There's no doubting that he's a master writer – but not of short stories
In Paris in the late 1930s, Vladimir Nabokov duped a hostile critic, Ales Adamovich, by publishing a poem under the pseudonym Vasiliy Shishkov. Adamovich proclaimed it a masterpiece, then said when the truth came out that Nabokov was "a sufficiently skilful parodist to mimic genius". This judgment, quoted with relish by its subject in a note to a 1975 collection, is both amusing and troubling: Nabokov's stories are built from language that frequently deserves, in my opinion, to be called genius. The stories themselves, however, self-reflexive games which cycle through styles with the restless energy of a child tearing through a dressing-up box, often feel like experiments that, while interesting, are not always successful.
This is partly a problem of the thoroughness with which Nabokov's son Dmitri has swept out the archive, jamming bagatelles written for unexacting émigré journals into the gaps between more substantial works. Another reason is that Nabokov perhaps felt little real affinity for the short story, which he called "a small Alpine form" of the novel. This seems an odd claim to make of a writer whose collected stories runs to nearly 800 pages. But the fact remains that he abandoned the form in 1951, even before Lolita's success freed him of the need to write for his rent. He returned to it later only to (as he put it) "English" untranslated stories, and to retranslate ones he thought poorly rendered.
During the inter-war years, which he spent in Cambridge, Berlin and finally Paris, Nabokov's short fiction was dominated by meditations on grief (his father was shot in Berlin in 1922), the loss of homeland, and the rise of totalitarianism. Interesting examples of these strands are The Return of Chorb (1925), which borrows from the myth of Orpheus; the Borgesian Visit to the Museum (1939), and the similarly fantastical-realist brew of 1936's Cloud, Castle, Lake, which can be seen as an adjunct to his Kafkaesque novel, Invitation to a Beheading (1935).
Some critics disparage Nabokov's straddling of 19th-century realism and modernism as clumsy. But even if it were the case (which it isn't) that none of his stories worked, they would remain worth reading for the metaphors and similes. A few of my favourites – this list really could go on – include the "tangerine tusks" of a car's headlights "plunged into the watery grey of the asphalt" (A Busy Man); "chandeliers like iron spiders" (Details of a Sunset); the "merry pistol crack" of a trodden-on floorboard on a frozen morning (Christmas); a raspberry bush's "whiff of black damp" (Natasha); a woman's palate and uvula resembling "the tail end of a boiled chicken" (The Leonardo); an "organ pipe-like system of huge icicles" (Mademoiselle O); and glasses growing "like mushrooms in the shade of chairs" at a party.
The latter is taken from The Vane Sisters, one of the last stories Nabokov wrote before switching his production entirely to novels and poetry. It is one of his best. Like his earlier stories The Return of Chorb and Ultima Thule, it considers the possible interplay between the afterlife and the corporeal world, playfully spelling out its position with an acrostic in its closing paragraph.
Signs and Symbols (1948) is similarly metaphysical, albeit much more sombre. It represents the pinnacle of Nabokov's work in the short form, and is for me one of the great short stories of the last century. An elderly Jewish couple visit their son in a mental hospital, only to be turned away because he has made another suicide attempt. He suffers from referential mania, a condition whereby the sufferer "imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence ... Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees."
In the course of the story's six pages every detail is miserable, and each paragraph is crowded with portents: a basket of jams, a stopped train, a dying bird, a crying girl, a forgotten key, dropped playing cards. The woman thinks of the hardships she and her husband have battled. Looking through a photograph album generates further desolate reflections: "Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about."
Finally, the parents have a midnight supper and resolve to bring their son home. They are interrupted by two phone calls: wrong numbers. The story ends with the phone ringing for a third time, leaving it up to the reader whether this is the call that announces the son's inevitable death. The story brilliantly challenges the presentation of "reality" in fiction, and draws a parallel between the insane condition of the son and the conception of the short story as a rigidly calibrated machine in which nothing is without purpose or meaning. Little wonder that Nabokov was happier amid what he saw as the larger, freer expanses of the novel.