Nabokov in Exile

In new book, Shrayer traces author's development through the short stories he wrote in Europe

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

It is a good time to be a Vladimir Nabokov scholar, Asst. Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages) acknowledges: Last year's long-awaited release of the film remake of "Lolita" renewed popular interest in the author, just in time for this year's centennial observance of Nabokov's birth, which will see a reissue of his writings through the Library of America.

Even before this recent revival, Shrayer adds, Nabokov had become a staple of most undergraduate English curriculums. But despite Nabokov's stature in his adopted country, his prominence in his native Russia is less known and little appreciated.

In his new book, The World of Nabokov's Stories , Shrayer explores Nabokov's short fiction to demonstrate how he came to surpass Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin as Russia's master of the genre. Supplementing his research through unpublished manuscripts and letters, Shrayer traces the author's stylistic and philosophical evolution as an exile in the 1920s and '30s, until just prior to Nabokov's arrival in the US and his emergence as a renowned English-language novelist.

Shrayer sees the book as shedding light on this highly intelligent, competitive man often viewed as an aloof presence in the 20th century literary world.

Asst. Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages)-"The portrait that emerges of Nabokov is a man who made ample use of his milieu. He was a genius sponge, who took what he experienced and saw and transformed it through himself." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"When I decided to embark on this project, I had wanted to write a treatment of his entire career," said Shrayer. "But it became clear that focusing on his short stories would be a far better idea. Because he was writing three to five stories a year, it is possible to see the gradual development of his artistic world and to measure it against the historical changes around him."

Working with Nabokov's son Dmitri, Shrayer searched the author's archives for manuscripts, early drafts of stories, correspondence and other writings to help illuminate that period.

For example, Shrayer discusses how Nabokov, who left his native country in 1919, used his literary letters as "a test site for future short fictions" and other works. Two letters from France in 1923, Shrayer notes, contain references to the song of a nightingale and other bucolic images that appear in his 1931 novel Glory . A 1922 letter to Bunin recounting the composition of a poem offers motifs and figures of speech later seen in a 1924 short story concerning unrequited love.

"There's fascinating information to be learned from his papers," said Shrayer. "The portrait that emerges of Nabokov is a man who made ample use of his milieu. He was a genius sponge, who took what he experienced and saw and transformed it through himself."

Events depicted in Nabokov's stories mirror Russia's socio-political unrest during the first three decades of the century. That turmoil spawned a sizable émigré literary culture that provided Nabokov with a "demanding reading audience" for his short stories, Shrayer said, and the "raw, existential material that informed his fictions."

Although literary analysts have often focused on the European character of Nabokov's writings, Shrayer sees the short stories as part of a legacy shared with Chekhov and Bunin.

"The short story is a celebrated Russian literary form and it is at the root of Nabokov's art," he said, "He saw it as a little gem of a genre, and quite a challenging one - it's often said that writing a good novel is easier than a great short story."

Yet, Shrayer notes, Nabokov eventually found that the Russian literary tradition "did not permit what he tried to accomplish." As he continued his exile in Europe, and then America, Nabokov eventually forged a style that straddled the three cultures he had known.

"But rather than regard Nabokov as an anomaly - a foreign genius who somehow accidentally worked in the Russian language," added Shrayer, "I see his career in short fiction as at once an exile's gradual farewell and an unending tribute to his Russian masters."

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