Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Collected Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov: La Veneziana (1924).

Mind if I talk about genre for a minute?  I mean those collections of assorted orders and categories that most stories tend to get lumped into, whether written or filmed.  It's a relatively modern innovation, or at least I think it is.  Near as I can tell, the whole thing got started the moment someone noticed that most works of fiction often wound up sharing a lot of similarities when it came to actions, plot beats, or various tropes that still repeat themselves from one narrative to the next.  I think the biggest reason for the creation of the concept, however, was down to just how many stories wind up with this sense of a shared setting, even if they had nothing in common with one another.  What I mean is that if one writer hits upon an idea featuring rocket ships traveling through space, that's not the same thing as claiming that its part of the Star Trek universe, or anything like that.  It is more than possible to create a work of Science Fiction, and let the finished product stand as its own, individual creation.  However, the one thing that Trek and, say, a novel like Frank Herbert's Dune have in common is this shared sense of a generic background.

Most viewer and readers would know that each qualifies as a work of Sci Fi without even having to be told.  It's one of those phenomenon of the artistic life which is so basic at this point that it's almost like breathing oxygen.  It's part of the very air we breath when it comes to art in general.  It's so basic, in fact, that it's only at this late date it occurs to me to realize we haven't given much thought to genre categorizations for quite a while now.  I think the answer her amounts to a matter of practical necessity.  If you come across more than one story featuring the same backdrop setting, that can only mean a small amount of things in terms of shared generic traits.  It's the very proliferation of fictional works set in Outer Space, or the Wild West, which kind of forces the reader's hand, almost by default.  In that regard, it does make sense to argue that genres are just this semi-natural sort of recurring phenomenon, like the turning of the seasons, only some more mysterious for some reason.

If that's the case, then you could say there's not much to complain about or argue over.  It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, in the long run.  I've read from authors who have tried to make the case that sometimes talk of genres can be a writer's worst enemy.  In an introduction to a book called The Rim of Morning, Stephen King claims that when a story is able to grow in importance and impact, it's newfound quality is, or should be, enough to allow it to be able to transcend all talk of mere "genre".  In addition, literary critic Michael H. Means is able to leave us with some interesting food for thought, with an idea he mentions in passing during what is otherwise a straightforward study of medieval texts.

"The term "genre" has fallen somewhat into critical disfavor partly because under the influence of Romanticism we tend to stress the unique nature of each work of literature at the expense of the qualities it shares with similar works.  More seriously, however, the term "genre" is often abused either by using it for the critically arid if pedagogically useful purpose of pigeonholing - disposing of a work by labeling it - or by the very dangerous practice of using genre tags as value judgments, both of which faults are clearly implicit, for example, in the recent controversy over whether Death of a Salesman is or is not a tragedy.  Any attempt to use the concept of literary genres in criticism must start with the recognition of the facts that many, if not most, great works of literature are composed of elements of more than one genre and that good and bad works can be composed of any genre (5-6)".

Here, then, is a pretty good overview of the so called "debate" over the question of genre.  I label it "so called" because to me a phrase by H.G. Wells sums it up.  There can never really be any kind of useful literary war over the concept of genres, "any more than there is a war between men and ants".  The truth is it all just seems to be a part of the natural bells and whistles that go together to make what is known as the artistic life.  It's just a naturally occurring part of the package, in other words.  Something in which none of the parts needed assembling, they just show up sooner or later of their own accord, apparently, more or less.  In that sense, I find myself perfectly at home with genre, while also being able to set it aside, and focus on the individual identity of the artwork in front of me.  It's a topic I can pick up and set down with equal ease, in that regard.  It's also what allows me to even admit that, yes, sometimes it is possible to run across the odd narrative, here and there, that seems to defy categorization.  These are the stories with a foot in several camps, and thus present a challenge.

A good example of what I mean is the very story I'd like to talk about today.  Vladimir Nabokov is one of those writers who wind up gaining their fame through the dubious award of scandal.  When his novel Lolita was published in 1955, there's no way a book like that wasn't going to leave the kind of impact that didn't feel like  punch in the gut.  It was almost guaranteed to receive the sort of backlash, or critical drubbing that was sure to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice, whether it was for the sake of being transgressive in the name of nonconformity, or else just to figure out what the hell all the fuss was about.  The result of such as a literary jolt to the system was predictable enough.  It was certain to etch it's author's byline for all time in the great catalogue of literary names.  It also wound up creating the most ironic pigeonhole for the writer, imaginable.  To this day, there are readers out there who are surprised to discover that someone who could write a book like that proves, on further inspection, to be one of the more saner, seemingly level-headed scribblers out their in the writing trade.

Perhaps the even greater shock is to learn that he had a whole career outside of Lolita, and the Kubrick film that resulted from it.  It turns out Nabokov was one of those "literate" writers whose output is generally considered to be "respectable enough" by the Ivory Tower establishment (or whatever is left of it).  The irony is that this leaves the writer stuck in yet another familiar pigeonhole.  Under this critical-aesthetic lens, Nabokov is seen as something like the final product of the tail-end of the Modernist Movement in 20th century literature.  If poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the opening vanguards of works about the state of man in modern, alienated society, then most tend to believe that Nabokov was somewhere there in at the end, as the grand project in letters came to a close.

It's one of those interesting conclusions, that type which tend to be on the money enough to be labeled as essentially correct, and yet there's always something that's been left out at the same time.  In which case there's very little to be surprised about.  It seems almost like a natural inevitability of literary criticism.  While the big picture is being assembled, the fine details often tend to get lost in the shuffle.  This doesn't necessarily invalidate the big picture as an overall image, though it does tend to leave the final painting somewhat incomplete.  This is something Nabokov would have been happy (perhaps the better term is vehement) to point out to you.  This is true especially when you turn to look at his own opinions on the nature of genre.  He was at least some kind of an expert on this matter.  You don't manage to hold down a career as an English teacher at Cornell University without knowing something of your way around the written word.  That's why, when we turn to one of Nabokov's collected Lectures on Literature, we find him making a very surprising statement about the nature of fiction in general.

During the course of his introductory lecture on English Literature, we find Nabokov confronting us with this very basic claim.  "The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales - and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales....literature was born on the day when a boy cried wolf...and there was no wolf behind him (xxv-xxvi)".  It's a maxim which he seems to have been contented to live by.  Even his works of fiction display this curious blending of the real and unreal.  A good example of this can be found in one of his earliest short stories, "La Venezianza", and it goes something like this.

The Story.   

There was a bit of scandal over at one of our more prestigious manor houses.  This was out in Kent, I believe, at the old Carlyle estate.  I'm afraid I don't have all the particulars.  I'll have to be content with what little facts I know about the whole affair, for that's all it amounts to, in the grand scheme of things.  What I'm about to relate now was told to me by a young man named Simpson, one of the guests of the old Colonel's party.  He was there, you see, so that gives him the advantage as far the rest of us were concerned.  All the important details are therefore at his mercy, I'm afraid.  The good news is that he appears to be the one with the best possible vantage point on the whole business, as he knew the main perpetrator long before he ever made his move.  This was about three years or so ago, I believe.  Way back in Cambridge is when it all got started.  That's where Simpson was when he met Frank.

Francis Carlyle, you see, was one of those sorts who are born with a silver spoon tucked away neatly within the folds of the cradle.  From the moment he became aware of anything, his entire surroundings where the pomp and circumstances of the future lord of the manor.  As a result, it remains an open question if the real world was ever able to make any sort of impression on the young man.  Not even being sent to Cambridge seems to have made that much of a difference.  Or did it?  In addition to making his first acquaintance with young Simpson, it was also at Cantab that Mr. Carlyle the Younger began to fulfill another role that was expected of him.  He was, as they say, coming into his own.

He excelled in all the academic arenas that were expected of him, of course.  A champion rower if there ever was one.  And of course he knew how to cover himself with all the appropriate honors on the Rugby pitch.  This latter conquest also came with its expected spoils for that worthy victor.  It was no challenge at all for Frank to attract the attention of the various ladies of his acquaintance.  This in turn generated less than favorable murmurs of comment.  The fact is, most of us remain unlucky, and wish that weren't the case.  It's with this in mind that we all looked at Frank's exploits in a less than favorable light.  Perhaps it is just the envy speaking at this point.  I know that's how it was for Simpson, yet he was always too timid to let even the most honest bit of sin out in the open.  For what it's worth, I could never understand how its possible to treat a woman in such callous fashion.  I'm not sure that chivalry ever existed, yet I know you don't need all that much in order to treat a girl right.  Too bad Frank never got the memorandum notice on that particular score.  It all seemed unimportant to him, somehow.

This where is his friendship with young Simpson comes in.  It's also the first note of the one, single peculiarity in Frank's nature.  Simpson was the only person he would confide with on the subject.  The gaining or having of an artistic temperament is the sort of thing that's usually frowned upon in the kind of social circles that the future Lord Carlyle tends to inhabit.  It may be an amusing form of diversion, at best.  However the long standing verdict of the Ruling Class is that if it offers no sense of control, it doesn't exist.  And therefore it has no fundamental relation to the actual business of real life, or whatever they mean by that, from one moment to the next.  It all depends, you see.  If anything simple enough as a genuine artistic talent were discovered in the midst of the Class, it wouldn't be a cause for interest, and the possibility of celebration would never even enter their minds.  For men like the Colonel, it would be as if the flowers in the garden had begun to sing, or if the butterflies developed the ability to speak in human voices, and proceeded to try and hold a discourse with the next in line.

In other words, it is something that tends to be frowned upon by one's peer if you belong to the right set.  I know the Colonel disapproved of his son's artistic proclivities.  It was an open secret around the University.  Nor did Frank ever allow it to stop him.  On the odd occasion, he would march into his campus lodgings and lock the door.  If Simpson were there when he arrived, Frank would throw him out before barricading himself in.  What he did in this self-imposed solitude none of us could ever figure at the time.  With the recent escapade at the estate, however, Simpson felt at liberty to break the seal of friendship, as he was the only one in whom the young Carlyle would confide his secrets with.  Whenever he locked himself in his rooms, Frank would proceed to try his hand at sketches and painting.  It's the most anti-climatic development imaginable, I know, and like I said.  It was looked down upon in his circles.  In that regard, Frank was doing no more than taking the necessary precaution.  The curious thing is he left some of his work behind, and it makes you wonder why he never once though about going professional with the whole thing, that's how skilled he was.

It's easy enough to guess why he never did, of course.  It may also be the reason for what ultimately happened.  This was during the Summer break, when everyone had returned to their respective burrows.  In Frank's case, that meant having nowhere else to go except to the castle he thought was home.  Maybe it was, for one brief moment in his life.  If that's the case, then I don't know about it, and neither does anyone else, for that matter.  It is just possible to guess, however.  I think the best explanation for what happened next boils down to a simple desire to get away, is all.  At some point Frank simply had enough, and wanted to make a clean break of things.  At least I hope that's all there is to it.  If it's nothing more than a late blooming defiance of the establishment, then it might be possible to claim he had at least a shred of dignity in him.  On the other hand, he was one of life's natural cads.

There's not much more to tell, really.  The rest you can probably figure out from what's in the papers.  All that remains of the affair is the painting.  Don't think I've bothered to mention it until now, or how young Simpson is tied up in all this.  To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure on this particular detail myself.  It's the one odd note in an otherwise explicable situation.  It has to do with Simpson, to be exact.  He's not the oddity itself, and yet he seems inextricably linked with it.  Perhaps I'd better explain, though.  You see, none of us ever expected Frank to choose anyone like Simpson for a friend.  Guys like him tend to fade into the wallpaper over time.  He's like a character I once read about in a short story by some American chap, or other, Walter Mitty.  Simpson is very much like that unfortunate soul.  He's what's known in the New World parlance as, "a sad sack".  The real tragedy of it is that in his case, this pitiable, everyman aspect had to be combined with the quality of a genuine aesthete.  It's as if the writer had dealt him a bad hand when it came time to compose his particular life story.

On the other hand, that might also explain why Frank would single a nothing man like Simpson out.  His natural sensitivity, combined with an open-minded ability to appreciate the arts in general seems to have made him the perfect audience for Frank's more uncharacteristic practices.  Simpson must have been a very receptive audience, enough anyway to have appealed to the young Carlyle's vanity.  I can't think of any other reason for why Frank would feel the need to invite such an insignificant mouse of a man home with him on that fateful holiday gathering.  As things shaped up, lies were told, hearts were broken, and all that was left afterwards was Simpson and the Colonel with nothing to show for it except the forgery of an old Renaissance painting.  One of those artistic portraits that look as if they're trying to copy the Mona Lisa, and so are always condemned to live in its shadow.  It was made by one of those old, forgotten Italian gents, Sebastiano del Piombo, if I recall what Simpson told me later on....

That's sort of the one part of this whole affair that gives me chills.  It's the least important part of the whole affair (certainly the Press never saw much of an interest in it), and yet its what it all amounts to that bothers me.  I don't even know whether to call it mysterious or not.  After all, once you use the term in that particular context, it means we've taken leave of our senses, doesn't it?  We've begun to seriously entertain the realm of fairy stories.  If that's what this should turn out to be, then it's the way that some aspects of it are painted in shades of gray and black shadows that gets to me the most.  It has to do with that portrait, you see, the one that's a forged copy of the Italian original.  It also concerns Simpson, as well.  Very funny man, that Simpson.  Peculiar chap, you know?  I don't know if it's right to say he has "fits", yet I do know an off note when I see it in someone's face.  When he told me about the whole affair afterward, he had this look in his eye, as if he was hearing the sounds of some far off music that only he could here.  You'd almost think he was a changeling left on a doorstep, somewhere.

That look in his eyes was strongest whenever he got to talking about whatever part the painting played in all this.  We've all heard of someone who was "wrapped up in a woman", as the saying goes.  Except what about when the lady in question is nothing more than ink, paint, and turpentine on a canvas?  To make matters worse, it's not even the real paint, just a cheap knockoff.  None of that seemed to matter to Simpson.  He carried on as if he was talking about Piombo's original model, herself.  He might have mentioned her name, though if he did, I'll swear I've forgotten it.  That's not even the really weird part.  It's what Simpson claims happened to the painting that makes me nervous.  I said a while ago that if even so much as a single garden monarch began to talk with you in a normal human voice, the circumstances would be enough to make you question your sanity.  Another good way for that to happen would be if the subjects within a picture began to move and act like normal, flesh and blood people.  That's what Simpson claimed, anyway.  He said it was even possible to step into the frame, if that's what you desired.  He says he made the attempt, and yet something happened, he was never sure just what, and instead he finds himself back here, with the rest of us.  A very strange man, Simpson.

Here is the part that makes for an uneasy sleep.  When I use words such as peculiar or strange, I'm not talking about mere personal eccentricity.  Those individuals who live by the quirk are just as explicable as they are dime a dozen.  They can be amusing or annoying, and nothing much else in between.  Simpson could be accused of having trace elements of those former types.  However, that wasn't all there was to it with him.  He seemed to be further up and further into things that I'm not sure even the most committed Hyde Park nutter could ever conceive.  Simpson liked to claim, for instance, that if he stayed in any quiet spot for too long, he could begin to pick up the sounds of places, people, and events happening miles out of normal earshot.  The sounds of Piccadilly or Trafalgar would invade the very essence that lay behind his brain if he sat still and paid attention long enough.  Or so he claimed.  He never told such things with a note of self-satisfied pride, like any of the regular nutters.  Instead, he put me in mind of Edgar Allan Poe's Roderick Usher, who could hear the dead stirring in their graves.

That's the type Simpson was, or at least what he claimed to be.  His was a world in which far sounds came near, and the subject of inanimate portraits find themselves imbued with a beguiling and sinister half-life.  You ask now if I suppose he's off his rocker?  Well, I hope so, let's put it that way.  The reason I'm almost desperate for that to be the truth is because of a recent purchase I've just made.  I suppose you could claim it's all Simpson's fault.  He went on forever about that blasted canvas forgery so much, and he told his story so well, that it got caught on a nail in my mind.  Part of what helped in this regard was a determination on Simpson's part.  He told he had no clue how it is possible for paintings to come to life, or how one can even enter their unreal landscapes.  However, he made it clear, even without saying as much, that he would drop just about everything for a chance to do it again.  It may be over the infatuation of a woman (even one that doesn't exist?) or it could be other matters.  What I'm in no doubt about at all is that it was his obsession.  That was also the last conversation we ever had.

Simpson must have disappeared not long after that.  He never returned to Cambridge when the next semester picked up.  Nor was anyone ever able to trace him down after that.  Many were of the opinion that some sort of stunt was involved, and I hope that's all it is.  Who knows, maybe Frank was in on it, somehow, and Simpson, along with a third, mutual lady friend of theirs are now busy sharing a good laugh at our expense somewhere in the Riviera.  It has to be the truth, because the alternative is to begin to doubt my own sanity.  I went to the estate not long after Simpson's little disappearing act.  My reason for this surprise turn out was the same one I explained to the Colonel when he would deign to grant me an audience at last.  I was there to make an offer on Frank's forgery.  The old man was incredulous at first.  How else could he be once you stop and think it over?  However when I assured him I wouldn't destroy the piece, he relented somewhat, while also making sure the offer went as high as I could go with it.  He said he was proud of his son, even for what he was.

So here I am.  The new owner of a useless copy.  You could tell it wasn't real because the original never has the image of a mouse-like gent in modern garb situated next the Veneziana.  That last touch was a bit of parting tomfoolery on Frank's part.  At least I trust that's all it is.  The reason why is because I'm no longer certain if that's what I saw the first time I laid eyes on the picture.  In my memory, I can see the pathetic figure of Simpson reaching out a hand to the woman in the portrait.  If you were to take that obvious fakery out of the equation, then perhaps only an art expert could tell it wasn't the genuine article.  In every other detail, it's the La Veneziana down to a near perfect match.  I know because I've compared the fake with the original.  At least I think that's what I've done.  

I'm no longer quite all that sure, and its given me a bit of a shock.  You see, when I turn from memory to look at the picture as it is now, all there is to see is just an empty room looking out over a simple village, sometime during the 17th century.  It takes a moment for the eye to realize that there at least two other subjects in the picture all along, and yet their positions in the frame make it look as if they were trying to evade the viewer's gaze.  The two can just be made out through the confines of the imaginary window frame within the painted canvas.  One is a woman of regal look and bearing, complete with a fur lined shawl draped over her shoulder.  She's carrying a basket of fruit in one hand.  Her traveling companion somehow manages to look right at home, while also seeming quite out of place at the same time.  He's wearing a light gray sport coat, matching business slacks, and light oaken modern shoes.  The face is turned away from the viewer, but you can tell who it is, if you know what you're looking at.  Young Simpson appears to be forever paused in the act of holding out a fresh cut lemon to the figure of the Veneziana.  Both are making their way out of the frame, toward the village.

Literary Influences: The Bones of the Story Skeleton.        

Nabokov can be a very interesting writer to talk about in some ways.  The reason for saying this can be traced to a number of factors.  For one thing, there was his sense of literary self-confidence.  He once claimed, for instance, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child (web)".  It's a pronouncement that is always perched on the precarious edge of balanced assurance, and teetering arrogance.  If this was the stance Nabokov was determined to adopt in public, then it is also one that requires a thorough knowledge of human limitations.  The funny thing is how this is the same topic that he spent most of his life writing about.  The pages of Nabokov's novels and short stories are a veritable catalogue of weak and fallen human beings, men and women (though predominantly men, interestingly enough) who are consumed with a desire to burrow further inward towards their own individual senses of alienation.  When they reach the end, their downfalls are often complete.  It one of the most notable characteristics of his work, yet it's by no means all that's available on the table.

In addition to these aspects, Nabokov was also capable of painting his word canvases in terms of lighter shades, as a contrast to the dark.  While he was always good at depicting villains, he also seems to have had a thorough belief in heroes.  This is where you get such imaginary personages as the title character of Pnin who might be the closest Nabokov ever came to making an out and out saint the subject of a work.  Another aspect which helps lighten the load a bit is the author's innate practice of what might be called metafiction, yet perhaps a more precise description is to call it Literary Playfulness.  This is the other quality of his work that first got the attention of the critics, in addition to his skill with tragic characterization.  Alfred Appel Jr. is the one who confirmed the title of literary parodist on Nabokov's approach to writing, and it was this initial element that all the important Book People settled on and developed in the construction of the public image of the writer.  There may be a touch of irony involved, however.  Part of the reason the idea of Nabokov as a literary gamesman was so easy to run with is because it lets the critic off the hook.  The commentator is now free to roam about the fields of his own, peculiar, pet peeves, even if the proper subject of art gets occluded or erased in the process.

It's a surprisingly easy thing to do, and many of the so called "literary types" are more than happy to indulge in such vices and devices.  That's why I tend to think that packing all of his pages with various artistic riddles, puzzles, and stylistic devices was more than a mere game for the writer.  In part, it seems to have been Nabokov's way of separating wheat from chaff.  He knew what he was about as a writer, and would have preferred his readers to know the same.  The trouble for him, as far as he was concerned, was how do you tell who's a windbag, and whose got the goods?  Who out there was willing to take reading and writing seriously, in other words, and who is just in it for the sake of one's ego?  That there were (and probably still are) many out there for whom literature, or just storytelling in general, can't mean much of anything beyond the gratification of a very personalized Id came off as somewhat laughable, at least as far as he was concerned.  He seems to have hit upon the same realization that struck a lot of the old Romantic poets and novelists of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

The truth is that stories are shaping factors in a person's life.  Sometimes, if both the reader and the writer aren't careful, they might just find their whole lives transfigured by what they consume out of nothing more than the simple words contained in a story.  It's a concept that appears to unite Nabokov with the likes of Goethe, Schiller, and Coleridge.  It's also something that he felt he had to keep under wraps for a variety of reasons.  Part of it had to do with his beliefs of the shortcomings of the then current critical establishment.  A lot of it also had to do with his status as a former Russian exile.  That was how and where he learned the art of what I prefer to call "wearing the masque" in public.  It's a technique that a lot of Soviet Dissidence authors were famous for, and Nabokov appears to have picked up the knack somewhere along the way.  This was a technique that he appears to have carried over with him both into the suburbs of American, and ultimately into his writings.  That seems to be the real explanation for his sense of literary play, and parody.  It was form of artistic camouflage.  

Perhaps a good way to visualize this kind of writing practice is to imagine the following allegory.  Everyday, before he leaves the house to go to work, Nabokov always makes sure to grab a rubber fox's head mask from off the shelf somewhere, and wears it just before he takes his first step out the door in the morning.  This mask is the face he will always be sure to present to the public.  He'll use it to make the most extravagant claims, such as the following line from what is ostensibly an autobiography: "Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of the art is made to shine through life's foolscap (25)".  As a passage, it amounts to a number of things.  It's very well written, the author has a strong sense of imagery, and it's not entirely the whole truth.  The author himself has admitted as much just a few paragraphs above.

Nabokov claims in this quote to be free of any kind of influence, whether hereditary, or environmental.  The problem, however, is that a few lines just above this claim shows it up as a contradiction.  Less than two or three paragraph sentences before the just quoted declaration of artistic independence, Nabokov makes a very particular admission.  "I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known (ibid)".  The idea of the writer and his peers passing through "a period of genius" sounds about right.  That is until you stop and ask yourself a question.  "He just said a moment ago that he was free from influence.  And yet here he claims that he passed through a great artistic period.  That amounts to a certifiable, tacit admission of influence.  So what the hell is going on here"?  The answer is that the fox mask has done its work.

Nabokov has managed the same slight of hand that any good stage magician would know how to pull off.  You say the loud part quiet, and blow the unimportant statement up to giant proportions.  It may just amount to mere conjurer's trick, an act of audacity underlined more by a quiet desperation for your family's safety, rather than any desire to paint a target on your head due to hubris.  That kind of act would be fatal.  However, no one pays attention if they think you're just a conceited fool.  There is such a thing as safety in anonymity, after all.  There may be a sense of the pathetic about jumping through such stylistic hoops.  At least it worked, if nothing else.  It kept Nabokov, his wife, and his son alive.  If you're a parent, and you mean it, then that's got to amount to something.  Well doesn't it?  For better or worse, it's what worked in his case, and Nabokov was able to put it to good use throughout his career.  It's when he go home from work that he could more or less take the mask off, toss it on a chair in a corner somewhere, and then get down to the real business of telling stories.  This is where the writer's inbred sense of Romanticism comes into play, as well.  It's a topic that gets a mention here and there.

However, from what I can tell, it has yet to find the treatment it deserves.  For the most, all the critics are interested in is a self-fashioned portrait of the artist as a dilettante.  I'll have to admit the obvious irony that it somehow keeps making for good copy (if you can still find it anymore, nowadays), and it all still remains a very one-sided, inaccurate image of who Nabokov was as a writer.  If you want to get a better sense of the Lolita author, then my advice would be to start out with three main components that more or less sum up the literary themes that preoccupied him all his life.  These go together to form a kind of artistic sequence, yet they can also be examined on their own.  The three subjects Nabokov concerned himself with as an artist were (1) Exile; (2) Otherworld; and (3) Happiness.

The first theme wasn't exactly something that he chose on his own.  As a Russian dissident, and ex-patriot, the theme of Exile is merely what he had thrust upon him, ready or not.  The latter two seem to have been the twin, intertwined lodestone concepts that exerted a fascination on him even when he was a child.  The discovery of the possibility, and then the very real life crisis of Exile was merely to turn the sequence into a combination of the sweet and sour.  The curious part is how he doesn't seem to have had much of the quitter in him.  Instead, he seemed content to try and make like the butterflies, and use his circumstances as an opportunity for self-transfiguration.  Either way, these are the themes at the heart of everything he wrote.  The other thing to be said about it is that often the very nature of each story he had to tell would often determine which of these concepts would take center-stage in the spotlight of the printed page.  When it comes to a short story like "La Veneziana", we seem to be dealing with a combination of the Otherworldly, along with the possibility of Happiness.

The synopsis above makes it sound like something out of an M.R. James collection.  Others would point to the work of writers such as Oscar Wilde, Henry James, or even Shirley Jackson.  If you're a bookworm, then it's easy to see why those names would leap to mind as the most obvious influences to talk about when discussing Nabokov's story.  However, after some consultation, I think there's really just one name that needs to be brought up in connection with the mysterious account of the painting that may or might not be alive in some way.  That brings us to a writer known as E.T.A. Hoffman.  If you don't know who I'm talking about, then it's useless to blame anyone for something they don't know.  The funny thing is how most people don't have a clue he ever existed, even while his greatest work has become something of a Holiday tradition.  Hoffman's the guy who wrote The Nutcracker.  Not the ballet, that was someone else.  I mean that before it was an opera, it was an ink and paper story first.  This appears to be the single amount of popular acclaim that Hoffman has ever had to his name.  It's sort of in the way of an irony, because in addition to the more familiar Christmas fable, Hoffman was also responsible for some of the most formative short stories in the history of Horror and Fantasy. 

If I had to provide a one sentence summary of his work, then I'd have to call him a prototype to the kind of storytelling that Neil Gaiman was later able to take mainstream.  In that sense, I guess you could call Hoffman the world's first Urban Fantasist.  It's when you stop to examine some of his output that you begin to get a sense of just how much Hoffman and Nabokov seem to have in common.  A good summary of the earlier writer's outlook goes as follows: "Structurally, Hoffmann’s tales of terror typically involve a trinity of basic elements. The reader encounters: (1) a romantic artist attempting to navigate, (2) a philistine middle-class culture without ceding ground on his compulsive obsession with (3) the “spirit-realm,” a transcendent world which belies the aesthetic paltriness of everyday existence and which can only be accessed through the pursuit of art.  The romantic of Hoffmann’s tales is
defined less by his artistic skill or success than by his obsessive longing for a transcendent reality that promises a break with the straitjacket of mundane existence.

"Carefully documenting their comfortable confusion of romantic fervor for artistic substance, Hoffmann tends to condemn these beautiful souls as dilettantes.  The failed romantic artist is depicted by Hoffmann as an essentially ecstatic madman, only capable of recognizing himself on the backdrop of social norms that cannot tolerate his aesthetic worldview.  The romantic is only at home in the transcendent spirit-realm, populated by the creations of the imagination. The spirit-realm, in turn, is not any less real than the “real” world surrounding the romantic. On the contrary, the “real” world is simply a thin veneer that conceals the higher “spiritual” order (the German word is “geistiger,” which can also be rendered as “spectral” or “ghostly”). 

"In contrast to the dilettante, the picture of the romantic that Hoffmann wants to champion is that of the artist who attempts to transform commonplace existence from within by investing it with the potencies of the romantic spirit-realm, instead of debasing the latter by treating it baldly as a refuge from daily life.  Far from berating the artists of his day, Hoffmann chronicles the struggle of producing genuine (read: romantic) art in a culture virtually brought to a standstill by philistinism. The philistine acts as the polar opposite of the genuine romantic artist in Hoffmann’s tales. The ubiquity of the figure of the philistine in Hoffmann’s tales reflects the birth of this new social class during his own lifetime (Hamad Al-Rayes, 397-8, web)".   The funny thing is how that's also a good summation of Nabokov's own outlook, at least in its most general outline.  There are some mistakes that Rayes makes, however.

For me, the biggest error is in just how Hoffmann's Romanticism is portrayed in his stories.  It's pretty clear the writer is distinguishing between a true and false sense of the Romantic in his fiction.  Rayes gets close to this idea when the topic of the dilettante is brought up.  However, this barely scratches the surface of the material Hoffmann dealt with.  

I think a better way to explain it is to claim that the distinction Hoffmann makes is between any mindset that can be labeled as a Romantic proper, and one that fits into a definition of the Morbid.  It's a very fine line, and one that many character's in his stories are all too eager to cross.  These are the protagonists that most often come to bad ends by the time the credits role.  Even the simplest read through of these works makes it clear the author is taking a very firm stand on where to drawn the line.  It therefore makes no sense to label either of them as decadents.  Instead, Hoffmann stories always wind up leaving his fictional cast members entangled in what might be called a character struggle.  This is because the Romanticism he presents to the readers always seems to be made up of two warring aspects.  The best description for them would have to be the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

It's the basic dichotomy that both Hoffmann's and Nabokov's dramatis persona find themselves caught up in, more often than not.  Whether it's Ferdinand trying to come to terms with reality versus the trauma he suffered as a child in The Sandman, or the anonymous narrator trying to discover The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, all of them wind up making choices that determine the outcome of their respective stories.  Each choice amounts to a step toward either an upward or downward path.  This is something that Nabokov is just as much aware of as Hoffmann, and they are able to make it clear just which side of the ethical fence they are on, without ever coming off as preachy.  Instead, each writer is smart enough to allow the artistic effect of their respective stories to do the work for them.  All they need now is just so much as a single audience that's willing to sit still and listen in.  Good luck on that.

In practically every one of their respective stories, this tug of war between the Dionysian and Apollonian is the fundamental background drama that undergirds each surface narrative between the two of them.  A figure like Humbert Humbert, for instance, is pretty much someone who has already lost that essential character struggle even before the curtain rises.  All that's left, once the actions starts, is to sit back (if you can stomach it) and let the tragedy unfold.  You do it, by the way, I'm going to go unwind with something more relaxing, like Twelve Angry Men.  My point is that it is possible to claim that both writers tend to gravitate toward a single, shared basis for the dramatic dynamics of their characters.  It's true Nabokov liked to claim that no author exerted an influence on the way he wrote.  The other inescapable fact was that he was a fan of deliberate self-contradiction.  In other words, it was the fox head mask talking.  I'm willing to go out on a limb, therefore, and claim that Hoffman was probably one of the older writers from whom the Russian ex-patriot learned the tricks of his trade.  

Perhaps there is one final aspect of the story skeleton that ought to be addressed before moving on to a proper examination of the content of the narrative itself.  It's probably just a lingering bit of trivia on how each writer lays out their characters, however I kind of thought it important enough to comment on.  If the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus is the basic conflict that each main actor in these modern day fables has to contend with, then what is there to help measure where they fall on the sliding scale of comedy or tragedy?  In figures like Humbert, or Hyppolytus (the protagonist of a surprisingly effective vampire story that seems to prefigure such classics as I Am Legend), the answers are obvious enough, for the most part.  What about folks like Marie (or Clara as she's known in the ballet version) from The Nutcracker, or Hugh Person from Nabokov's Transparent Things?  Where do they fall into such a scheme?  Better yet, what about the case of "La Veneziana", the very story under discussion here?

We'll get to them in a minute, I'm concerned for a moment with what might be called the question of the decisive factor, the moment of choice that determines the turn or pivot of the story.  It's maybe one of those esoteric ideas that doesn't have much in the way of traction anymore in today's artistic climate.  I'm not interested in timing here.  My concern is not really when the deciding choice, or story turn happens (besides, guys like O Henry enjoyed nothing more than pulling the rug out from under such moments).  I'm more interested in motivations.  What is it, in other words, that allows or drives the character toward their fateful decisions for good or ill?  I don't recall that this is something either Nabokov or Hoffmann talked about all too much.  However, I'm willing to coin a new term for an old idea on the subject.  In the constant struggle between the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of human nature, there has always been the need for a mediating and uniting factor between these two polar opposites.  

In practical terms, that mediator has always been the personality, being,  or whatever you want to call essence, of the individual.  Whatever phenomenon it is that allows us to realize there's such a thing as an outside world, as well as an observer to known and try to participate in it.  It's the same feat of perception that Henry David Thoreau referred to as "The First Person I".  In other words, what's needed to help maintain a balance of character is the same as it always way, the presence of a Mind.  In life size terms, this ideal state of balance would go as follows: Reason - Self - Emotion.  If you want it expressed in literary terminology, then what you get is this: Apollonian - Jovial - Dionysian.  I've chosen the familiar English phrase for the mediating factor because of the way it harkens back to the old, semi-Classical ground out of which literary critcism emerged from.  In addition to being at home in both the Greco-Roman and Shakespearean stages, it also somehow manages to convey the sense of personal responsibility that's always necessary, whether in fiction, or real life.

This is the determining factor in the mind of Nabokov, and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that Hoffmann might have felt the same.  Romanticism itself is not a negative, it's more a question of where the protagonist's head is at on the fine line between sanity and its dangerous polar opposite.  Like I said, this a theme that Hoffmann helped to pioneer in modern fiction, and its something in the way of being the great conflict at the heart of everything Nabokov ever wrote.  The question now is how does this play out in the short story under discussion?  And more important, is it any good or not?

Conclusion: An Intriguing Premise of Things to Come.

The ultimate reason for bringing up Hoffmann at all has to do with the central image, or trope of Nabokov's story.  The final hinge on which the narrative turns is the very old idea of a portrait coming to life, and exerting an influence (whether good or bad) on the outside world.  It's a far from original approach, and it was probably careworn by the time it Nabokov had the idea to find a story based around it.  In fact, I almost want to say it is older than the Brothers Grimm.  It wouldn't surprise me if that's the case, as it does sound like the kind of thing you would expect to find originally spun around some old peasant's folktale about the haves and the have-nots.  If this is true, then it means all questions of originality can be easily tossed out the door.  There's no points to be lost or gained by the use of familiar story concepts.  Nor is there much in the way of actual shame to go around.  If the basic idea of the narrative is a familiar one, then what matters is how well the individual artist does at filling out the overall structure.  It can be done in a number of ways, and Nabokov has his own style that he sticks to.

Part of that is by drawing on the use of storytellers past.  While taking a leaf from Hoffmann's book might sound like a contradiction on his claims to originality, please remember, that is the Fox Mask pose.  In actual practice, Nabokov seems happy to take all the help he can get.  The result was an easy familiarity with fairy tales in general, and with The Tales of Hoffmann for just one example among many.  Indeed, there's the sense in which the entire setup of "La Veneziana" can be thought of as little more than Hoffmann with a modern update.  The main stage of the narrative is an English manor house that is drawn in shades of both the lingering old, and the incoming new.  It's a fundamentally interregnum period, a moment of time poised between two world wars.  It situates the setting in a very clear context, one that draws as much upon the ruling Modernism of the 20s as it does the old well folklore on which the same literary movement depended on in order to achieve it's best effects.

It almost makes sense to describe the narrative as a Modernist poem in short story format.  One of the recurring themes of this type of poetics was the encounter between a fragmented present, and a sliver of the past.  That very idea itself could even be described as Gothic to its core.  In poems like those of Eliot, or the fiction of one of Nabokov's favorites, James Joyce, this could range from a mere scrap of memory serving as either springboard for the story, or else its catharsis.  

Other times, it can be a full on encounter with various elements of myth, legend, and the supernatural.  Guys like Eliot or Joyce could afford to pile on the metaphors, leaving their works as a veritable cornucopia of imagery and concepts from folklore.  Nabokov proved himself capable of this same strategy, however by the time he'd finished "La Veneziana", he was already at work on Mary, which later become his first published novel.  What's interesting to note about that later book is how it almost functions as a mirror image to the short story.  Both of them center on the idea of this Romantic protagonist whose obsession with a mysterious woman acts as the main drive on the plot.  Simpson becomes infatuated with a lifeless forgery the moment he lays eyes on it.  Lev Ganin, meanwhile, is caught up in cherished memories of the past, all of them centering around his encounters with the woman he still considers his soul mate, and who he's been carrying a torch for all these years.

Perhaps its not too far out of left field to suggest that there is a sense in which the main action of "La Veneziana" serves as a trial run for the later, full-fledged novel.  If the short story is the groundswell that the later book grew out of, then what's interesting to note is the differing perspectives that Nabokov ultimately takes on these respective characters.  Simpson is painted in the shades of a figure standing on the borderland of things.  He is both pitiable and pathetic, generating both scorn and sympathy by turns.  To be fair, that's not really a criticism, nor does it seem like a critical misstep on Nabokov's part.  I think he went as far as he could with the character, at least for the moment.  I'm willing to add that he got better at figuring out this imaginary individual as he along, and his writings skills began to mature.

The reason its easy to say that is because once you start to plow through Nabokov's works (even if it's just the short stories, at first) it doesn't take long for you to see the author's mind starting to coalesce around those certain situations and characters that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career.  The fictional Simpson is one of those recurring types.  In fact, he almost could stand for the prototypical Nabokovian protagonist.  By that I mean he's the one figure that the writer wound up returning to time and again.  And a lot of the reason for this, I think, is because sooner or later Nabokov began to realize that he had something like the ultimate springboard on his hands.  Here was the archetype that not only allowed him to find his own voice, it also gave him the room he needed to grow into before he could write all the things he needed to say.  As a result, this figure of the Lost Romantic is the one that Nabokov was able to get the most mileage out of.  The rest of his professional career seems to have been an ongoing series of all the possible literary riffs you could play off of this character.  

Sometimes, as with Simpson, he was the hapless victim of circumstance.  An indecisive fool who could see neither the forest or trees right in front of him, and who often wound up his own worst enemy.  At other times, this character's problem is that he could see either all too well, or else he was looking at some kind of transcending ideal through the lens of a dirty mirror, and he (this character always remains predominantly male in Nabokov's fiction) never seems to realize that the only way to either reach or else just be true to this ideal is to first try and see if the glass needs cleaning.  Then of course there are the negative versions of this character, the one the majority of readers have at least some passing familiarity with, even if it's just limited to the blameless form of revulsion.  This where you get your troubled Mr. Humbert, or Krug and Van Veem from Bend Sinister, and Ada, respectively.  Then there are the lesser known, good guy versions of this trope.  Here is where you get characters like Pnin, Hugh from Transparent Things, and then there's Fyodor, from The Gift.  And Ganin, from Mary.

The last examples are the ones most readers never hear about, for a number of reasons.  Simpson isn't the starting point for the development of this recurring character, though he might qualify as the point at which the writer begins to get the first glimmerings of the potential latent in the creative idea.  It's a potential that begins to make a definite advance of sorts when we turn to a novel like Mary.  What you get at the center of that book is a more expanded, cleaned-up version of Simpson.  For one thing, Ganin has a greater sense of personal resolve and resilience compared to the earlier incarnation.  Simpson is an example of the author working with a then common archetype.  He's a picture perfect illustration of the alienated, Modernist Everyman, and he plays the role to the hilt.  He's like a version of Alfred Prufrock that actually does manage to disturb the universe, and the order of things answers back in a way that winds up giving him more than he bargains for.  With this addition, it's easy to claim we've crossed into Twilight Zone territory.  Living paintings tend to be the stuff of fairy tales, and that's true here.  In addition to being a Modernist, Simpson is also a descendant of Hoffmann's restless seekers.

This can be found in the shared story trait of infatuation with an ideal woman.  This is one of the aspects of Nabokov's work that everyone is able to be familiar with without being able to tell the difference.  It's true that he plumbed the most depraved depths of this idea.  He also managed to explore more down to earth instances of the same trope.  Sometimes, as in Mary, he was even able to find an actual positive spin for the idea.  The way it plays out in "La Veneziana" seems to be left deliberately open to interpretation.  Like Hoffmann's mad dreamers, Simpson's obsession with the woman in the painting can be seen in a negative light, and there is an important sense of lingering menace about the whole affair that I don't think the story could have survived without.  The woman herself has this coy aspect to what little we can see of her enigmatic character, and it gives the impression that she might be a temptress, one who is there to lure the protagonist to a possible doom.  Under this reading, Simpson is luckier than a lot of Hoffmann's characters.  He gets to escape with his life and sanity intact.

At least that is one way to look at the story.  It's the reading I'm more or less stuck with if we view the story through a Hoffmannesue lens.  What it does is render Simpson as an inheritor.  He's walking the same confused path Nathanael in The Sandman, which is another story about a man consumed by the idea of a woman.  In the earlier case, it is a living doll, rather than a painting, and yet the idea is pretty much the same.  Hoffmann's Sandman is often cited as the first instance of a robot in a work of modern fiction.  The way it stands as written, however, tends to put me in mind of the type of experiments that old wizards used to be accused of during the middle ages.  Hoffmann's doll is more like a figure out of Goethe or Marlowe's Dr Faustus.  This is a trait that has been noted by others.  Dr. Arno Meteling has written an extensive essay, Hoffmann and the Machines, which briefly tackles the main themes that the Romantic author was trying to get at.  He notes how Hoffmann is able to join past and present.

"Although the romantic literature adopts these mechanical and mechanistic models of the artificial human being, it also draws on the hermetic traditions of the animated statue, the golem and the homunculus with a knowledge of literary history: for example in Jacob Grimm's (1808) or Clemens Brentano's (1814 ) Explanations of the golem saga or in Achim von Arnim's novella Isabella of Egypt, Emperor Charles of Fifth's first youthful love (1812), in which not only does the heroine in the title receive a golem double, but also in which, with her companion Cornelius Nepos, the tradition of the alchemically animated mandrake root ( Mandragora) is recorded.

"With the subject of the artificial human being, romantic literature places the field of hopes and fears between the utopia of a divine re-creation and the improvement of human nature in the tradition of Ovid's Pygmalion and the sinister threat to identity posed by artificial doubles. The position of the woman is usually precarious. For not only are there always men who create artificial human beings not only in competition with the divine, but above all for natural reproduction. In most cases, the animated creatures are unequivocally ideal women, and thus projection screens of male, narcissistic desire. The biological creative power of women is thus replaced – somewhat self-reflectively – by an act of art as the creation of something artificial.

"...The living doll Olimpia in the night play The Sandman (1816) is certainly the best-known automaton in Hoffmann's work. It is created by the physics professor Spalanzani, who pretends to be her father and introduces her to university society. But it really only comes to life through the binoculars and channeled gaze of the student Nathanael, who secretly observes Olimpia through his window and falls in love with her. The automaton woman with the classical name therefore essentially sets the Pygmalion story of Ovid's Metamorphoses continues, which has as its content an erotically motivated perfection of female beauty by the artist and its divine animation. To put it more profanely, it functions for Nathanael as a narcissistically charged projection screen for his erotic desires, since it has no depth, no personality, but is only a visually tactile surface. While Nathanael's fiancé Clara is therefore condemned by him as a "lifeless automaton" (III, p. 32), Nathanael can relate to Olimpia's only utterance, her "Oh! Oh!", which is semantically no more than a breath of air, to be understood as a significant symptom of depth of mind and soul.

"This delusional setup in the Sandman is presented as the effect of bringing two discourses together: On the one hand, it responds to the deeply traumatized psyche of the hero Nathanael...On the other hand, the fact that Olimpia was taken for a while by everyone for a real woman serves the satirically pointed end that since then women have had to get out of step again and again in all societies in order to prove their authenticity.  The Sandman showcases the fantastic figure of the automaton as an indistinguishable double, and thus establishes a tenor of the uncanny in the sense of Sigmund Freud for the automaton motif, which has been preserved in literature and other contemporary arts (web)".

The following was a very rough translation from the original German text, however the main point was hopefully gotten across.  Whether we're talking about an enchanted painting or an alchemical automaton, the one shared trait that both have in common remains the same.  They are, in a word, simulacrums; artificial facsimiles of actual life, without being at all real.  Not only is it something that both techniques have in common, it even took the efforts of an actual painter to point it all out to everyone else.  The Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte, once went out of his way to point this fact out with one of his own illustrations.  He drew and colored in a perfectly life-like picture of a normal smoking pipe on a strip of canvas.  Below this image, he added the words: "This is not a pipe". That's as good a summation as any I can find for the main theme at the heart of Nabokov's short story.  The struggle that both the reader and main character have to contend with is the difficult question of what is real and false in all that they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing?  The whole struggle is presented as a deliberate muddle, which ends on a measured note of ambiguity.  

Simpson's entire situation appears to be retreading of the same, circuitous, and hallucinatory pathways that Hoffmann first wrote about near the beginning of Nabokov's 20th century.  In some ways, it's possible to argue that the Russian expat is more merciful with his characters than the German Romantic.  Not only does Simpson manage to escape his fate (albiet through an almost literal brushstroke of luck), Nabokov even goes out of his way to leave the reality of the escapade in doubt.  The one thing that allows the story to end on a somewhat dark note of enchantment is the presence of a simple lemon that was first seen withing the painted forgery, and is now clasped in the main character's hand.  It is the lone indicator of the secret events that happen in the narrative, and a pointer to the fact that Simpson's excursion into the world of the painting wasn't all just a dream.  It's enough to qualify the work as an essentially positive spin on the ghoulish approaches of Hoffman with a story like this.

It was the work of critic Roy Johnson who first alerted me to the Hoffmann connection in Nabokov's short story.  After a bit of further digging, it turns out he had a genuine enough insight on his hands.  In the two volume, official biography of the Russian scribbler, Brian Boyd notes the one of the other short stories (one with the very enlightening title of "A Nursery Tale") is described as "Deliberately Hoffmanesque, and with a dash of (Tolstoy) (259-60)".  A brief look closer at this "Nursery" story kind of helps us to gain a final understanding of the layout of "Veneziana".  That's because the cast listing for the later installment is more or less the same as the one under the microscope here today.  It's your standard "Deal with the Devil" folktale in a modern dress, and the two main leads bear an uncanny resemblance to the troubled Mr. Simpson and the Painted Lady.  It just occurs to me now that a good term for this recurring male protagonist is to refer to him, in all of his faces, as merely the Chaser.  That's because they tend to have this seemingly clear goalpost to aim for.  It's just that none of them are very good at playing the game of life all that well.  It's a verdict which applies equally to both Simpson, and the main character the "Nursery Tale".  The Devil and the Painting, meanwhile, are interesting.  It's given the shape of a woman in this narrative, and that in turn leads to the facts about Nabokov's women.

The women of Nabokov's fiction tend to fall into one of three categories.  On the most familiar level, they are either victims, or else they are temptress figures, whether real, or merely "perceived".  It's the third category that tends to get the least amount of notice, even if it could be the most important.  Sometimes the way Nabokov writes the women in his fiction is just that of a plain hero.  That's all, nothing fancy about any of it, just a mere observation of fact on the writer's part.  When we come to this third category, the real issue becomes whether or not they either succumb to, or are able to triumph over their circumstances, especially when it comes to suffering at the hands of the Chaser.  In both "Nursery Tale" and "La Veneziana", however, this formulation is inverted, or inside out.  This time it's the Chaser himself who is at the mercy of the second class of Nabokovian women, the Temptress.  In that sense, it may be possible to speak of Nabokov's primary pro-an-tagonist to be just as much a victim in his own right.  The major difference in that case is that you can always tell the men in his stories are pretty much crawling on their hands and knees, begging for the oncoming misfortune to fall on them.

As I've already said, though, Simpson is one of the luckier iterations of the Chaser, he at least managed to escape with his life.  Whether he will let this act as a lesson to profit from remains to be seen.  The whole story ends on a note of ambiguity, you see.  Other than this, all that's left is to ask the vital question.  Is the story any good at all?  Roy Johnson doesn't think so.  He claims that Nabokov "never seems completely at ease in this literary genre, but La Veneziana is rescued by having a credible (and amusing) realistic basis on which the smaller element of fantasy is based (web)".  With all due respect, however, I'm afraid that's just not the kind of verdict I'm able to agree with on this one.  My main reasons for this are twofold.  On a general level, there is no real evidence in sight of any "discomfort" on the part of the author with this type of story.  Remember what Nabokov said about the modern novel, it is all just fairy stories told by a more elaborated means.  There's nothing in this statement that doesn't line up with everything thing that Neil Gaiman or Ray Bradbury ever wrote.  It's also a category that Nabokov seems to have been more or less proud to include himself in.  That's not a declaration of shame, by any means.

If there's any sense of shame to go around, then most of it seems to rest on the shoulders of the critic, rather than the author.  Johnson and others like him tend to display an aversion to the merest hint of myth or fantasy in any narrative that otherwise appears worthy to appear in an issue of The New Yorker.  It's a literary prejudice that is just as much familiar as it is long outdated by now.  It had become an anachronism right around the time that the first issues of the other Sandman were busy getting respectable praise in The New York Review of Books.  It marked a shift in reader and critical consensus that would have been anathema to reviewers like Edmund Wilson, whom Nabokov wound up having a notorious break with over just this sort of aesthetic disagreement, among other things.  The sad part is that even mistaken legacies appear to die hard.  That's all that Johnson's critique amounts to, I'm afraid; the detritus leftover from Wilson's time.  It says more about the critic than it does the story.

In contrast, the final product in question displays the author handling things with a relative ease.  You can tell we're looking at Nabokov slowly coming into his own as a writer.  It's the first hintings at the type of material that he will go on to make famous in works like Pale Fire.  What does this tell us about the story in its own right?  Well, for one thing, it's a mistake to call it a bad piece of workmanship.  Nor does Nabokov seem to have held it in any bad sort of light.  If that were the case, odds are even it would never have gotten past the initial note card draft stage.  The reference to workmanship above wasn't a throwaway line, either.  Nabokov was one of those authors who pride themselves on their skill with literary style.  It was one of, if maybe not the defining trademark of everything he set down on paper.  We already find him sounding off a lot of notes that would become familiar over the years.

A good example can be found in the musings contained in the two following passages.  "The distinctive feature of everything extant is its monotony. We partake of food at predetermined hours because the planets, like trains that are never late, depart and arrive at predetermined times. The average person cannot imagine life without such a strictly established timetable. But a playful and sacrilegious mind will find much to amuse it imagining how people would exist if the day lasted ten hours today,eighty-five tomorrow, and after tomorrow a few minutes. One can say a priori that, in England, such uncertainty with regard to the exact duration of the coming day would lead first of all to an extraordinary proliferation of betting and sundry other gambling arrangements. One could lose his entire fortune because a day lasted a few more hours than he had supposed on the eve. The planets would become like racehorses, and what excitement would be aroused by some sorrel Mars as it tackled the final celestial hurdle! Astronomers would assume book-makers' functions, the god Apollo would be depicted in a flaming jockey cap, and the world would merrily go mad.

"Unfortunately, however, that is not the way things are. Exactitude is always grim, and our calendars, where the world's existence is calculated in advance, are like the schedule of some inexorable examination. Of course there is something soothing and insouciant about this regimen devised by a cosmic Frederick Taylor. Yet how splendidly, how radiantly the world's monotony is interrupted now and then by the book of a genius, a comet, a crime, or even simply by a single sleepless night. Our laws, though--our pulse, our digestion are firmly linked to the harmonious motion of the stars, and any attempt to disturb this regularity is punished, at worst by beheading, at best by a headache. Then again, the world was unquestionably created with good intentions and it is no one's fault if it sometimes grows boring, if the music of the spheres reminds some of us of the endless repetitions of a hurdy-gurdy (105-6)".  

It's a set of passages that amount to a curious, one almost wants to say quirky series of metaphysical musings.  It's just all part of the bells and whistles of Nabokov's writing, something that was native to his storytelling.  I've highlighted where some of it came from once before, for the record, in the author's connection with the work of experimental physicist J.W. Dunne.  It's something the writer doesn't care to apologize for, as there's more than plenty where that came from in his other works.  It reaches its apex during an entire passage of Ada, for the record.  Perhaps the real interesting thing to report about all that is how none of this manages to get in the way of the story.  Instead, Nabokov seems blessed with that unique ability which allows the artist to blend together various disparate elements in a way that comes together to form a seamless whole.  This applies just as well to one final piece of the puzzle.

I'm speaking, of course, about Nabokov's propensity for authorial self-inert commentary, even as the story is unfolding before our eyes.  The best example in "Veneziana comes when the writer can't help remark on the exploits of one the narrative's minor characters.  After recording the actions of a retired night watchman, the concluding passage on him reads as follows.  "Thus the pleasant, innocuous old fellow, like some guardian angel, momentarily traverses this narrative and rapidly vanishes into the misty domains whence he was evoked by a whim of the pen (109)".  Again, this is just what Nabokov does as a writer.  It's a feature, not a bug, one of those elements that has to be classified as "all part of the show, folks".  The funny thing is how it's the most familiar trait that all the critics tended to fawn over, for various reasons.  I merely note the practice, and claim that there is nothing worth any inherent criticism about such metafictional commentary.  I've heard it said that this is a good way to shatter to suspension of disbelief.  It's interesting therefore that I am not taken out of the narrative at all by such techniques.  Instead, Nabokov is able to draw you in by pointing out the fictionality of the story.

It instead helps to grant the work its own peculiar charm, one that is just as much a signature of Nabokov's typical writing practice as the vague sense of the Gothic, and otherworldly.  In this regard, I'd have to classify the short story as good, based on the way it succeeds at the goals that were set out for it.  In that sense, what else can you expect from a Romantic?  It's the type of fiction that is able to work on multiple levels, as both a satire of manners in a slightly British vein, as love story of obsession and desire, as a ghost story, and above all, as a work of fantasy.  It all sort of brings us back to the question that we started with.  What kind of a genre are we dealing with here?  The best answer I'm able to give is that it seems as if we've got a Gothic Fantasy on our hands.  That doesn't make it original, yet it does qualify on that score as a rare specimen.  In addition to E.T.A. Hoffmann, it could also be said to have stylistic commonalities with writers like Horace Walpole, one of those ghost stories that still have trace elements of the mythological fantasy that it originally emerged from.  It leaves the reader with a cozy blending of fantastic genre elements that Nabokov seems to have been right at home with.

It makes "La Veneziana" something of an ideal beginner's text, in that regard.  If there's anyone out there who's maybe heard something like a good book report on Vladimir Nabokov, maybe from a friend, or on a website somewhere, and is looking for the right way into one of the most eclectic oeuvres in the history of literature, then right now I'm inclined to say that this story of a possibly enchanted painting is the closest I've come so far to a good place to start from.  It's a miniature snapshot of all of the author's main themes and strengths on display for the first time.  So what does this say about the quality of the work as a whole?  I think the best answer I've got is to admit a set of facts which both apply in equal measure to the short story.  It qualifies as a very early work, and yet even here its possible to see the artistic promise peering out from behind the curtain.  Is it a young man's work?  Yes, it is.  Are books like Pale Fire better than this?  Unquestionably so.  Does this make it a bad story?  Not at all.  Far from it, in fact.  I can't think of a better place to first meet the world of Vladimir Nabokov.  

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