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


A Dialogue with Stevenson
"What Stevenson desired to convey in the person of Hyde was the presence of evil wholly divorced from good. Of all wrongs in the world Stevenson most hated cruelty; and the inhuman brute he imagines is shown not in his beastly lusts, whatever they specifically were, but in his savage indifference to the human beings whom he hurts and kills" (LL 196).
In this section, I will show that Aleppo reflects Nabokov's interest in Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and On Some Technical Elements Of Style In Literature. Maxim Shrayer has brilliantly related "Spring in Fialta" to Chekhov's "Lady with a Lap Dog," as "Nabokov's Dialogue with Chekhov." Supported by Nabokov's critique of "Lady" in Lectures on Russian Literature, Shrayer argues that Nabokov's immense admiration did not inhibit him from finding weaknesses, nor from addressing them. The Stevenson chapter in Lectures on Literature11 yields similar support. Nabokov is unequivocal. He quotes the Irish biographer Steven Gwynn, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a work "nearer to poetry than ordinary prose fiction" and adds in his own words, "belongs to the same order of art as ... Madame Bovary or Dead Souls" (LL 180). This extremely high praise is for the work as a masterpiece of style (he finds the plot rather lame) as explicated in Some Technical Elements. Structural likenesses in the two stories, signature Nabokovian reversals, and a virtuoso paragraph based on Stevenson's essays warrant the application of Shrayer's word "dialogue" to the Aleppo/Hyde pair, as well.

Stevenson is clear and Nabokov further emphasizes that Dr. Jekyll's character is complex, human, a compound of good and bad; while Mr. Hyde is a pure distillation, the outwardly projected essence of Jekyll's evil fraction. Nabokov diagrams a third entity, Jekyll's observing consciousness which persists during the Hyde phase (LL 182-184). In parallel, Victor/Vasily of "Fialta" is fallibly human (passive, cowardly, unfaithful). The letter-writer of Aleppo initially shares this identity but (if the reader will accept Holmes' conclusion) changes under extreme stress into an heartless murderer. The fictional author V. also partakes in the common past, but as recipient of the letter becomes that Jekyll-like presence which observes, records and ultimately judges. Vladimir Nabokov hovers far above, present only in sharing some life experiences with his characters.

Jekyll knows and despises Hyde's monstrous acts. Hyde despises Jekyll for his ability to end his, Hyde's, partial existence. Again in parallel, V. is hated for penetrating the letter's truth and composing its consequence. In his parting confession Jekyll hopes that Hyde will commit suicide but writes "I find it in my heart to pity him" (LL 203). Aleppo ends with the murderer's plea for V.'s pity and forbearance.

Nabokov faults Stevenson's story on two related counts. First, while all of the characters feel uncanny, intense discomfort in Hyde's presence, none (not Jekyll's mirror, not the author) can describe his face. Second, the nature of Jekyll's sinful misdeeds and Hyde's monstrous ones are never disclosed. The nature of evil is left to the reader's probably inadequate imagination (LL 193-4). Nabokov addresses the first count with a reversal. He portrays the 'face of evil' as it sees, not as it is seen. It is emblematic that the letter-writer can not see or remember his wife's human face, marking his lack of empathy, the crux of his evil. Because Stevenson's narration moves from outside observers to Jekyll's confession, Hyde can be described only partially and is never known. In solving this second count, the letter-writer's Jekyll-like frailties and Hyde-like nature need no description. They are observed directly by the careful reader.

The structure of the house in which Dr. Jekyll lives mirrors his character; its two parts divided by a single doorway and passage. Jekyll lives on one side, visits the other and there becomes Hyde (LL 188). The Aleppo letter is also divided by a 'passage,' the description of the rose as a cheville (566), a demarcation between the letter writer's human imperfections and the disappearance of his wife. I suggest that Nabokov playfully equates the made up "rose in a glass on the table -- the sugar pink of its obvious beauty, the parasitic air bubbles clinging to its stem" with Jekyll's mutative potion: the receptacle is normally used for drinking; "sugar pink" has a medicinal resonance; and Jekyll's formula bubbles fiercely during its preparation.

The section on chevilles in Some Technical Elements reads as follows:

The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer. His pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of logic. Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer, or the artist has been proved unequal to his design. And, on the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game. The genius of prose rejects the CHEVILLE no less emphatically than the laws of verse; and the CHEVILLE, I should perhaps explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound. Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we judge the strength and fitness of the first. [author's emphasis]
Does Nabokov's use of 'cheville' cite Stevenson? The case rests sturdily on 5 pegs: 1) The reference was known to Nabokov. 2) Extension of the metaphor from poetry to prose was original with Stevenson; Nabokov extends it further. 3) The letter-writer's story becomes a cheville by specifically failing to meet "throughout and first of all ... the demands of logic," internally as Holmes noted but also in context: it is enigmatic and explains nothing. 4) "The rose was merely what French rhymesters call une cheville" alludes to another passage in Some Technical Elements:
For that is the essence of a prosody. Verse may be rhythmical; it may be merely alliterative; it may, like the French, depend wholly on the (quasi) regular recurrence of the rhyme ... It does not matter on what principle the law is based, so it be a law. [emphasis added]
Lastly, 5) if the letter's description of a cheville is itself a cheville, Nabokov is playfully stretching a device with which Stevenson peppers his essay, the description as example. Two of these:
Prose must be rhythmical, and it may be as much so as you will; but it must not be metrical. It may be anything, but it must not be verse. A single heroic line may very well pass and not disturb the somewhat larger stride of the prose style; but one following another will produce an instant impression of poverty, flatness, and disenchantment
Note: "and not / disturb / the some / what larg / er stride" (and the necessary insertion of "very well"), and:
Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously prepared, and hastily and weakly finished. [emphasis added]
Stevenson continues the juggling analogy, starting with the two oranges of the cheville, sound and sense, and adding the rhythms of prose as the third. The fourth orange is the use of alliteration and assonance [by which he means the play of vowels in unrhymed, non-alliterative passages]. Nabokov comments on these "pretty verbal effects" as they are used in Hyde, and excuses as necessity the resultant placement of exceptional prose in the narrative voices of stolid, inartistic characters (LL 191).

In another essay, A Gossip on Romance, Stevenson writes of "pictures' in great literature, "culminating moments ... when all threads come together ... Crusoe recoiling from the footprint" and Nabokov adds "Emma smiling under her iridescent sunshade; Anna reading the shop signs along the road to her death ... scenes which put the last mark of [artistic] truth upon a story..." (LL 196).

In the following paragraph, discussed previously for its wealth of telling detail, Nabokov consciously responded to Stevenson's call for a "culminating moment" and executed this tour de force accentuating Stevenson's oranges, while artistically justifying the shift in narrative voice.

I should also not like to forget a certain stretch of highroad and the sight of a family of refugees (two women, a child) whose old father, or grandfather, had died on the way. The sky was a chaos of black and flesh-colored clouds with an ugly sunburst beyond a hooded hill, and the dead man was lying on his back under a dusty plane tree. With a stick and their hands the women had tried to dig a roadside grave, but the soil was too hard; they had given it up and were sitting side by side, among the anemic poppies, a little apart from the corpse and its upturned beard. But the little boy was still scratching and scraping and tugging until he tumbled a flat stone and forgot the object of his solemn exertions as he crouched on his haunches, his thin, eloquent neck showing all its vertebrae to the headsman, and watched with surprise and delight thousands of minute brown ants seething, zigzagging, dispersing, heading for places of safety in the Gard, and the Aude, and the Drome, and the Var, and the Basses-Pyrenees -- we two paused only in Pau. (562)
The image is pictorial, presumably framed by the window of a railway carriage. Nabokov may be alluding to an actual painting as well, Breugel's The Triumph of Death, where are found "a chaos of black and flesh-colored clouds with an ugly sunburst beyond a hooded hill, and the dead man, lying on his back, the corpse and its upturned beard". In the Breugel foreground--not a child--but a fantasm kneels in the act of murder, its neck fully extended, over--not ants--but a corpse. In painting and prose, the threads of Aleppo come together: death, displacement and the possibility of justice.

The passage is essentially musical, a cadenza in lofty manner. The tempo begins moderately, slows as the women, the corpse and the anemic poppies are described, and then accelerates -- the ants literally scramble across the page. A brief phrase returns the reader to Nabokov's more moderate narrative manner.

A strongly rhythmic opening is diffused during the slow portion and then moves to variably long runs of bounding triplet feet of varied accent, interrupted by trochees and iambs, and ending in the chugging of a South-bound anapestic locomotive.

Nabokov slyly proves a Stevenson rule by the exception, "forget a certain stretch of highroad and..." is one iambic pentameter, made hexameter by the additon of "...the sight..." and, interrupted by only a single beat ["...of..."], followed by the impermissible second pentameter "..a family of refugees (two wom...". Nabokov, having pushed it to the limit, breaks the sequence by foregoing "and" in favor of 'two women, a child."12 The complexity of this paragraph as song is beyond the competence of this discussion. The opening sentences wail with high diphthongs, giving way to somber o's, u's, ou's, and au's while consonants and consonant groups appear, retire and return, culminating in a fugue of h's, t's, and s-z-th's. In this appreciation of Stevenson, Nabokov approaches homage and exceeds prescription.

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11. In his Foreword and footnotes, Fredson Bowers comments that the teaching folder for the Hyde lecture held the fewest typewritten scripts for use in class, so that the published chapter required assemblage. Other items in the folder included handwritten notes and diagrams by Nabokov and his students, typed excerpts from Stevenson's essays including Some Technical Elements, and quotations from Steven Gwynn's critical biography. Nabokov used a number of these last quotations to initiate elements in his discussions.

12. In Some Technical Elements, Stevenson had specified a fifth orange for poets to juggle, the added "difficulty and beauty" of constrained prosody. His The Song of the Morrow, a decade later, moves beyond 'poetical prose' to an amalgam of the two forms. Nabokov's 'culminating' paragraph also approaches this mixture. In Morrow, Stevenson similarly played with his earlier interdiction of heroic couplets:

"Now," said the King's daughter, and she named a holy name, "this is the most unhappy old crone between two seas."


Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Barabtarlo, Gennady. "English Short Stories," in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York : Garland, 1995, pp 106-7.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp 426-7.

Bowers, Fredson. Editor's Introduction and footnotes in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.

Chekhov, Anton. "The Lady with the Dog", Later Short Stories 1888-1903 [Constance Garnett, trans.], New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Gwynn, Stephen. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Macmillan, 1939 (English Men of Letters).

Johnson, Roy. Nabokov tutorials, 50 studies of The Collected Stories, 2001. http://www.mantex.co.uk/ou/a319/nab-000.htm

Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov's Novels in English. Amsterdam: University of Georgia Press, 1983, Introduction, pp. 6-7.

Nabokov, Vladimir. "That in Aleppo Once..." and "Spring in Fialta" in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1885]" in Lectures on Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982.

"The Lady with the Little Dog", in Lectures on Russian Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Shrayer, Maxim D. The World of Nabokov's Stories. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. The Chekhov essay is insightful and provides a comprehensive list of references.

Standberg, Victor. "Nabokov and the 'Prism of Art'" in Torpid Smoke: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.

Stevenson, Robert Louis.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1886.

On Some Technical Elements Of Style In Literature, first published in Contemporary Review, April 1885; same title as "Chapter I" in The Art of Writing.

Fables, "XX. The Song of the Morrow," New York: Longmans, Green, 1902.

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