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The World of Nabokov's Stories (review)

From: Nabokov Studies
Volume 6, 2000/2001
pp. 207-209 | 10.1353/nab.2011.0014

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Reviews 207 is a minor lapse in a book of otherwise sterling quality that successfully blends succinctness and scholarship. The text is supplemented by a fairly detailed chronology of Nabokov's life and works and by a selected bibliography, which, though not extensive enough to be of interest to the veteran Nabokov scholar, includes a useful list of French translations of Nabokov's works. Maxim D. Shrayer. The World of Nabokov's Stories. Literary Modernism Series (Thomas F. Stanley, Editor). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. 396 pp. ISBN 0292777337. Review by Galya Diment, University of Washington. As a fan of Nabokov's short stories, I definitely welcome Maxim Shrayer's interesting addition to the study of Nabokov's generally lesser-known works. The dominant theme of The World of Nabokov's Stories is that of Nabokov's "otherworld," or, as Shrayer himself puts it, the analysis of "the writer's gradual discovery of how to write the otherworld" (43). Shrayer sees Nabokov 's "otherworld" as responding to a variety of the writer's artistic needs, including his situation as a writer in exile ("Nabokov's otherworld seems a perfect solution for writing in exile, where the author lives his text only insofar as the text compensates for the author's irrevocable losses" [70]) and his search for literary perfection and immortality ("In writing the otherworld, Nabokov [re]creates a space where love and memory are in harmony, where past and future, life and death, cease to be antinomies" [70]; "For Nabokov, the otherworld conflates love, the transcendent, and perfect memories in an open moment of blissful eternity" [112]). Having thus established the importance of the "otherworld" for Nabokov's short fiction, Shrayer then concentrates on the close analysis of four stories which neatly cover the entire Russian period of Nabokov's prose: "The Return of Chorb" (1925), "The Aurelian" (1930), "Cloud, Castle, Lake" (1937), and "Vasiliy Shishkov" (1939). Other stories feature as well: in his comparison of Nabokov and Chekhov in Chapter 3, Shrayer makes an elaborate parallel reading of "The Spring in Fialta" (1936) and Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog," and he also spends some time discussing "The Visit to the Museum" (1938) and its possible museum prototypes (like Musée Municipal in Menton, France, where, Shrayer suggests, "there is something ... that resembles the absurd atmosphere of the fictional museum in Nabokov's short story" [60]). For me, the best part of Shrayer's contribution to our understanding of the stories he chooses to discuss is how "active" his research is. He goes places (in addition to Menton, also Marienbad, or Marianske Lazne, and Frantiskovy Lazne, all in the Czech Republic, as possible backgrounds for the fictional locale of "Cloud, Castle, Lake"), he takes pictures, he checks the archives and 208 Nabokov Studies hotel registrations, and he also researches correspondences, émigré squabbles and gossip (the latter for the possible origins of "Vasiliy Shishkov" and the likely connection of Svetlana Siewert, Nabokov's one-time fiancée, to "The Return of Chorb"). By doing so Shrayer brings the stories to life by grounding them in "this" world while continuing to discuss their "otherworld " qualities. And even though I do not necessarily agree with every interpretation Shrayer advances in this part of his book (I have particular problems with "Chorb = devil ["chert"] + cherub," for example [96]) or with his often all-too-sweeping generalizations,' I wish the entire study was taken up by elucidations, interpretations, and analyses of this kind. But it is not. The last two chapters of the book are quite problematic, it seems to me. They rest on a theory that Shrayer promises to prove but never quite does, namely that "Nabokov's best short stories capitalize on the artistic practices of his Russian masters, Chekhov and Bunin, and eclipse their canonical achievements " (66). Even more detrimental than his failure to convince the reader of the accuracy of this theoretical assumption is the fact that these two chapters do not at all mesh well with the rest of the book. They feel very much like dissertation "fillers" which should have been removed or greatly revised by the time the dissertation ("The Poetics of Vladimir Nabokov...