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Nabokov Studies, 1 (1994), 9-20. JULIAN W. CONNOLLY (Charlottesville, VA, U.S.A.! NABOKOVAND NARRATIVE POINT OF VIEW: THE CASE OF "A LETTER THAT NEVER REACHED RUSSIA" The narrative strategies which Nabokov employs in his mature works have attracted considerable attention from Nabokov scholars. His early works, however, have drawn less notice. One piece which has received relatively little attention is the short sketch "Pis'mo ν Rossiiu," which was written early in 1925 and translated later as "A Letter that Never Reached Russia." The work consists largely of observations of nocturnal scenes in the streets of Berlin, observations made by a man writing to a woman from whom he has been separated for eight years. Critical opinion of the work is fairly uniform: Andrew Field called it "a serene and undramatic tale," while Marina Naumann viewed it as "a calm and tranquil sketch"; Brian Boyd adds that it is "excellent early Nabokov." I believe, however, that beneath the "serene" and "tranquil" surface one may discern some disquieting currents, and that the work deserves a fresh examination . This essay will analyze the specific observations recorded in the "letter " as well as the emotional atmosphere which is generated by them. Many of Nabokov's early sketches are written in the form of a firstperson narrative (see, e.g., "A Guide to Berlin," "Grace" ("Blagost'"], "The Fight," "The Thunderstorm"), but this is one of the very few which contains clear references to its status as a written document intended for a specific addressee (most of the other first-person narratives make no explicit reference to their status as written documents, and do not provide any clues as to who their addressee[s] might be or how the narrative might be transmitted). Since the letter writer has a specific addressee in mind, and since his feelings about this addressee are not neutral, the actual (human) reader might well wonder whether the narrator's assertions can be taken at face value or whether they should be interrogated to see 1. Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 115; Marina Turkevich Naumann, Blue Evenings in Berlin: Nabokov's Short Stories of the 1920s (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1978), p. 52; Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), p. 237. 10 Nabokov Studies whether some intention to manipulate or shape the addressee's response might be involved. As noted above, the text itself consists mainly of observations of the nocturnal Berlin cityscape, and it culminates in the writer's declaration: "Listen: I am ideally happy. . . . everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters , in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness" (87).2 Again, the question arises: should we take the narrator's assertion of "ideal happiness" at face value, or should we be on our guard, and consider that this proclamation of happiness masks a deeper anguish, something along the lines of the emotions which can be detected in the narrator's affirmation at the end of the novel The Eye: "I am happy—yes, happy! What more can I do to prove it, how to proclaim that I am happy7 Oh, to shout it so that all of you believe me at last, you cruel, smug people...".3 In other words, should we regard this sketch as an early exercise in the technique of unreliable narration or not? How can we tell? Clearly, there are distinct differences between the narrator of "A Letter that Never Reached Russia" and the narrator of The Eye, but a posture of cautious skepticism may be warranted here too.4 To clarify this issue, we should scrutinize the text, interrogating what the narrator says and how he says it. Such an examination will shed light not only on Nabokov's narrative strategies, but on the complex emotional world he creates within the text as well. From the very outset, the careful reader should note a spirit of contradiction or inconsistency embedded in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 9-20
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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