The privileged first son of an aristocratic family, Vladimir Nabokov grew up fluent in Russian, English, and French. His early introduction to the glories of language developed into a lifelong fascination with words and word play. The rich texture of his style and the highly allusive and parodic quality of his prose produce a body of work so recondite that it requires multiple rereading, good dictionaries, and shelves full of reference books in order to appreciate fully its meaning and structure. Though Nabokov's stories are weaker on the whole than his novels, they still serve as excellent examples of his art. The short stories generally appear less interesting than the novels, mainly because they are more straightforward; however, several of them do reach the high creative level of the longer works.
Nabokov wrote the majority of his stories in his native tongue during his Berlin exile (1922-37), during which time he also wrote his nine Russian novels. The stories first appeared in the émigré periodical press and a number of them came out in two collections, Vozvrashchenie Chorba ("The Return of Chorb") and Sogliadatai (The Eye). Most of this early fiction deals with the complicated, poignant, sad, and often lonely aspects of émigré life. After having arrived in the United States, Nabokov wrote in English the novels that secured his fame and led his adopted country to claim him as her own: Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Nevertheless, émigré life remains a theme in some of his English short stories ("The Assistant producer," "That in Aleppo Once," "Conversation Piece, 1945"). Émigré life serves as a metaphor for the more general themes of displacement and dislocation of time and space.
Nabokov's own concerns over such issues as the suffering of the weak at the hands of the cruel, the human reluctance to accept responsibility for one's actions, the nature of individuality and freedom, and the role fate plays in individual lives place him in the great tradition of 19th-century Russian literature. These subjects also belie both the critical commonplace that he is merely a literary gameplayer and his own contention that there are no "messages" in his work. Never blatantly didactic, Nabokov's fiction nevertheless rests on a firm moral basis.
Perhaps the most prevalent themes in Nabokov's fiction deal with the nature of art, consciousness, and reality. He also writes about love, sexuality, and madness. But most of all Nabokov teaches his audience how to read literature, especially his own, by concentrating on the details which reveal the patterns of his work. And though Nabokov vehemently denies the presence of symbols in his work, motifs such as his favorite butterflies and moths recur in his fictive universe. These patterns in turn provide his ideal readers with the clues necessary to perceive the created reality of each of his stories and novels.
The characters who inhabit Nabokov's special world generally do not fit into their social milieu. Because they usually do not concern themselves with current affairs or the "eternal questions," some critics accuse them of being solipsistic. Other critics contend that all of Nabokov's heroes are artists and writers. But his heroes come from all walks of life and all levels of intelligence and sensitivity—from the most sensitive poet to the least perceptive Philistine, or poshliak. His secondary characters also make up a wide range of types and function on many levels. Especially in the novels and stories of exile, these characters form the background for the action of the heroes. In addition, they fit into the society alien to the heroes and thereby accentuate their dislocation and displacement.
One of Nabokov's best stories, "A Guide to Berlin" ("Putevoditel' po Berlinu," 1925) does not dwell on the standard sights to which a Baedeker might direct a tourist: railway stations, hotels, restaurants, churches. This guide does not even mention the well-known street Unter den Linden or the landmark situated on Berlin's western end, the Brandenburg Gate. Instead the nameless narrator points out to his nameless companion the harmony of black water pipes covered in snow which unites them to the outer edge of the sidewalk on which they are lying; he then boards a tram and concentrates on the conductor's hands and the images they awake in his consciousness. From the tram he observes people at work and takes us with him into his synesthetic view of the city. His next stop is the zoo, which he describes as an artificial Eden, but an Eden that stimulates his imagination. At the end we see the narrator and his drinking companion in a pub, the details of which he sees in a mirror. This sight causes him to speculate on how he might be a future memory in the mind of a child he is observing in the present. "Guide to Berlin" not only presents us with a way of looking at the city Nabokov called home for many years, it also shows us how to perceive the reality of Nabokov's world by teaching us how to read his fiction. One apprehends the entire picture by concentrating on separate details.
The German city in "The Return of Chorb" becomes a modern day Hades for the protagonist who returns to tell his parents-in-law that his wife has died in a freak accident. Chorb checks into the seedy hotel where he spent his wedding night and later takes a prostitute there, but only sleeps with her quite innocently. When he awakens from a troubled dream, he turns and imagines his late wife is at his side. He screams, she takes fright and runs out of the room just as Chorb's in-laws are arriving. The details of the story evoke an aura of death: the parents walk along "lifeless streets"; Chorb sees everything in shadows and shades. Everywhere he notices leaves, withering trees, the black masses of the city park, black pavement. He sees a "young lady, as light as a dead leaf." It even "seemed to him that happiness itself had ... the smell of dead leaves." Mice scurry and spider webs hang about. But one particular detail takes what could be seen as a typical late autumn scene and transforms the surroundings into Chorb's personal hell. From the hotel window "one could make out ... a corner of the opera house, the black shoulder of a stone Orpheus," the man who went to Hades to bring is wife back from the dead—Chorb's very quest.
A view from another hotel window offers the main character of "Cloud, Castle, Lake" ("Oblako, ozero, bashnia," 1937) a glimpse of paradise. The narrator's "representative," Vasili Ivanovich, wins a "pleasuretrip" at an émigré raffle. He tries to give the ticket back, but to no avail. He must travel around Germany with a group of louts who torture him because he scorns their collective activities and simply wishes to be alone to read the Russian poet Tiutchev. While hiking he leaves the group and finds an inn from whose window he could see cloud, castle, and lake (cloud, lake, and tower in the Russian version) "in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness." He tells the group he wants to stay behind, but they force him to return and badly beat him. Not only does this story express Nabokov's hatred of cruelty, it also serves as a prologue to and source of the title of his novel Priglashenie na Kazn' (Invitation to a Beheading). In addition many allusions and parodies provide numerous subtexts to one of Nabokov's favorite and finest stories.
Other stories that deserve critical attention include "Spring in Fialta," "Signs and Symbols," "The Potato Elf," and "The Vane Sisters." The remaining stories are not without merit; they simply suffer in comparison with the brilliance of his best short fiction and novels.