A Reading of Nabokov's "That in Aleppo Once..."
by Alexander N. Drescher


With Apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
"Holmes, why is the rose une cheville?"
"For the same reason, my dear Watson, that the request is denied!"
The émigré poet whose letter narrates Nabokov's "That in Aleppo Once..." is not ingratiating. He demeans the author/addressee, V., in his opening paragraph and concludes the penultimate one with a jibe (560)1:
You, happy mortal, with your lovely family (how is Ines? how are the twins?) and your diversified work (how are the lichens?), can hardly be expected to puzzle out my misfortune in terms of human communion, but you may clarify things for me through the prism of your art.
But the poet is mistaken, fails to see that the author who created him and his puzzle has presented a solution concurrently; with the consequence that poet's final plea ...
It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V., you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title. (568)
... must be denied.

Midway through the letter, a particularly inept police detective is dubbed, with habitual sarcasm, "my friend Holmes" (563). Assuming that Nabokov never inserts gratuitous details, this reader stands advised to proceed as a better Sherlockian. But before following the trail (unraveling a mystery?), the story's structural conceit requires comment since how one reads Aleppo hangs on how the narrator's variable and ambiguous memory is decoded.

For Barabtarlo, the ambiguities result from and compensate for dysphoria caused by the poet's losses (wife, country, status). He concludes that the letter-writer has killed himself before V. composes the story. Standberg considers the character more mad than sad, captive to his own distortions, having annihilated his wife metaphorically through narcissistic blindness to her very being. He compares the poet's reality to Kinbote's, his relatedness to Humbert's. For both critics the letter is to some degree unreliable and self-serving, and Standberg importantly comments on passages in which the letter reveals what its writer seeks to hide. Johnson accepts the letter's tale prime face, agrees that the narrator is unstable, yet proposes that the wife "has made him so unhappy that he wishes to doubt her existence." In each of these generous readings, the poet whether depressed or psychotic evokes the critic's sympathy. Maddox is more interested in the struggle of Nabokov's narrators to confront "reality with the inverted commas removed" while under the faulty influences of wish and memory. She particularly notes the potential for monstrous results when the narrators' projections are imposed on the world's own creatures. She sees the letter-writer's inability to sustain a consistent narrative as the product of this conflict and the focus of Nabokov's creative interest.

I would rather ascribe the poet's contradictions and ambiguities to the letter's complex authorship which both sustains and penetrates the poet's tale. One example: V.'s stated interest in lichens (rather than lepidoptera) may be his creative choice as the in-text creator of both the poet and letter; or it is one among many bits of evidence that the letter-writer is indifferent to details which, for Nabokov, are integral to memory and meaning; or the lichens may be a humorous wink to the reader, a reminder of Nabokov's ever-hovering presence. The central conceit is that all are true. The letter is a screen. Onto its surface the poet projects his confusing images; from behind, V. and his creator provide glimpses, lights and shadow, data and doubts, suggesting a different tale. In sorting what-comes-from-where, the reader's sympathy for the narrator might best be suspended, at least temporarily, for despite his tragic story, he is a slippery fellow. In this context, the testimony of the wife is particularly problematic; presented as an "habitual liar," her quoted words often carry the resonance of truth. Before we return to Baker Street to examine the evidence, one more caution. Nabokov has asked that his "good readers" attend to detail. Often, when these appear in clusters, they signal fatidic influences. Here they may serve to alert potential Watsons to important clues.

The story's opening lines establish that the letter-writer and V. are polyglot Russian émigrés, characters in a fiction to which, like the petit café du coin, they can never return2. After making slighting reference to the reception of V.'s (and Nabokov's) early works by the Berlin émigré community, the letter writer suggests a previous friendship and parity in creativity:

we wrote our first udder-warm bubbling verse, and all things, a rose, a puddle, a lighted window, cried out to us: "I'm a rhyme!" ........ the wild gesticulation of trees or to some discarded newspaper sliding and pausing, and shuffling again, with abortive flaps and apterous jerks along an endless windswept embankment (560).
As these images derive from Nabokov's early Russian works3, this passage could be understood as retrospective plagiarism by the letter-writer's self-serving memory, but more likely as Nabokov's suggestion that the letter-writer and V. in some way share an identity, are twin-like doubles who cope with the same fate-induced challenges but via inverted views of life and art. The letter serves not only as a screen but as a mirror.4

Three of the 'poetic' images above point specifically to "Spring in Fialta," preparing for the confusing disclosure of the poet's marriage:

.... Although I can produce documentary proofs of matrimony, I am positive now that my wife never existed. You may know her name from some other source, but that does not matter: it is the name of an illusion. Therefore, I am able to speak of her with as much detachment as I would of a character in a story (one of your stories, to be precise)...
and continuing
It was love at first touch rather than at first sight…… something quaint she had said made me stoop with a laugh and lightly kiss her on the hair. (560-1)
By allusion, the wife also has a shared identity, is an alternative incarnation of Fialta's Nina, the unavailable, idealized love of that story's narrator. Searching in the snow for a lost object, Nina is also first touched in a bending kiss ("...and I was already kissing her neck..." [416]).

Going on from this first kiss, the letter-writer provides a sample passage of his poetic style,

....and of course we all know of that blinding blast which is caused by merely picking up a small doll from the floor of a carefully abandoned house: the soldier involved hears nothing; for him it is but an ecstatic soundless and boundless expansion of what had been during his life a pinpoint of light in the dark center of his being. And really, the reason we think of death in celestial terms is that the visible firmament, especially at night (above our blacked-out Paris with the gaunt arches of its boulevard Exelmans and the ceaseless alpine gurgle of desolate latrines), is the most adequate and ever-present symbol of that vast silent explosion. (561)
revealing a fondness for the big idea; overloading what might have been a telling detail with 'significance' and finding the majesty of the heavens not sufficient in itself but a symbol of something else. The style is cluttered and amusical. The move from tenderness to eternal desolation via gurgling latrines may explain why V. is chided for his past "gruesome fun" at the poet's expense.

This approach to literature extends to the poet's life. His nebulous memory of his wife ("I can not discern her" [561]) derives not from trauma but from inattention: he has never seen her. He claims he could have remembered her cosmetics [a constructable idea] had she used them, but can not summon her face [an actual reality]. Similarly, he remembers her crying, but not the color of her eyes. The details of a small birthmark are remembered, but immediately transformed into a reverse metaphor. He lives in a solipsistic, conceptual world, blind to the actualities of the natural one about him. Not the sort of art or artist Nabokov admired.

But Nina is only the first of three allusive wives who fall victim to tragic and bloody deaths. In claiming "love at first touch" for Nina, there is also indirect reference to the second, Desdemona:

....nay, when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight
And fearful to be granted. (Othello, Act III, Scene III)5
The letter-writer now associates himself with Pushkin ("She was younger than I..."), reinforces the Desdemona theme of jealousy ("her blond Cassio"), and modestly demurs of being of genius, equal to either poet, although prideful that his longer poems did not induce his wife to yawn. The movement, Pushkin --> Shakespeare --> a poem-longer-than-a-sonnet, can be read to reflect back to Pushkin's Onegin, but in context moves forward to Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece; a tale of a third violent, spousal death pertinent to Aleppo, with an abuser banished from his native land and a husband who contemplates suicide. In the 252 strictly rhyming, seven-line stanzas of Lucrece, its delayed exposition may evoke an occasional yawn and several lines may place meaning secondary to the demands of rhyme.

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1. Page numbers in parentheses refer to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov; (LL ) to his Lectures on Literature and texts there quoted. An alphabetical bibliography provides the sources for other references. The listed works of Alexandrov and Shrayer have particularly influenced this paper. Jeff Edmunds checked and translated Nabokov's deletion from the original Russian "Fialta" and offered good counsel.

2. The italicized French, the return of the title in the last paragraph, the friend Gekko, and restatements of self-reflection all serve to frame the story and provide canvas texture as in a painting. In his conclusion, the letter-writer summarizes with a painterly metaphor (567).

3. The following list is partial, not exhaustive: a rose in "Spring in Fialta"; puddles in Mary; lighted windows in "Spring in Fialta," Mary, The Defense, and "Cloud, Castle, Lake"; the wild gesticulation of trees in "Spring in Fialta"; and a discarded newspaper sliding and pausing in The Eye.

4. A speculation:

Nabokov published Aleppo as hope for an end to the horrors of Nazism became possible. He was also translating his Russian works into English, thus revisiting his own experiences with totalitarianism, emigration and war.

The Russian, Vesna v Fial'te was published in 1938; "That in Aleppo once..." appeared in 1944; and the English translation of "Spring in Fialta" in 1947. Aleppo returns to "Spring in Fialta" as a re-creation, not a continuation. In "Fialta," the narrator (Vasily/Victor) is aware that fateful coincidences bring him and Nina together. But contrary to his assertion, he is all but blind to the everyday details which Nabokov arranges in the text, messages demanding more than a passive acceptance of their meetings. He misses the point that an overheard comment, "...rather like Wouwerman's white horse" (428) refers to himself, his repetitive 'painting' of Nina to a point beyond meaning. After Victor aborts a move toward action, the belated epiphany implies that memory in itself has transcended loss and longing. (See Boyd, Barabtarlo, and Shrayer for penetrating readings of "Fialta.")

Perhaps for Nabokov, this favored story had ended without quite questioning whether Nina's fate might have been otherwise. My speculation is that Nabokov reinvented the material in answer to that question. Although he clearly attributed much of his own good fortune to a beneficent fate, he also held strong beliefs about the requirements and consequence of personal morality. In Aleppo, Nabokov addressed this interaction.

5. Standberg draws a parallel with Othello's concern that he has won Desdemona by his tales of war, remaining unknown to her in his person.

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