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This untitled and undated piece may well be the last complete unpublished short story by Vladimir Nabokov.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

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.

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(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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