Miscellany — From the March 2015 issue

The Man Stopped

A story

Download Pdf
Read Online

This untitled and undated piece may well be the last complete unpublished short story by Vladimir Nabokov.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.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 2

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
(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.

More from Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov:

Readings From the January 2007 issue

Revolution

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2018

Close

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.