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A Phoenix From the Russian Snow : The perennial warmth of Vladimir Nabokov's magical stories : THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV, Edited and translated by Dmitri Nabokov (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 659 pp.)

February 04, 1996|Tatyana Tolstaya | Tatyana Tolstaya is an associate professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Her most recent book is a short story collection, "Sleepwalker in a Fog" (Vintage, 1993). This article was translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

In the winter of 1925, the young Vladimir Nabokov, writing under the pseudonym "Sirin," published a story called "Christmas" in an emigre newspaper in Berlin. In the story, a father overwhelmed by grief after the death of his son arrives at his estate to bury the young man. The scene is set: winter, cold, the dead beauty of the blinding landscape. The father wanders through the sparkling, ice-covered park, remembering how it looked in summertime: the sun, the bridge, his tanned son brandishing a net (the boy collected butterflies). But now it is so cold that the father's teeth hurt. He can't heat the entire house so he spends the night in a warm wing.

During the night he makes his way to the cold part of the house to gather his son's things--a diary, the net, pins for his butterflies and the cocoon of a giant Indian moth that the young man had bought not long before his death. Crying, the father returns to the warm annex. Why live any longer? The servant brings a small Christmas tree: Take it away. Who needs Christmas? I don't need anything. The father leafs through his son's diary and finds notes on butterflies--and on some girl. So his son was in love, and he knew nothing about it. And now he'll never know.

"Sleptsov got up. He shook his head, restraining yet another onrush of hideous sobs. . . . 'It's Christmas tomorrow,' came the abrupt reminder, 'and I'm going to die. Of course. It's so simple. This very night. . . . Death,' Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence."

He presses his eyes shut. And at that moment he hears a thin, high sound. He opens his eyes. Awakened by the warmth, the Indian moth had broken through its cocoon and emerged as a huge, magnificent creature with black wings and purple markings. It crawls along the wall, stretching and spreading its wings, "and now they were developed to the limit set for them by God."

Were it not for its extraordinary language, this early story would be almost embarrassingly schematic--so sincere and naive is its symbolism, especially in the Russian version. Some details--unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately--will remain impenetrable for the American reader. For instance, the Russian word for Christmas is rozhdestvo, or "birth." The father's surname, "Sleptsov," means "blind." Not only is he blind, failing to see that death doesn't really exist, but he even closes his eyes at the decisive moment and the winged creature's birth occurs without witness. The beauty of the sunlit winter landscape is described as "blinding": the cold, unheated half of the house as a crypt.

The metaphors are so obvious that it's even a little embarrassing to read them: "the wing (warm and small) was connected by a wooden gallery, now encumbered with our huge north Russian snowdrifts, to the master house. . . ." The wooden gallery is an umbilical cord, a tunnel that connects either side of being; the snow is death; Christmas is the day when the Son is born; the cocoon is a grave; until the grave we are all worms; after the grave, butterflies; open your eyes and you'll see for yourself. It's no accident that on each wing of the newborn butterfly, like a hint and a joke--is a "glazy eyespot."

Both the theme and the message of the story were appropriate for the Christmas issue of the paper, and the marvelous description of the Russian winter probably provoked cruel attacks of nostalgia in Russian exiles pining away in the rotten January of Western Europe.

Now that the emigration of Russians after the revolution has become a page of history, and Nabokov has been dead for 18 years, the story "Christmas" stands humbly in its proper place, near the beginning of this new collection of Nabokov's stories and in the shadow of other, better works. Sirin-Nabokov had his whole long, happy and successful life ahead of him: He was destined to become a great Russian and American writer and to tell his son before his death that he had been able to pursue all his dreams.

Nabokov was born in 1899 to one of the best aristocratic families of Russia. The family was handsome, wealthy, talented and happy. In 1917 the family escaped into emigration, first in England, then Berlin; in 1922 the writer's beloved father was killed (shielding his political opponent with his body, he took an assassin's bullet himself).

The family grew poorer and the writer made his living by giving lessons. Almost all Russian emigre writers had tragic lives: Discarded on foreign shores, some in youth and others in old age, they could not come to terms with the loss of their country, love, money, readers, home, former happiness, children, parents, the meaning of life and a thousand familiar little things. Too often, the tragedy of the Russian emigration ended in poverty, addiction, alcoholism, fights, heart-rending nostalgic texts and suicide.

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