a reprinted Bend Sinister lists allusions no one seems to have noticed the first time around. The introduction to a revised Speak Memory prompts us to turn up a sentence deep in the book-"The ranks of words I reviewed were again so glowing, with their puffed-out little chests and trim uniforms. ..."-and discern buried there "the name of a great cartoonist and a tribute to him."
All reviewers, it seems, missed that one. Reviewers-torpid folk, and with deadlines-don't pick up Nabokov sentences one by one, as they're meant to be picked up, nor marvel at their iridescences, tap them for false bottoms, check them for anagrams. His only fit reader is finally himself ("It is only the author's private satisfaction that counts"), and the rest of us should wait to speak until we're spoken to-as we are being, constantly, by all those notes and prefaces.
Now on with the motley: Tyrants Destroyed, 13 stories scooped out of the past, 12 of them out of his remote Russian-language past when he went as "V. sirin"; and lo, a foreword apprises us that his oeuvre has been accorded a full-dress bibliography and reminds us (cryptically) that he also wrote Lolita. The bang-you're-dead reviewer will lower his cocked index and think twice before pronouncing stories so sponsored dismayingly empty, especially as Nabokov has more than once slipped in ahead of him, anticipating doubts but leaving them equivocal.
For instance, the fourth story, "Music," is called in its headnote "a trifle singularly popular with translators." This phrase conceals several false bottoms. Translators fall for my trifles. You are about to read a story that has been-so to speak-around. You are about to see a real job of translating ("by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author"). And since I present "Music" here with a certain amount of circumstantial fuss, including the date of its Russian-language appearance in a Paris emigre daily, you will understand "trifle" correctly; I, who also wrote Ada and Pale Fire, am entitled to call this story a trifle.
The story? Some 2,000 words about an unmusical man at a concert who spots his former wife and while they sit silent, 20 feet from each other, must let the music-formally meaningless to him-shape his reliving of a past he had shut away. Phrases like "How long ago it all seemed!" and "What bliss it had been" and "We can' t go on like this" suggest a trifle indeed, unworthy of the master illusionist. Then she slips away, and then the name of the piece of music is revealed:
" 'What you will,' said Boke in the apprehensive whisper of a rank outsider. ' A Maiden's Prayer , or the Kreutzer Sonata. Whatever you will."'
Careful-Beethoven's sonata shares its title with a Tolstoy fiction. Check that out, O researcher of the twenty-first century. And Beware of the Labyrinth.
So it goes. These are, generally, trick stories with a twist at the end, of the old-fashioned magazine kind. One-"The Vane Sisters," al- ready several times printed-has an acrostic in the last paragraph, implanted there by two dead girls of whose collaboration the narrator is supposed to be unaware. The headnote apprises us to watch for it. "This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction. Whether it has come off is another question." (But by prompting us, the sly author has made it come off.)
In another, dating from 1926, a lady devil offers a timid voyeur all the girls he shall covet between noon and midnight, gathered and placed at his complete disposal, provided only that the total number be odd. (Trick ending: His tally is 13, but one girl got counted twice.) Nabokov, anticipating groans, passes this tale off as "a rather artificial affair, composed a little hastily, with more concern for the tricky plot than for imagery and good taste." Lest we hasten to agree he also re- marks that it therefore "required some revamping here and there in the English version," readers of which are being spooked into discerning imagery and good taste .
A readier way to profit from this story ("A Nursery Tale") is to discern in its plot, albeit half a century old, the Nabokov Theme full- bodied, a theme that has sustained story after story , novel after novel. A way of stating it, almost but not quite too general to be of use, is this: A man almost possesses what he seeks, but loses it because of a quirk in the conditions. (The Tithonus story, or a fairy-tale plot; no wonder it can be made to seem Protean.)
In the story the quirk was simple: The Devil meant an odd number of girls, the man toted up an odd number of encounters. In the novels it is apt to be more complex. The quester changes, or his object (Lolita). He becomes enmeshed in a larger design of his quarry (Pale Fire; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight). Or the author has contrived an unthinkable exaction: the unpayable price of Pnin's tenure (Pnin) would have been service under a long-ago trifler with his fiancee .
The Pnin case is instructive. Since this parvenu is also the novel's narrator, unmasking his steely smile in the final chapter, there to dispose of Pnin's destiny much as the author does, he very nearly fuses with the author, or with what the author has called elsewhere "an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me." ("I have finished building a world," says the novelist Sebastian Knight, " and this is my Sabbath rest.")
Those beautiful involuted sentences, which are Nabokov's hallmark, are ways to build a world, not ways to describe one. "Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief. ..."Between book covers, there is no leaf and no raindrop until the creator has done all that.
And as a narrator who fuses with V. Nabokov effects the destiny of Pnin, so what happens in these big and little worlds is what V. Nabokov has decreed shall happen, right down to the passage of an "inquisitive butterfly" across a tennis court in "Champion, Colorado," between Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze; in a paragraph all to itself.
It is he, Nabokov, who is Humbert's "McFate" ; he (not a dead girl) who planted the acrostic in "The Vane Sisters" ; he who arranged the arithmetical misfortune of the timid voyeur; he who has equipped such a roster of his creatures with faulty hearts, and decreed that the heart of Ivanov in the story "Perfection" should fail when it did (for particulars see the story). Grown bolder, he has recreated space and time: The spaces and times of Ada, where old Russia's hegemony inscludes the North American continent, and where Anna Karenina, as though written by a counter-Tolstoy, opens with a sentence exactly inverse in sense to the sentence the earthbound Tolstoy wrote. Meddling with the future also, it is he who gives instructions to a twenty- first century scholar (who will surely obey them, if he shall happen to exist).
It is he: That is what all the self-appreciation is really about. It is also why the stories in Tyrants Destroyed are so empty: the slight amusements of "an anthropomorphic deity," arranging small systems, like chess problems, to suit himself.
This deity will allot himself, say, 3,500 words, and will contrive within that limit to place the lost wife whom Luzhin is seeking on the very train where Luzhin works as a waiter, and have them not meet, have him even not find the ring she lost in the diner, have him go through with his plan to kill himself while the train bears her away to- ward Cologne. "A Matter of Chance," it's called. Chance is seldom so hollowly neat. No, a better title would be "The Whims of Nabokov," iron whims.
By a fraudulent deity's tricks, he contrives to keep patterns trim within narrow limits. To the deity responsible for your life and mine, the minimum intelligible system appears to be the universe itself, and excerpts have a certain random look. Sensing this principle, V. Nabokov now inclines to refer every excerpt to its universe, which is The Complete Works of v. Nabokov. That is what is really going on in Ty- rants Destroyed: less the promotion of some negligible stories than their careful assignment to year and month and room and weather and journal, the reinvention of an aspect of the author's past, a pendant to Speak Memory.
For his chief work is finally himself, as it was Hemingway's, as it was Huysmans's. Joris-Karl Huysmans ( 1848-1907) is a point de repere Nabokov's appreciators seem to have shunned. Contemplators of Ada's lush verbal jungle (now sleeps the nacreous petal, now the gules) might adduce with advantage the creator of Des Esseintes, whose tortoises were bejeweled, and who tired of flowers, and indulged in artificial flowers, and then tired of those and sought out real flowers so exotic they could pass for artificial.