The Extraordinary Art of "The Vane Sisters"

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Author: Kenneth Kupsch
Date: Spring 2010
From: The Midwest Quarterly(Vol. 51, Issue 3)
Publisher: Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,666 words
Lexile Measure: 1770L

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In a humorous passage from The Memoirs of Hector Bedioz , the composer writes of his difficult efforts in the late 1820s to persuade his friend and mentor, Jean-François Le Sueur, to acquaint himself with the symphonies of Beethoven, then beginning to arouse excitement in the Paris musical world. Upon finally attending a performance of the C-minor Symphony that afterward left him barely able to speak or even to don his hat for want of the ability to relocate his head, Le Sueur later concluded that, "all the same, music like that ought not to be written." For his own part, Berlioz sardonically reassured his old friend, saying simply: "Don't worry, Master, there is not much danger that it will" (106). Such an anecdote might well serve as the introduction to a discussion of the skeptical, even cynical, reception that has to a significant degree greeted that most extraordinary of American short stories, "The Vane Sisters" by Vladimir Nabokov. Of course, given the work's quite literal extra-ordinary (in the sense of supernatural) possibilities, it is not surprising to discover how much of that less-than-enthusiastic reaction has emanated from analyses far more suitable to aficionados of metaphysics than of literature. It must be, therefore, in a return ultimately to the story's purely literary--and most truly extra-ordinary--features that we may hope to answer many of the least-justified criticisms engendered by the work. In particular, it is in reaction to the now-famous ending, with its elaborate acrostic message hidden in the final paragraph, that one finds the most skeptical reaction to Nabokov's art being exhibited. Yet it is precisely in that, for some, too-precious ending where the thoughtful and sensitive reader shall discover the objectives of more conventional storytelling not only being matched, but also being demonstrated as strikingly inferior by comparison.

As it happens, skepticism towards "The Vane Sisters" began with its reception in 1951 by New Yorker editrix Katherine White, who declined to publish it. A quarter-century later, in the prefatory note to the first publication in English of another of his stories, "A Matter of Chance," Nabokov would recall the supercilious tone of that even more famous of editors, Harold Ross, who had dismissed "The Vane Sisters" on grounds that: we [at The New Yorker ] don't publish acrostics" (142). In recounting this reaction so many years after the fact, it would seem that Nabokov remained eager to the end to show how the initial publishing failure he experienced with this story lay not so much in any inability to rise to the standards of a well-established and prestigious magazine, but rather in a process which had worked very much the other way around. For as things turned out, having first been rejected in 1951 by more than one publication, this unique masterpiece would remarkably not find its way into print until 1959, thus dwarfing--chronologically, at least--any difficulties more famously experienced by Nabokov during this period with respect to his publication of Lolita . In the epistolary exchange conducted with White between 17 and 21 March of 1951, Nabokov first addressed himself to some of the more striking features of the work's highly unusual "web of style:"

   You may argue that reading downwards, or upwards, or diagonally is not
   what an author can be expected to do; but by means of various allusions
   to trick-reading I have arranged matters so that the reader almost
   automatically slips into this discovery, especially because of the abrupt
   change in style
. (Selected Letters
, 116-17) 

To which White rejoined:

   I think it's fine to have your style a web, when your web is an ornament,
   or a beautiful housing for the content of your text ... but a web can
   'also be a trap when it gets snarled or becomes too involved, and readers
   can die like flies in a writer's style if it is unsuitable for its matter.

Passing over the irony of this response in which an editor seeks to surpass the metaphorist in his use of metaphor in order to demonstrate to him the limits of language, we may turn to the story itself to determine whether in this instance the reader is truly left trapped like a fly in a tantalizing but cruel linguistic web, or is, as I would argue, set aloft by the experience like a carefully prepared butterfly newly-sprung from its chrysalis.

Although readers may discover elsewhere some illuminating discussions of this story and its wealth of allusions (most notably to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde), it will be necessary to retrace the ostensibly simple outline of its threefold dramatic are. The story begins as the narrator recalls how the pattern of dripping icicles and the shadows east by them along a row of houses in the New England college town that serves as the main setting, led him to pursue a course that brought him past the particular house once inhabited by a former teaching colleague, identified only as D. This foreshadows the almost immediate reappearance of that former colleague who happens to be passing through on his way from Albany to Boston, and clearly indulging in a little more nostalgic remembrance himself than the narrator gives him credit for: "I felt that stab of personal irritation against travelers who seem to feel nothing at all upon revisiting spots that ought to harass them at every step with wailing and writhing memories" (221). The unexpected news that a mutual acquaintance named Cynthia Vane has recently died brings the section to an abrupt end. What follows, and forms the basis of the second and longest section of the work, is a recollection of the narrator's brief but memorable relationship with this woman whose strange and comical view of the world forms the centerpiece of the story, as well as the specific object of Nabokov's most inspired and sympathetic art.

The narrator, we learn, first made this woman's acquaintance when she sought--through rather ordinary means--to intervene with the narrator's help in the soon-to-become tragic affair between her younger sister, Sybil, and the narrator's married colleague, the aforementioned D. As the story's title suggests, these sisters embody two very different possible directions of human vanity, the first of which, physical vanity, is quickly played out in the narrator's description of this younger sister as she appeared to him in class on the day of her final examination in French lit:

   I felt acutely unhappy about my dutiful little student as during one
   hundred and fifty minutes my gaze kept reverting to her, so childishly
   slight in close-fitting gray, and kept observing that carefully waved dark
   hair, that small, small-flowered hat with a little hyaline veil as worn
   that season and under it her small face broken into a cubist pattern by
   scars due to a skin disease, pathetically masked by a sunlamp tan that
   hardened her features, whose charm was further impaired by her having
   painted everything that could be painted, so that the pale gums of her
   teeth between cherry-red chapped lips and the diluted blue ink of her
   eyes under darkened lids were the only visible openings into her beauty.

Although the narrator's own special vanity, witnessed in his cocksure and highly rationalistic mind, has itself been the subject of a considerable amount of negative reaction to the story, it is worth noting how accurate and dependable an instrument it proves to be in so vividly recreating such scenes as the one described above. This, then, leads to an equally detailed description of the "several demon hands" employed by Sybil in her hopelessly chaotic examination copybook, and the belated discovery that a cryptic suicide note had been appended to it in a representative jumble of French and English:

   Cette examain est finie ainsie que ma vie. Adieu, jeunes filles! Please,
   Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not
   better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D. (223) 

Michael Wood, who also finds "The Vane Sisters" to be less than an artistic triumph, nevertheless lays particular and interesting stress upon this moment, noting, for instance, the way in which Sybil's mistaken placement of the French word for "hand" in her spelling of "examen" makes her a sort of inadvertent "cousin of Lewis Carroll, Joyce; and Nabokov" (81). And yet for all of the playfulness, it would seem from even this merest of glimpses that it was no promise of immortality which can explain Sybil's decision to reenact the fate implicit in her close-fitting Wildean name. Indeed, those who take more seriously than I the post-mortem implications of this story might at least be asked to consider whether in this instance the initiation of a once-mortal being into some sodality of spirits really amounts to the sort of hopeful resolution they infer, or, given Sybil's obviously desperate efforts to the contrary, simply implies the exchange of one brand of personal misery for another.

Curiously, "The Vane Sisters" has always met far less resistance on its metaphysical front than it has on its artistic one. The two facts, I argue, are much related. It is, therefore, to a more rigorous analysis of the main characters and their respective beliefs that we must turn in order to challenge what Wood here describes, but which may also be said to describe a good deal of reaction to the story as a whole, "the dizzying, shallow cleverness which makes Nabokov so tiresome at times even to his admirers" (80). For, if Sybil Vane embodies a type of simple vanity of the physical sort, it is a far more complex, if not altogether uncommon, type that we find in her sister, one that may be described as a vanity of the metaphysical sort. Specifically, it is in her belief not only in an otherworld of what the narrator calls "intervenient auras" (9.27), but also in her equally strongly held belief that, as much as any thing else, these auras exist for the express purpose of routinely addressing themselves to persons such as she. In this respect Nabokov's narrator represents a perfect a contrast to Cynthia's more credulous personality, and as the conclusion of the story shall demonstrate, one far more difficult for readers to disassociate themselves from than has previously been supposed. Nevertheless, many readers have apparently allowed their instinctive dislike for the narrator and "his rather snide smugness" (Rowe, 20) to overwhelm their good sense; in some eases leading to almost matter-of-fact acceptances of the correctness of Cynthia's point of view instead, as well as to the idea of the story's "genuine ghostly activity" (Rowe, 117). As for me, it is impossible not to hear in the narrator's description of one of the few séances he agrees to attend with her, an echo of the equally cutting voice of H.L. Mencken, commenting on an earlier mountebank of the same variety, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Here is Mencken:

   She materialized the forms of Koot Hoomi and her preposterous mahatmas
   precisely as the hard-working mediums in back streets materialized the
   forms of Wah-Wah the Indian chief.... She had a cabinet with a sliding
   door in the back, and from it she produced letters from Tibet (all written
   in her own hand, with curious Russified letters) and other such marvels.

Here now is Nabokov's narrator:

   Oscar Wilde came in and in rapid garbled French, with the usual
   anglicisms, obscurely accused Cynthia's dead parents of what appeared in
   my jottings as "plagiatisme" ... Frederic Myers, an old hand at the game,
   hammered out a piece of verse (oddly resembling Cynthia's own fugitive
   productions). (231) 

Notwithstanding the narrator's stubborn, and very French, refusal to acknowledge the essentially correct, if ill-pronounced, word uttered in his presence (its self-effacing charge of plagiarism is, after all, intended by Nabokov more directly for his readers), it seems to me that the acerbic tone evidenced in this second instance remains every bit as appropriate as it was in the first. Moreover, by the time the narrator achieves the degree of familiarity with Cynthia depicted in this and other related scenes, she has already succeeded in gathering to herself a budding little Theosophical Society of her own.

The makeup of this little group of spirit chasers, however, turns out to be far less interesting and important than the curious nature of the "discoveries" that seem to bind them. For example, in addition to the two brothers, and co-owners of a printing establishment, who help Cynthia concoct self-delusional entertainments like those described above, her prodigies include an elderly librarian engaged in locating portentous misprints, such as the one he finds in which the name of Hitler is produced where the word "hither" ought to have appeared. Following his lead, Cynthia soon happens upon her own literary discovery, namely, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's invocation of the sacred river Alph in "Kubla Khan" prefigures in its letter sequence the coming more than a century later of another sacred river, the Anna Livia Plurabelle of Finnegans Wake . Of course, Cynthia's librarian friend's own portentous name of Porlock itself recalls Coleridge's dubious assertion that he composed his famous poem while in a dream, and becomes a pointed reminder that metaphysical gullibility has hardly been the exclusive province of the spiritualists and their dupes. At the same time, the narrator's assertion that the poet's carefully composed work represents what amounts to "an imperishable poem" (230) reminds us that even the most rational and skeptical of minds is apt to seek and find versions of immortality of its own. Yet it is precisely the sort of skepticism toward the lucubrations of Cynthia and her clan that the intelligent reader must necessarily share with the story narrator, whether we choose to like him personally or not, which will prove "The Vane Sisters" such a powerful and original piece of storytelling in the end.

In order to understand how "The Vane Sisters" functions in such a powerful and original way, it is necessary to say a few words about the nature and character of belief, and also about the nature and character of most literature. What it would seem has always distinguished the believer from the non-believer, irrespective of the faith, is the point at which one accepts existing forms of evidence as being convincing. Here it is worth noting that, as respects a complex and difficult revolution in human understanding, like, say, the one created by the advent of the Copernican theory, while skepticism has its important place, it is often those who perceive its essential veracity on the basis of the least amount of evidence who prove to have been the most perspicacious. By contrast, when we read about a character like Cynthia Vane, it is not so much superior knowledge that inspires derision towards her, so much as surprise that a human being of otherwise reasonable intelligence could be so easily and uncritically persuaded that the quality of evidence she so endlessly seeks and finds amounts to substantial proof that her underlying beliefs are true. And it is for this kind of reason that many of the ordinary devices of fiction tend to be such useful, if limited, means of conveying to the reader something of what it may be like to think of the world in such relatively novel terms. In the case of "The Vane Sisters," the device of conventional storytelling that best seeks to convey the peculiar sense of the world so natural to the central character can be found in the simile of the kitten:

   She was sure that her existence was influenced by all sorts of dead
   friends each of whom took turns in directing her fate much as if she were
   a stray kitten which a schoolgirl in passing gathers lip, and presses to
   her cheek and carefully puts down again, near some suburban hedge--to be
   stroked presently by another transient hand or carried off to a world of
   doors by some hospitable lady. (227-28) 

Although one must be a pretty dull reader indeed not to be both moved and enlightened by this beautiful trope, it must be remembered that it is the very man who was so intellectually repulsed by Cynthia, even as he was at least temporarily drawn to her, who provides us with this remarkably insightful description. The explanation is not far to seek: he can comprehend and convey what she believes, without being able to comprehend, let alone convey by such means, what it may actually be like to experience the world as a consequence of her faith.

In her assessment of "The Vane Sisters" Katherine White cited the unsuitability of the writer's style for his subject matter as her chief complaint when rejecting the piece for publication. This raises an important question: which writer did she have in mind? If we look again at the above-quoted passage, we can see how the narrator's lack of shared experience does seem to create a natural unsuitability between the writer and his subject. At first glance, this might seem to account for the passage's inherent contradiction which asks us better to comprehend one point of view that we likely do not share (Cynthia's) by comparing to another we certainly do not share (that of a kitten subject to the caprices of a superior-situated race of beings). However, the real problem, it seems to me, has less to do with either the writer's lack of shared experience or personal sympathy with his subject matter so much as his highly conventional approach here to it. After all, whatever else might be said against him, the narrator does begin to demonstrate some keen insight into the peculiar sense of the world he would hereby attempt to recreate. What remains, therefore, is for at least one of the story's authors to isolate dramatically the more specific kind of shock of recognition (whether real or imagined) that lies at the heart of understanding a character as distinctive as Cynthia Vane. Nabokov seems to have had exactly this point in mind when, in the congratulatory note he penned to the stows first discoverers of its encoded message (Encounter , April 1959), he drew attention to some possible explanations for it:

   Unless the acrostic is accidental ... Cynthia has proved the correctness
   of her theory.... My difficulty was to smuggle in the acrostic without
   the narrator's being aware that it was there, inspired to him by the
   phantoms. (Selected Letters
, 280) 

Of course, a third and more plausible explanation is that the narrator knowingly placed it there himself. Certainly this is easier to explain than that Cynthia, of all people, should have been among the first phantoms to realize that to send such a message successfully one might actually have to make it distinguishable from the world of everyday. So why, then, does Nabokov so purposely ignore this explanation, since, and as we shall see, the story's most original dramatic feature will retain its full artistic effect, irrespective of its origin. The reason, I think, has to do with the story's most important dramatic distinction he would have us discover--the one between greater and lesser artist.

There can be little doubt that for all her self-delusional qualities Cynthia Vane genuinely believed in her own baroque faith and, as a consequence, experienced at least some aspects of this life quite differently from the general run of human beings. This stated, let us turn now to the third and final section to see how this remarkable story manages so artfully to bridge the gap between mere comprehension and actual experience, and realize what Brian Boyd has called the "shimmering promise behind the words" (194). After recounting the specific place ("the steps of the Public Library") and circumstance (she dismissed him as "a prig and a snob" [234]) whereby the relationship between the narrator and Cynthia came to its own abrupt end, the story returns to the more recent past, and the hours immediately following his leaning of her death. Harassed by her memory at very step, the narrator embarks on the first stage of the three-stage process so central to and characteristic of Cynthia Vane and the adherents of her faith. That first stage consists of the simple act of looking for, and often in the most unlikely places, signs of an occult hand, an act that even now fills the narrator with a sense of intellectual contempt: "I plunged into Shakespeare's sonnets--and found myself idiotically checking the first letters of the lines to see what sacramental words they might form" (235). What he finds there, and at least simulates the second-stage of the process, is nothing more than the equivalent of the kinds of evidence that earlier had so pleased Cynthia, and left the narrator, as well as the reader, so wholly unimpressed. Arriving at this dead-end, so to speak, the narrator manages, after a night of equally fitful and frustrated trying, to drift off into sleep and a world of dreams "that was somehow full of Cynthia" (237). Arising from it, he proceeds one last time, this time by combing the memory of his dreams, to seek some more credible evidence that her continuing spirit may have left for him as the proof of her ultimate fate. And it is here, of course, that the reader is left to discover for him the 32-letter acrostic message hidden in the story's final paragraph.

David Eggenschwiler has pointed out how Nabokov clearly saw the real clash in a first-rate work of fiction as between the writer and the audience, a fact which, he rightly concludes, "applies to 'The Vane Sisters' more precisely than it does to any other of Nabokov's works" (34). Whether or not we agree that the appearance of this acrostic proves Cynthia's view of the world to have been correct, we must admit that, even if true, her correctness was merely coincidental, and not a function of any superiority on her part, intellectual or otherwise. Thus what truly distinguishes this final piece of evidence from all that has come before is the realization that what we, the audience, have allowed ourselves to be directed towards is a discovery whose appearance cannot be rationally explained on the basis of chance. Our certainty that the hand of the author lay behind the story, directing its outcome in this respect, becomes the extra-ordinary artistic ingredient wherein the reader experiences that special thrill of recognition enjoyed all along by Cynthia, who just as thoroughly knew, or at least believed she knew, that the spiritual hands of her dead friends were directing the outcome of her own life's story. This feeling of certain recognition on the part of the reader, then, is the final stage of the process that had stood as a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the experience of the believer and the non-believer of Cynthia's curious faith--a process whose intrinsic three-stage form (seek/find/positively identify) is itself interestingly mirrored in the story's more accurate threefold dramatic structure embedded in its seven-section outward appearance. Maxim Shrayer has observed how "even the most educated readers still perceive Nabokov as a brilliant yet soulless conjuror, a literary gamesman" (19); yet it is impossible to imagine a writer any more attentive to the needs of his audience, or sympathetic to the minds of even his most eccentric characters. Indeed, few are the authors who may be said to appreciate that carefully rendering the thoughts of their characters and genuinely placing their readers in a place comparable to the minds of those characters are two very different things. Fewer still are the authors who may be said to have ever so successfully exploited the possibilities of literary form for so unmistakably artistic an end. For, to dismiss so ingenious a masterpiece as "The Vane Sisters," or indeed the very idea of such original artistry, "after having felt its power and being forced to recognize its beauty," is, as Berlioz concluded more than a century and a half ago about his friend's reaction to the music of Beethoven, "as much as to say that you yourself would never do such a thing--because you know you couldn't even if you wanted to" (106).


Berlioz, Hector. The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz . David Cairns, trans, and ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Eggenschwiler, David. "Nabokov's 'The Vane Sisters': Exuberant Pedantry and a Biter Bit." Studies in Short Fiction, 18:1 (Winter 1981), 33-39.

Mencken, H.L. A Mencken Chrestomathy . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories . New York: McGraw- Hill Book Company, 1975.

--. Vladmir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977 . Eds. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

Rowe, William Woodin. Nabokov's Spectral Dimension . Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981.

Shrayer, Maxim D. The World of Nabokov's Stories . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Wood, Michael. The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A224991150