7 Best Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

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Dear Reader,

What I adore are the movements of Vladimir Nabokov’s mind with his twists and turns of syntax, keyhole observations, and a treasure trove of often short and even shorter stories possessing so much knowledge and mystery I can never glean it all. Here are but a bit of all his written wonders.

So please begin.

Laurie

1. Spring in Fialta

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This twenty-one-page story is replete with beautiful images that lift the reader visually into the town of Fialta in the springtime and takes you on a journey in the first person present tense with Nabokov’s protagonist in the lead.

Here’s an early beginning:

“I had left my wife and children at home, and that was an island of happiness always present in the clear north of my being, always floating beside me, and even through me, I dare say, but yet keeping on the outside of me most of the time” (p.2).

How lovely for the genius of Nabokov to speak of his unnamed character’s mind as “clear north of his being.” We can feel the warmth of his children and wife “floating” beside him and “even through him,” yet there is a contradiction. They are “outside of me most of the time” (p.2). Now, why is that?

It’s easy to miss that contradiction because the words flow so easily, but it slips in, setting up the conflict that will proceed through the story. This narrator meets an Englishman who will further the conflict because of his association with Elena, romantically pursued by many.

She appears not only most attractive but as if she were innocent of her powers to attract. And our narrator does not escape from this attraction despite her flaws that slip in to complicate the story.

Great short fiction takes you on a journey that, at first, you don’t suspect will frustrate and baffle you because the language is so lovely it leaves you spellbound if you read slowly. But the story twists and turns and will surprise you with careful reading, especially with the unexpected tragic ending.

I highly recommend this beautifully written story with a reminder to take your time and consume each image as the story flows effortlessly inside of you.

2. A Forgotten Past

As Nabokov moves you into the third person, past tense in 1899, he is the omniscient storyteller who reports all happenings in his sensuous, emotional language.

Nabokov adores his character, Perov, a poet who will “produce the heavenly draught which suddenly locates the sensorial effect of true poetry right between one’s shoulder blades” (p.22), an unexpected image that touches you in a place not often thought of even though you can literally reach it, but nothing here is literal. And you will feel sensations you never imagined.

Further, there is a historical theme: “poems of his where the ideas of emancipation, so characteristic of the Russian fifties, are expressed in a glorious stream of obscure eloquence” (p. 22).

Clearly, the author’s character is as eloquent as he is. But hold on as you quickly learn of the poet’s fate. I will leave it to you to decide if the fate of this youth has any justification.

Eloquent as this youth may have been, his adventures do not coincide with the innocent images of his poems. In fact, we learn that some critics viewed him as writing during reactionary times that would destroy his talent.

As the political times change, Perov is to be honored post-mortem as “Russia’s first experience in freedom” (p.27). The revolutionary-minded poet would be ceremoniously recognized with the erection of a Perov monument in a park.

But how could this be when the Tsar was in power? The theme of truth and justice, however, continues with a most unlikely plot.

Another character, Intellectual Russia, a composite character with the female pronoun, she, takes center stage though I have kept secret the calamitous happenings bringing this to bear.

I will only entice you to read this short story of only 12 pages by hinting that Perov’s mysteriously resurrected poems will be (according to Nabokov) as forgotten as Nabokov’s own!

3. First Love

This nine-page short story brings the reader into the sensitive mind of a ten-year-old boy’s first deep infatuation with a French girl of the same age on a beach.

Though he sees little of her beyond a few coincidental meetings, his emotions are so full of juvenile passion that only Nabokov could bring you into the mind and heart of this child.

All the visual images of their surroundings reflect the child’s experience somehow allowing the reader to feel nearly as a child might feel in these innocent moments.

4. Signs and Symbols

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This extraordinary famous short story has an entire text with essays written about it, “Anatomy of a Short Story,” edited by Yuri Leving, which I highly recommend. Each essayist posits their hypotheses about the multiple meanings of the title and the significance of the signs and symbols in the story.

Essentially the plot is about a mentally ill young man whose parents visit him at a sanitarium with a birthday gift and all that follows when they are turned away because of his recent suicide attempt. They are advised that they should not visit and cause stimulation for him at this time, and they depart.

What slowly unravels are this mother’s and father’s multiple growing reactions based on their and their son’s background histories that are mingled effortlessly by Nabokov with clues to an eventual story ending that is left to the reader.

How you might feel about a story having a lack of resolution is part of the drama of reading this story. This is surely believed to be Nabokov at his very best, but whether you will agree, is of course, open to question.

I will just highlight some of the prominent symbolic details in the story that these erudite writers have drawn attention to that reflect the characters’ lives and foretell possible coming events.

  1. The birthday present of ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
  2. The Friday when everything went wrong. (“The underground train lost its life current between two stations…”) (p. 10).
  3. What the patient wanted to do was “tear a hole in his world and escape” (p,11).
  4. The parents back in their apartment at night when the father cannot sleep. He says he’s dying but wants absolutely “No doctors” but emphatically believes they should get their son out of his hospital immediately.
  5. The wife retrieves playing cards: knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades.
  6. The telephone rings unexpectedly at an unusual hour, and the wife/mother announces it’s a wrong number each time.
  7. On the third ring, it is left to the reader’s speculation.

The essayists speculate, each with great determination, about the multiple meanings of specific details.

There is controversy among them as they expound on their ‘correct views’ about the meaning of the lack of resolution of the ending as well as about who is the main character. They speculate about all that is shown to the reader in this six-page story (depending on the short story book chosen).

You can join the “Inner Circle Seminar” by putting your own take on the “tantalizing cryptic text under the microscope” (“Anatomy of a Short Story,” p.8).

My recommendation is to read this very short story slowly and many times before attempting the essayist’s formulations so you can come up with your own unbiased views. Good luck!

5. The Assistant Producer

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Coming from the heart of Russia, when the revolution happened, a gorgeous contralto voice, the singing spirit of a woman, marched in front of a well-trained battalion. Later becoming the bride of General Golubkov (a triple agent), who the Soviets expected would rule well-known spies, and indeed he supplies false information to the Germans.

All sorts of intrigue follow under the direction of Nabakov’s narration who says in his tongue and cheek way, “I want all your attention now, for it would be a pity to miss the subtleties of the situation” (p.95).

Nabokov shares some philosophy as well: “There are only two things that really exist – one’s death and one’s conscience. The lovely thing about humanity is that at times one may be unaware of doing right, but one is always aware of doing wrong.”

With this in mind, venture into the story and see who remains innocent and how to discern the truth.

References: “Vladimir Nabokov’s Dozen Thirteen Stories”;
Anatomy of a Short Story” edited by Yuri Leving

6. Details of a Sunset

Mark is entranced with russet-haired Klara, hair the color of apricot jam, and in a week, Mark expects they’d marry. In “the flush of a fiery sunset” (p. 93), he goes to his fiancée’s, choosing not to stop at his mother’s, where he would hear dire unexpected news. “His happiness and the limpidity of the evening air made his head spin a little” (p.93).

The marvelous, beautifully detailed scenery seems to reflect his happiness until continuous events upset his balance. The glorious scene reappears only again to be thrown off by strange happenstances.

Soon greeted by his love, fantastic happenings interfere once again. “a bolt of atrocious pain pass through his whole frame…someone was bending his knee…and Klara was laughing her head thrown back….” But by and by Klara is no longer there. (pp.96, 97).

And so Nabokov’s strange ending with dream sequences emerges, waiting for you to find out how the end comes (of course, with no resolution, typical of Nabokov).

7. The Thunderstorm

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Nabokov depicts the wind almost as an animated character causing all kinds of bizarre events.

“The thunder-god, a white-haired giant with a furious beard blown back over his shoulder by the wind, dressed in the flying folds of a dazzling raiment, stood, leaning backward, in his fiery chariot, restraining with tense arms his tremendous, jet-black steeds, their manes a violet blaze” (p.99).

And so goes fantastic events with a magical style of reverberating details that set the character and the reader on edge until the nearly mystical summary closes the tale.

Reference: “Vladimir Nabokov Collected Stories”

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

Website: Laurie Hollman, Ph. D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

She is an authority on modern parent-child relationships who has published six award-winning parenting books and her book on narcissism. Her newest book in 2021 is Playing with Baby: Research-Based Play to Bond with Your Baby from Birth to One Year.

She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, among others.