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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

'Natasha' is a Nabokov story his son Dmitri says dates from 1924.

It's in the 9 & 16 June issue of The New Yorker (pic) and it has never been published. About 2000 words long, it comes as a surprise - and as no surprise - to watchers of this extraordinary writer, who died in 1977.

The story - which deals with the travails of a very young woman living in the Berlin Russian emigre community - if written 'circa 1924' as Dmitri posits, reliably anticipates both The Enchanter (1939 but published first in 1985) and Lolita (1955).

It can also be seen to point toward one of Nabokov's "first cut" stories, which appeared among the favoured 16 in his first short story collection, A Russian Beauty (1973). This is 'Torpid Smoke' (1935), in which a young man inhabits the same space as his sister and father.

Again, we are in the apartment-dwelling regions of Nabokov's personal mythsocape.

In 'Natasha' the girl must sleep on the couch because her sick father uses the bed. The presence of couches and tobacco in both stories also makes itself felt (Grisha is also lying on the couch as he dreams).

But the closest point of contact between the stories is a propensity of their protagonists to dream awake. In Grisha's case, the pleasures of literature are elucidated adequately. His heart is "bursting with happiness" which is the "greatest thing on earth".

Natasha, for her part, is trying to go to sleep. But even though the couch is lumpy and her father will make her wake during the night:

I feel so wonderful, she thought, laughing into her pillow. She was now lying curled up, and seemed to herself to be incredibly small, and all the thoughts in her head were like warm sparks that were gently scattering and sliding.

Later, on an outing in the German countryside with Baron Wolfe:

Natasha was lying on her stomach, elbows widespread, watching the brightly lit tops of the pines as they gently receded into the turquois heights. As she peered into this sky, luminous round dots circled, shimmered, and scattered in her eyes. Every so often something would flit like a golden spasm from pine to pine.

Here, as in the later story, Nabokov charts untravelled domains. The space of the Id, the region of one's "being" had never, so completely, been viewed. And especially by such a rigorous, Apollonian writer as Nabokov.

We see the line between 'me' and 'the world' fold and buckle. But the proprieties - some kind of innate moral law - are also upheld.

Bastienne Schmidt, Embroidery, 2007, The New Yorker, 9 & 16 June 2008
Almost a year ago, I blogged on the premium still given to youth in the image market. The blend into online porn was - and still is - unmistakable.

This was long before Bill Henson's uncomfortable, dizzy dip into the colder corners of the public sphere's "level playing field".

The picture chosen by the magazine's editors here - 'Embroidery' by Bastienne Schmidt - is almost identical to two I used to illustrate my points in August 2007.

What's topical in the story, furthermore, is the relationship - which surges into clarity a single page-column from the denouement on page 60 - between Natasha (impoverished, sick father, emigre, underage) and Baron Wolfe.

Wolfe's body is brought into sharp focus on page 59:

Wolfe took off his jacket, and his thickset body in its striped shirt exhaled a gentle aura of heat. He was walking very close to Natasha; she was looking straight ahead, and she liked the feel of this warmth pacing alongside her.

The point is visible, but it's not yet ready to sink into the flesh - that would wait another 31 years. But already, here, Nabokov is aware of what he wants to do. The emergent sense of his own genius piles up into other, less orderly and generous, sensations about life.

I'm not sure why Dmitri chose this moment to publish the story he also translated. Perhaps he needs a new Maserati.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that - apart from The Original of Laura (1977 but unfinished) - there remains some good stuff at the bottom of the barrel yet.

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