Short takes: “Terra Incognita” by Vladimir Nabokov; Dimitri Nabokov, trans., in collaboration with the author

From The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the 20th century’s great prose stylists – a philosophical, allusive writer whose fiction is characterized by a facility with metaphor, passion for wordplay, and ease in manipulating chronology, point of view, and psychic distance. Though best known for his novels – in particular the canonical texts Lolita and Pale Fire – Nabokov’s short fiction holds great interest, both for its own sake, and in its distillation of the themes and techniques the author takes up in his longer work. These include a fascination with ontology, often manifested in a playful use of trickery on the level both of story and language. In his non-fiction book Lectures on Literature, Nabokov remarks, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives.” This comment is applicable to the writer’s work in general, and to the story “Terra Incognita” in particular.

“Terra Incognita” was originally published in Russian in 1931. As with many of Nabokov’s works, it was translated by the author’s son, Dimitri (who prefers the term “transliteration” to the more traditional “translation”), and appeared in English in The New Yorker in May 1963. The relatively brief tale is an exercise in narrative ambiguity; it challenges its readers to tease out meaning from a shifting landscape that shuttles between an exotic foreground and a constantly intruding background. The story is also a concise example of a favourite Nabokovian device: the unreliable narrator.

The narrator in this case is Vallière, who is participating in an expedition into an uncharted region of tropical swampland with two others – Gregson and Cook – and eight native porters. The story begins in medias res, with the band, which “walked, and had been walking, for a long time already,” pushing farther “through the wildwood of a hitherto unexplored region.” Vallière and Gregson display the easy camaraderie of old friends, something suggested by their positions together at the head of the group. Cook, by contrast, brings up the rear, and is described in disparaging terms. He is pictured, almost viciously, as “bloated” and possessed of “a drooping underlip,” and he “straggle[s]” along at the back of the group, “whining and protesting at every step.”

We are presented with the source of the narrative’s surface tension – the developing showdown between the determined Gregson and the craven Cook, with Vallière, who is suffering a fever, too weak to intervene. But Nabokov’s stories never operate on a single level, and before long, inexplicable details begin to insinuate themselves into Vallière’s narration. He admits to being “tormented by strange hallucinations,” some of which – “weird tree trunks”; “thick, flesh-coloured snakes” – make sense in the context of a tropical swamp. But at one point these visions resolve themselves into “the mirror of a half-open wardrobe,” an image that appears entirely out of place.

Similar visions of urban interiors – an armchair, a stuccoed ceiling, wallpaper, a tumbler of lemonade – intrude repeatedly on the narration. Vallière rationalizes them away: the armchair is actually “a strange, cumbersome grey amphibian,” and the “curlicues and rosettes” that resemble “those used to adorn European ceilings” resolve themselves into the “even, dense blueness” of the tropical sky. However, there remains a pervasive strangeness about the narration, as though the setting we are confronted with is somehow insubstantial, subject to elision or dissolution.

Nabokov effects this sensation of the uncanny on the level of the story’s language. In addition to the landscape being literal terra incognita – an unexplored, uncharted region of tropical swampland – the individual details are presented as vague and unclear. Vallière feels “something languorous and velvety about the heat”; a “thick mass of vegetation” includes “strange dark tangles of some kind”; the hallucinated wardrobe turns out to be “the deceptive glimmer of an acreana bush.” As the story progresses, Vallière incorporates repeated references to the “pillow” on which he is resting his head. Vallière recognizes he is ill – something he has kept hidden from Gregson – though the exact nature of this illness remains unclear (he puts it down to a vague fever).

The author, however, is less contingent in the inferences he includes within his narrative. When Vallière hallucinates an armchair in the swamp, he tells us that it appears always on his left side, something that seems arbitrary until one realizes that in heraldic terms, an image or signet that appears on the left-hand side of a crest or a coat of arms is referred to as “sinister.” The sinister – in the sense of malevolent – aspect of Vallière’s hallucination is inescapable, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the narrator is on the cusp of death.

It also becomes apparent that the “terra incognita” in which we, as readers, have been ensconced is itself the hallucination, and that Vallière is in fact confined to a bed in a sickroom, awaiting his inevitable demise. At the story’s close, after describing a fight to the death between Gregson and Cook, Vallière seems to come to the realization that he has been imagining (or perhaps remembering) these events from the confines of a room “in a distant European city,” though he goes on to disclaim this in a moment at which “everything grew completely lucid.” The narrator’s ironic lucidity is, however, undercut by surrounding details, including the dead Cook’s tongue, described as “ink-black,” which chimes with the notebook for which Vallière reaches in the story’s closing moments. And his assertion of pity for Gregson includes a memory of the people his friend has left behind at home, including a wife and “the old cook.”

The doubling motif here – Cook/the old cook – is coincident with the story’s reliance on images of reflection or repetition: the wardrobe mirror, parrots that Gregson kept as pets. These, along with Vallière’s glancing reference to a labyrinth, are emblematic of a narrative in which the truth is refracted or uncentred, in which perception and reality continually circle around on one another. Nabokov calls attention to the fictive nature of his story and insists on that fiction as an essential aspect of the existential struggle the story’s protagonist faces: “I realized that the obtrusive room was fictitious, since everything beyond death is, at best, fictitious: an imitation of life hastily knocked together, the furnished rooms of nonexistence.”

Death itself, the story suggests, is the ultimate terra incognita, the final unexplored region we are all destined to visit. The unmapped swampland Vallière explores is a literalization of this existential notion. The consciousness at the heart of Nabokov’s story is delusional and confused, and engaged in the process of confronting the great darkness of the eternal unknown, something resonant with the narrator looking up at the tropical sky and seeing “blinding darkness, for there is no other way to describe it.”

Here we may return to the notion of “that arch-cheat Nature,” which is deceptive on a operational and a metaphorical level in this story. Nabokov deceives his readers by filtering his narrative through the feverish consciousness of a dying man, but mortality is Nature’s ultimate deception, to the extent that humans are only able to conceive of its “contours and convexities” in imaginative terms. Nabokov recognizes this, and crafts his story as a structured response to the conundrum of death’s fundamental unknowability. The story itself is yet another iteration of the terra incognita in the title. The writer, like Nature, always deceives.

Short takes: “Terra Incognita” by Vladimir Nabokov; Dimitri Nabokov, trans., in collaboration with the author
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