“Cloud, Castle, Lake” can be read as an inquiry into the spatiality of pressure and coercion. The story examines pressure in its literal implications; its emphasis on narrow rooms and rooms made narrow by heavy and bulky objects and bodies indicates that pressure cannot be divorced from the notion of space and that pressure always goes hand in hand with a taking up room or displacement. Each of the Germans’ coercions that Vasiliy Ivanovich has to comply with entails a displacement: an intrusion upon his existence in terms of Ludwig Binswanger’s notion of “impressionability” which curtails what could be called with Max Scheler the protagonist’s “sphere of power and volition” and thus finally denies him the possibility to exist. Nabokov’s story contrasts these displacements by spaces giving or granting room, or, to borrow an expression from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, “generous spaces.” The term “generous space” will be used in the following for spaces giving existence room in the sense of Heidegger’s einräumen; i.e. for spaces giving existence room to unfold and to dwell. Such a space is the enigmatic landscape at the story’s center which constitutes what Jean-Louis Chrétien calls a “joyous space”—a space engendering itself in the experience of joy.
Nabokov’s protagonist is denied generous spaces by his German tormentors. However, set in Germany in “1936 or in 1937,” the story points beyond itself. For it is not only in “Cloud, Castle, Lake” that room is taken up and existence is made impossible. Room to exist and to dwell was made rare and taken, above all, in Nazi Germany, where taking up room—pressuring, the curtailing of personal liberties, the erosion of civil rights, an aggressive territorial expansion—was a political objective that prepared the ground for the genocide. The existential thus becomes a metaphor for the political.