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A story

This untitled and undated piece may well be the last complete unpublished short story by Vladimir Nabokov. It was probably written and rough-sanded in the summer of 1926, when Nabokov read the prose by a new crop of Soviet writers who indulged in an ornamental, oversaturated pseudo-folk style. It seems that he set out to write a breezy parody, cramming his sentences with rustic idiom, especially bombastic in dialogue, often recherché and forced. But as he went on, the tongue left the cheek alone. A clown is juggling hollow dumbbells, grimacing and puffing, pretending they are pig iron, only to discover toward the end of his act that they have somehow become true weights and he should mind not to drop one on his foot, lest his tears become unfeigned.

The theme Nabokov chose was raw and twinging, the stuff of some of his subsequent fictions: a man risking his life by crossing, in disguise, the lethal Soviet border in order to catch a glimpse of his home, from which he had been brutally ousted, the hope of seeing it ever again dwindling with every passing year. There was a real chance that one might never return to the tragic safety of exile, but the pull of the thrilling risk was too strong not to keep nursing the scenario.

“Ural owls. From the collection of N. P. Alin in Cherdyn,” 1910, by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. An early pioneer of color photography, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled across Russia at the behest of Tsar Nicolas II, documenting changing landscapes and lifestyles throughout the empire. Like much of the middle class and the aristocracy, he fled Russia after the October Revolution, never to return. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“Ural owls. From the collection of N. P. Alin in Cherdyn,” 1910, by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. An early pioneer of color photography, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled across Russia at the behest of Tsar Nicolas II, documenting changing landscapes and lifestyles throughout the empire. Like much of the middle class and the aristocracy, he fled Russia after the October Revolution, never to return. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A year after he had drafted the story, Nabokov composed “The Execution,” one of his most poignant poems, which begins (in his own translation): “On certain nights as soon as I lie down / my bed starts drifting into Russia, / and presently I’m led to a ravine, / to a ravine led to be killed.” The hero of Nabokov’s last novel, who shares with his author more than all three initials of his name, does venture behind the Iron Curtain, half a century later and with a false passport, but about the only vestiges of Russia that had not been trampled out by the U.S.S.R. were the special hue of Saint Petersburg sunsets and the “shadow of railings on granite” of the Neva embankment.

That Nabokov copied the story in fair hand and signed it with a faintly burlesque botanical pen name “Vasily Shalfeev” — sounding to the Russian ear somewhat like “John Wort” or “Rod Golden” — seems to suggest that he might have considered publishing it in an émigré newspaper, perhaps as a half-leg-pull. In translation, some of the gnarls mentioned above are carefully reproduced; others had to be smoothed over.

 — G. B.

He stopped. The road ran down toward the village; chuckholes, brimming with water, glistened fiery blue in the sun: a shower had just rumbled past, covering the brush with grainy silver. The man squinted and jerked a bony shoulder to adjust his backpack.

“Just lookit where he’s took off to. Urka, Urka, ye unholy beastie!”

From behind an alder thicket a peasant woman was screaming, her voice pitched high. A scarlet kerchief flitted. A colt, its tail cocked, was cavorting in the meadow, softly trampling the wet grass with its little hooves. The wet sunshine set it ablaze in ruddy gold. And far away, beyond the grasslands, the blue mush of the pine groves was fading, the clouds, white as fresh-made curd, were floating, bumping one another with their huge hips, drifting apart and merging again — good old Russia, the bliss, the expanse, the fresh blueness.

Again the man cast a screwed-up eye at the alder thicket, silver-tooled by the rain, or maybe at some secret thought of his, and called out in a soft voice:

“Hey, look here, Auntie —”

The peasant woman came round from behind the brush and stood at the edge of a ditch, the palm of her hand shielding her face from the scorching sun.

“Whaddye want? Where’re ye sloggin from?”

“I’m headed for the Kurai Skete, Auntie, coming from Sosnovka. Tell me, will ye, what’s it like here? Are they scooping up them drifters?”

The peasant woman moved closer, her florid, pockmarked face now in full view.

“Whadda they want, scoopin the likes of you up for?” she said gaily. “There’s dead loads of you hangin about here. We ain’t lettin nobody in, but the highway’s safe. We’ve got a quiet village down here.”

“Just askin, that’s all,” the man drawled. “Only they said at the mill, in Sosnovka, they said, you’ve got yerselves a hard-ass commissar down here — he don’t truck with no strays.”

He adjusted his backpack again and started up the walk with slow, tired, long strides.

“That’s right, off ye go!” the woman cried out gaily as before, and blew off the gadfly that was busily applying itself to her sweaty cheek.

The village was indeed quiet. It was all bogged down and stodged in rich, chocolate-brown mud, purblind and sluggard after the summer rain. A peasant passed by, and his scythe blazed a sudden flash. The man came up to one of the huts at the end of the village and sat down on a bench half-choked by a dense, tart-smelling nettle brake. After a while, he took a piece of rag out of his bag and wiped his bare feet: scraps of dried mud fell from them like flakes. Then, unhurriedly, he shod up, carefully tucking in the red pull straps of the battered boots that someone else had worn before. A child’s head, then another, stuck out from the hut’s window. Then someone inside said in a hoarse voice, “Hey, whatcha doin sittin out there — git on over to the tavern.” The drifter got up and went in.

Half a dozen men were sitting at a low modeling table (one of many that had been hauled from the factory in Kurai, which had been destroyed for no reason) drinking tea and crunching rusks. Two boys swatted flies landing on the hot, sun-glazed bench. A wheezy old peasant in a white shirt squatted in the corner, snapping up twigs for kindling.

The man tossed his backpack under the table and sat down, rolling his shoulders.

“Goin a long ways, are ye?” asked one of the men curtly — a gaunt fellow in an old wraprascal ripped at the shoulders, his shifty small hazel eyes scanning the face and hands of the newcomer.

“No, not far . . . the Kurai Skete. Got a brother down there.”

“You talk a bit diffrint,” said another man, straining a yellow beard between his stubby fingers. “Where’bouts ye from?”

“Coming down from Sosnovka, buddy. Can I get a cup of tea here?”

“A cup o’ tea ain’t no good for thee —” muttered the first peasant. He wanted to add something but instead scratched his chest under his shirt.

Suddenly, the man put his fist to his forehead and burst into laughter. His features were in motion, his sharp shoulders were rocking and his whole body shaking, and the guffaws threatened to split his chest. The peasants looked at each other.

“Why, damn my eyes if it ain’t some laughin boogy that got a grip of ye,” said the one with the beard. “A bit crazed in the crumpet, ain’t ye?”

The man raised his head. Laughter was still flickering over his face. A wet blue gleam sparkled in his wide-open eyes.

“The same old thing,” he said, as if to himself. “You fellas, you . . . ”

He rose. Shouldered his backpack.

“Where ye off to?” the baffled peasant said, staring at him. “Been drinkin some, was ye?” put in the other.

The man laughed again, but this time softer and lighter, and went out of the hut without looking back. Tramping the rich mire with wide strides, he turned onto a path overgrown with goosefoot, which ran along a picket fence into a tremulous, blindingly green birch grove. There he halted, looking up at the boles of the birches, as though taking measure of their height. Oh, yes, they were very supple, very beautiful. An oriole broke into its threefold trill, sonorous and limpid.

The man lingered, then went on and passed through a half-crumbled wicket gate. The former landlord’s manor stood white at the end of a park alley. The sun shifted amber roundels along the sand.

The man slowed his pace as he walked up the tree-lined path. There was something timid, almost stealthy about his gait. And when someone suddenly shouted at him from the side, he stumbled and covered his mouth with his hand in a vaguely feminine way.

A large old man, all covered with white fur, was sitting on a wooden post — the only remnant of what used to be a bench — and champing toothlessly, looking down at his feet.

“This here ain’t no passway for ye,” he muttered without raising his head. “Cain’t have no riffraff loafin around.”

The man came close and sank onto the grass beside him.

“I was just passing by,” he said softly. “Don’t get sore, old-timer.”

“I watch for the shkool here,” the old man mumbled. “So it follers my job is watchin. The shkool’s out yonder.” He jerked his head in the direction of the mansion’s white shape at the alley’s end. “The old one got burnt down, it did, so they done moved over there. Was the master’s house ’fore.”

The man hugged his knees and closed his eyes.

“Yeah, that was some house, I tell ye,” said the old man after a pause. “Dogs, they might could tear ye arm from arm if ye got yerself in the park like that, without the master’s say-so. The masters, they done gone now in some farend lands,” he added without emotion. “Eight years, I reckon, maybe ten for all I knows. If theydn’t cut-n-run then, they’d be dead as nits by now, no two ways about it.”

“Could I . . . maybe . . . take a look at the house?” the man suddenly said, his eyes closed.

“Yeah, right — take a lookie. Just keep goin where yer fixin to go. Cain’t sit around clackin like a hen with ye all day out.”

“Well, then,” said the man and got up. He rubbed his forehead and temples. In a bored tone he asked:

“I guess you remember the landlords, old fellow?”

“Nah . . . ” the old man shook his head in disgust. “Me, I ain’t from around these parts. My daughter, she got married down here, so they done took me over. Heard people talk, though. . . . Yeah, them masters lived high on the hog. Had themselves a son or somethin, I hear, one o’ them offishers. No use yakkin about it now. Shkipped out, and good riddance, I say. So just git movin along now, buddy.”

“So long, old man,” said the man and walked away. Three hundred feet out he turned back — and quickly stepped into the bushes. Scampering over the hummocks covered with whortleberry, he made his way past the dense tree trunks back toward the manor house.

And then the man leaned his shoulder against the green column of an old maple tree and took a long look, his moist eyes searching the porch, the carvings above the windows, the dazzlingly bright puddle under the downspout. He could make out a blue map in one window. Then a thin girl with cropped hair, in a raincoat, came out of the house with a book and sat down on the steps.

The man tore himself from the trunk and noiselessly went away. Again he came upon the broken gate, again he heard the small whisper of the birch leaves and the treble call of the oriole. He then reached the village, plopping through the chocolate muck, which was drying up by now. Some boys were playing skittles. Wooden blocks leaped up in the air with a loud, vibrant sound, a small shaggy dog was yapping. The man skirted the village and went back up the road with the glistening chuckholes at a faster pace. At the turn of the road he saw two peasant women; one of them was the one in a scarlet kerchief he had talked to earlier.

“Headin back, huh?” she asked in a ringing voice when he drew even. “What, thunk better of it?”

“Yeah, thunk better of it, Auntie,” he answered with a quick smile and went on.

After three miles he suddenly stopped, looked at his feet, and sat down on the roadside in the crushed stone. Carefully he pulled off the boots, struck them against the stones to shake off the dried mud, then thrust them into the bag. And looking around, with a barely noticeable smirk, off he went, firmly stomping on the warm, soft crust of the road, toward the slate-blue haze of the summer day, back to the distant Polish border.

Translated from the Russian by Gennady Barabtarlo

(1899–1977) was the author of many books, including Lolita. Gennady Barabtarlo is a professor of Russian at the University of Missouri and the author, most recently, of Composing Nabokov.

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