Following his longest novelistic work, Ada
, Nabokov gave us his smallest, Transparent Things
: a miniature Fabergé egg of a novel, highly ornamental, highly sophisticated in design, but with an elegant simplicity. Within this ovoid coruscation of Nabokovian bravura and prosodic flourish, is a jeweled miniature of the master's oeuvre - a sort of encored farewell to literature, although he would go on to write Look at the Harlequins!
and begin, but not finish, Laura
. This novelette is a sort of pell-mell mélange of Nabokov's themes: time, love, madness, murder, style, and memory. The story is a deceptively simple one: a man, Hugh Person, recalls his three visits to Switzerland while he returns for his fourth and final visit: once as a young man with his father, then as a man on a job for a publisher, then with his wife. There is an enigmatic beauty to the way Nabokov discusses time: Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive: its demands would be balanced by those of the future.
This is how we are introduced to the novel's main theme which is memory, or rather the seductive past. Why does the past so enchant us? Hugh's past is one mired by murder, death, a failed career and a marriage abbreviated by spousal murder. But it has an allure to Hugh, one that makes us shudder.
We love the past because it is transparent to us, which by this book's definition is to say that it has a known history. To Hugh, Switzerland has a personal history for him, it marks the coincidental milestones of his declination into madness, and ultimately cleanly quarters his life into Machiavel son, disillusioned salaryman, husband to the Swiss nymphet Armande, and ostensibly-remorseful widower-murderer. His troubled past is part of him, though, and it gives him comfort. The future "does not exist" for him, dually referring to his fatal funeral pyre and also because generally it is yet unwritten. some 'future' events may be linked to others, O.K., but all are chimeric, and every cause-and-effect sequence is always a hit-and-miss affair, even if the lunette has actually closed around your neck, and the cretinous crowd holds its breath.
The past has a particular seductiveness to Nabokov: in the shadow puppet world of his fiction all is predetermined, all is set, all is past
. The future, being unknown, being a realm where things can 'get away from him' are excluded. Nabokov's works are patterned, intricately interwoven and consistent throughout and show a master at work always revising and meticulously planning. Every story of his is in the past, predetermined, and that is what enables it the level of Art he achieves. Nabokov is a treasure to re-read, maybe even moreso than he is to read, because his novels have a playfully ominous omniscience. Observe in Lolita
the many hints at the fates of our protagonists, most startlingly the playbook entry which is anything but randomly selected. The past in a land that is concurrent with the present, it lives upright in the now while the present is still in its nascence.
This is a novel to be read in one sitting. At a slim 105 pages, it is a concise pleasure, but I think it would make a poor introduction to Nabokov. Nabokov must be loved and appreciated before he can be really explored, and so I wholly recommend Lolita
as an introduction, and then a re-read of Lolita
for the love of it. From the nymphet disparu
the world of Nabokov opens up itself, lending to cerebral pleasure unmatched by most authors. From the Boswellian jaunt of Pale Fire
to the tragicomedy of pauvre
Pnin, and the reality-chagrinned chess champion Luzhin, to this slim volume: a better end-point than embarkation.