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

From The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov is so consistently lauded as a master prose stylist that it’s tempting to overlook a tendency – especially in his early work – toward sentimentality. “Christmas,” originally published (as “Rozhdestvo”) in 1925, is a particularly flagrant case in point. Writing about the story, which focuses on a father’s paralyzing grief over the recent death of his son, Tatyana Tolstaya states, “Were it not for its extraordinary language, this early story would be almost embarrassingly schematic.” Tolstaya insists Nabokov’s metaphors “are so obvious that it’s even a little embarrassing to read them,” and claims that in retrospect, it is easy to locate the story “humbly in its proper place,” firmly ensconced “in the shadow of other, better works.”

There is no question that “Christmas” is, in the Nabokov pantheon, a minor work. And yet, it evinces a quiet tenderness – even a touch of the magical – that often goes missing in the author’s more celebrated stories and novels. Nabokov’s piercing intellect and linguistic pyrotechnics can sometimes result in emotional coldness; notwithstanding its bitter setting – Russia in the dead of winter – and its focus on a grieving parent, “Christmas” is characterized by its uncommon warmth and even a hint of contingent uplift.

The mise-en-scène is frigid and barren: when the protagonist, Sleptsov, exits his lonely country manor, to which he has retreated in his sadness, he notices the snowdrifts “tightly gripping the snug little wooden structure in their frosty clutches,” and as he walks along a path toward a bridge, he sees “that a snow-covered bush resembled a fountain and that a dog had left a series of saffron marks on the slope.” Nabokov remains unable to constrain his affinity for ironic conjunctions: the wintry scene is described in words that evoke brightness and beauty (“dazzling,” “creamy,” “rimmed with silver”), and there are references to “the radiance of the park” and “the brilliance of the snow,” the last of which has the effect of making Sleptsov’s teeth ache.

All of this exterior glitter is in stark contrast to the interior gloom of Sleptsov’s manor, which is dark and inimical, replete with bare furniture and shadowy corners. Sleptsov plans on spending only a couple of days, and therefore decides not to heat any rooms except for a tight, constricted annex in a wing off the main house. When he ventures into the manor proper, he rifles the room that once served as his son’s study, where he discovers the latter’s butterfly net and specimen cabinet (a semi-autobiographical nod to Nabokov’s own lifelong passion for lepidoptery) and a diary that indicates his son had been infatuated with a young woman of whom Sleptsov was entirely ignorant.

It is in these latter stages that the story’s obviousness becomes readily apparent. Sleptsov, so utterly consumed with his agony over the loss of his son, has forgotten that it is Christmas eve; after instructing Ivan, his valet, to remove a Christmas tree from his annex room, the forlorn father decides there is no reason to go on living. As he allows himself to wallow in thoughts of his imminent death, a chrysalis he has retrieved from his son’s study hatches and gives forth a large Attacus moth “like those that fly, birdlike, around lamps in the Indian dusk.”

The symbol of new life is, as Tolstaya points out, heavy, and made more so by the fact that the story’s title in Russian means “birth.” The Christian imagery running throughout – “the equanimous radiance of the cross on the church”; the Christmas fir with the candle atop “its cruciform tip” – is resonant with the December feast day, and also anticipates the resurrection at Easter. That anticipation is underscored by the moth, which is awakened by the warmth of the annex to which Sleptsov transports it. Sleptsov’s son had presumed the chrysalis was dead; in its moment of hatching we are presented with a metaphorical resurrection.

But the juxtaposition of light and dark, of death and life – and life in death – is notable, and the story’s dramatic movement is given an additional torque by Nabokov’s own author’s note, which indicates it “oddly resembles the type of chess problem called ‘selfmate.’ ” Jeremy Morse describes the selfmate as a challenge “in which White plays first and forces Black to mate him in the stipulated number of moves.” In Nabokov’s variation, Sleptsov may be seen as setting the pieces in place to dismantle his own penultimate vision of earthy life as “ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles.” It is precisely his overwhelming grief that encourages him to relocate the apparently dead chrysalis and so bring forth a living memento mori of his lost son.

Though the Nabokov of “Christmas” had yet to mature into the fullness of his prose technique, there is a somewhat refreshing simplicity to this brief early story that serves to accentuate the attention to language and style that was the author’s hallmark throughout his career. (Calling any Nabokov fiction “minor” should always be considered a relative term.) The story’s final image – of the moth extending its wings “under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness” – undercuts the father’s abjection and loss of faith and provides a moment of hope in a miasma of despair.

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

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