Poetry, Exile, and Prophetic Mystification in "Vasiliy Shishkov" (1939)*
by Maxim D. Shrayer

Drug druga otrazhaiut zerkala
Vzaimno iskazhaia otrazhen'ia
(The mirrors reflect each other
Mutually distorting the reflections).1
--Georgii Ivanov, "Portret bez skhodstv" ("A Portrait without Resemblance")

Vsiakii istinnyi sochinitel' emigriruet [sic] v svoe iskusstvo i prebyvaet v nem.
(Every true author emigrates to his art and stays therein).2
--Vladimir Nabokov, "Opredeleniia" ("Definitions')

Like his Russian master Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov belongs to a rare category of literary practitioners who write poetry and prose simultaneously throughout most of their careers. Although Nabokov gained recognition chiefly as a Russian writer of fiction, and later as an American novelist, the importance of his Russian and English poems cannot be overestimated. As a poet, he had a manifest formal agenda and was particularly preoccupied with versification (rhyme, sound orchestration). His Russian poems of the two European decades before World War II are especially interesting to a student of his stories for several reasons. They serve as dictionaries of Nabokov's nascent motifs and tropes, often having preexisted his fictions as poetic studies in theme and imagery. Additionally, the poems sometimes provide more insight into Nabokov's consciousness than does his fiction.

Written in Paris in 1939, "Vasiliy Shishkov" (1939) was Nabokov's last Russian short story, fashioning the author's fictional representative as a Russian émigré poet. Through the fictional persona of his alter ego, Nabokov examined the impact of exile upon creativity and questioned his own aesthetic preferences in the late 1930s. Written and published less than a year before his departure for the New World, the story emerged as a twofold testament. On the one hand, Nabokov makes a pronouncement regarding the future of Russian poetry in exile. On the other, the story prompts a model of its own reading in which the author informs and creates the text insofar as the text witnesses, documents, and unmakes the author.

In most cases, Nabokov further historicized and contextualized the English texts of his short stories as compared to their Russian twins. It is not surprising that the Englished version sets the story in a concrete historical time, spring of 1939. The Englished text also supplies an additional layer of authorial information by identifying the narrator, who is nameless in the Russian text, directly with the author, Vladimir Nabokov: " ...and to you, Gospodin Nabokov, I must show this--a cahier of verse" (Stories, 495). One should not overlook the fact that the story's protagonist, the poet Vasiliy Shishkov, addresses its autobiographical narrator as Mr. Nabokov (the Russian "Gospodin": Mister), and not as Mr. Sirin, although Sirin was Nabokov's constant pen name in the prewar Russian émigré literary world. As if to compensate for the lack of unequivocal authorial presence (in the Russian version, Shishkov simply says "And to you, I must show..."), the Russian text links itself with the genre of memoirs: "Moi vospominaniia o nëm sosredotocheny v predelakh vesny sego goda" (literally, my reminiscences of him are confined to the spring of this year; VF, 205). The memoiristic vein is downplayed in the Englished text: "The little I remember about him is centered within the confines of last spring: the spring of 1939" (Stories, 494).3 In this short fictional memoir, Englished in the early 1970s, Gospodin Nabokov becomes a source that radiates the presence of the author.

The narrator of the story, a Russian writer living in Paris, is approached by a young poet by the name of Vasiliy Shishkov. Shishkov seeks advice in a literary matter, and during their next meeting he shows the narrator a notebook with some thirty poems. The poems testify that he is an untalented graphomaniac:

Stikhi byli uzhasnye, -- ploskie, pëstrye, zloveshche pretentsioznye. Ikh sovershennaia bezdarnost' podcherkivalas' shulerskim shikom alliteratsii, bazarnoi roskosh'iu i malogramotnost'iu rifm ..., a o temakh luchshe vovse umolchat': avtor s odinakovym udal'stvom vospeval vse, chto emu popadalos' pod liru. (VF, 206-7).

(The poetry was dreadful--flat, flashy, ominously pretentious. Its utter mediocrity was stressed by the fraudulent chic of alliterations and the meretricious richness of illiterate rhymes.... As to the themes, they were best left alone: the author sang with unvarying gusto anything that his lyre came across; Stories, 495)

The disappointed maître, "not spoiled by such desires" as the request of the young poet, answers him with perfect honesty that the poems were "hopelessly bad" (Stories, 495). Shishkov then confesses that the "bad" poems were a hoax produced in a single sweep only to determine the extent of the narrator's honesty: "Those credentials are not mine. I mean, I did write that stuff myself, and yet it is all forged. The entire lot of thirty poems was composed this morning, and to tell the truth, I found rather nasty the task of parodying the product of metromania. In return, I now have learned that you are merciless-which means that you can be trusted" (Stories, 495). Shishkov presents another notebook with the "real" poems by which he is to be judged. This time the narrator finds the poems "very good" (Stories, 496). Shishkov goes on to share some of his turbulent emotions with his new interlocutor. Shishkov lacks a direction and a place in life: he fluctuates between some of the most extreme solutions, which include going to Africa or to Russia, entering a monastery, and, committing suicide. He also alludes to some other way of interrupting his routine: disappearance. In fact, Shishkov does actually disappear before long after undertaking to publish a monthly review, A Survey of Pain and Vulgarity. Neither the narrator himself nor anyone else ever hears of Vasiliy Shishkov again. The notebook with poems remains in the hands of the narrator, who wonders whether Shishkov "did not overestimate/
The transparence and soundness
Of such an unusual coffin."
(Stories, 499)
A protagonist with the last name Shishkov also figures in two other short stories, both from the Middle period, "A Bad Day" and "Orache." Set in the 1910s and structured as fragments of a larger semiautobiographical narrative, both stories feature a boy, Putya Shishkov, who suffers from being unable to reconcile his rich emotional life with the indifferent or threatening façades of the public world.4 Anticipating the dilemma of his later namesake, the young Putya Shishkov also seeks an escape into a world of his own in which the colors and shapes of people and objects would change according to his imagination. Sitting in a carriage on his way to a country birthday party (in the company of a moody older sister) Putya considers plans of escape: "Plead sickness? Topple down from the box?" (Stories, 269).

The first name Vasiliy also figures prominently in several of Nabokov's short stories. "Spring in Fialta" features the expatriate Vasen'ka, a diminutive of Vasiliy, and "Cloud, Castle, Lake" and "Recruiting" portray the Russian émigré, Vasiliy Ivanovich. He, although not a poet like Vasiliy Shishkov, is a poetry lover who feels threatened by the oppressive vulgarity of the world around him and seeks refuge in another world. In addition, scholars have pointed to the fact that the name Vasiliy derives etymologically from the Greek basileus (king), suggesting a mark of being privileged that Nabokov often grants his favorite characters, Vasiliy Shishkov being one of them.5 At the same time, Nabokov points out in "Recruiting" that the name Vasiliy Ivanovich emblematizes a typical Russian combination of a first name and a patronymic; Vasiliy Ivanovich thus stands for an "X," a Russian "Mr. Smith." One is compelled to compare the characteristics that Nabokov's narrators give their privileged characters in the related stories; Vasiliy Shishkov is a "neobyknovenno simpatichnyi, chistyi, grustnyi chelovek" (an extraordinary attractive, pure, melancholy human being; VF, 213; Stories, 495); Vasiliy Ivanovich in "Cloud, Castle, Lake" is described as "ètomu milomu korotkovatomu cheloveku ... s umnymi i dobrymi glazami" (that likable little man, ... his eyes so intelligent and kind; VF, 236/ Stories, 426). Finally, Nabokov's genealogical tree is germane, for Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov was the name of Nabokov's uncle and Shishkov, a prominent name in Russian literature, the maiden name of his great-grandmother.6

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Notes

*Copyright © 1999 by the University of Texas Press. This essay, which originally appeared in the author's The World of Nabokov's Stories, is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and University of Texas Press. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.

The following abbreviations are used throughout the main text and the footnotes. 1. Works by Vladimir Nabokov: CE = Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951); Krug = Krug, ed. N. I. Tolstaia (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990); Kniga = Rasskazy. Priglashenie na kazn'. Esse, interv'iu, retsenzii, ed. A. A. Dolinin and R. D. Timenchik (Moscow: Kniga, 1989); L = The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991); PP = Poems and Problems (New York: McGraw-Hill Books Company, 1970); PSS = Perepiska s sestroi (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985); SM = Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Vintage Books, 1989); SSoch = Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrëkh tomakh (Moscow: Pravda, 1990); Stikhi = Stikhi (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979); Stikhotvoreniia = Stikhotvoreniia, 1929-1951 (Paris: Rifma, 1952); Stories = The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Vintage Books, 1997); VF = Vesna v Fial'te (New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1956); Wilson Letters = The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971, ed. and intro. Simon Karlinsky (New York: Harper Colophon, 1980); 2. Archival materials: VN LC = Vladimir Nabokov Collection at Division of Manuscripts and Archives, The US Library of Congress; ZSh LC = Zinaida Shakhovskaia (Shakhovskoy) Collection at Division of Manuscripts and Archives, The US Library of Congress; 3. Other works: Boyd, RY = Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Boyd, AY = Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

Works by Vladimir Nabokov are reprinted by permission of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov. All rights reserved. Where sources of translations from the Russian are not included, the translations are mine. My translations do not aspire to capture the originals' artistry, but rather attempt to be literal insofar as that is possible.

1. Georgii Ivanov, 1943-1958. Stikhi (New York: Novyi zhurnal, 1958), 22.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, "Opredeleniia," TS, VN LC, container 8, folder 7.

3. In fact, Nabokov did plan to write a separate chapter of his memoir dedicated to the émigré contexts of his Russian years, see Boyd, RY; bits and pieces of this chapter must have entered Chapter 14 of Speak, Memory.

4. In the collection Sogliadatai (The Eye, 1938), "Orache" follows "A Bad Day" and they literally form a textual continuum. For the authorial background of V. D. Nabokov's 1911 called-off duel which informed the events of "Orache," see Boyd, RY, 98-99.

5. See Svetlana Pol'skaia, "Kommentarii k rasskazu V. Nabokova 'Oblako, ozero, bashnia'," Scando-Slavica 35 (1989): 111-123. An illuminating discussion of the name Vasiliy Ivanovich is found in the story "Recruiting."

6. In the nineteenth century, the name of Admiral Aleksandr Semënovich Shishkov (1754-1841) was associated with a literary group whose members sought to defend the purity of the Russian language against the invasion of Western syntax and vocabulary; in the twentieth century the novelist Viacheslav Iakovlevich Shishkov (1873-1945) left an impressive body of work including a well-known novel, Peipus-ozero (Peipus-Lake).

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