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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV Edited and translated by Dmitri Nabokov; Alfred A. Knopf: 659 pp., $35

December 29, 1996|TATYANA TOLSTAYA

These 65 stories by Vladimir Nabokov, which his son gathered together in one volume for the first time, bring the reader closer to [his] magic. Happiness is infectious--everyone who reads this book will feel it. Even the saddest, most tragic stories are written so that the reader is left with the distinct foretaste of happiness, as if happiness were the genuine lining, the inside of being, which shines through the gloomy patchwork of reality.

Nabokov might be considered "lucky." He escaped death in both the Russian revolution and World War II, was a successful writer and had a happy family life. But it is really we, his readers, who are the lucky ones.

Ideally, he requires the attention of a gourmet reader, a picky connoisseur, a potential equal. Those who value only literary fast food will not go away hungry, but will be left with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction--as if they have swallowed a dish whole, without tasting it.

The translation of almost all the Russian stories in this collection, except for the new 13, are "the fruit of cloudless collaboration between father and son," as Dmitri Nabokov writes in his introduction, but "the father had authorial license to alter his own texts in their translated form." For the bilingual reader, there's an additional pleasure--to see how marvelously the Russian original shines through the translation. Those who know Nabokov the novelist and have forgotten that Nabokov the story writer exists now have a precious gift in their hands.

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