Can the “I” Die?

Last week, I promised I would advance a new interpretation of one of VN’s short stories. As I mentioned, this may seem (or may in fact be) an act of interpretive hubris, given that the story, “The Visit to the Museum,” was first published more than 80 years ago and has received its fair share of critical attention over the years. Yet I can’t help thinking that interpreters, perhaps because of the fantastic elements of the story, have missed a subtle, yet essential detail in the story’s literal plotline.

The basic description of the plot, as it has been understood, goes something like this: the narrator, an exile from Russia now living in France, travels to a small village and, as a favor to a friend, attempts to purchase a painting displayed in a museum there (the painting’s subject is one of his friend’s ancestors). The museum director, M. Godard, first denies that the painting is in the museum’s collection, but then is shown its presence, just as narrator claimed. After deferring the sale of the painting, the director takes the narrator on a tour of the bizarre museum, a tour which quickly becomes a surreal, nightmarish journey through a seemingly endless succession of rooms containing a vast array of artifacts and landscapes, until at last the narrator finds himself outside, on a snow-covered street that turns out to be not France, but contemporary Soviet Russia. Realizing his predicament, the man strips off his clothes and all signs of identification, but he is arrested and, he tells us in summary, suffers greatly before he is able to escape once more abroad.

Because the dream-like elements of the story (M. Godard’s bizarre behavior, the metastasizing museum, the sudden shift in geography) are never normalized—that is, they remain unaccounted for in the otherwise realistic portrayal of the storyworld—“The Visit to the Museum” has been considered an example of conte fantastique, a la E.T.A. Hoffman. As such, many critics have viewed it as a not quite successful story—a story that presents mysteries it is unwilling to solve, thus failing, as Roy Johnson puts it, “to make a convincing connection between realism and fantasy.”

My argument here is that most of the fantastic elements of the story can be explained by a simple, though very subtly achieved, plot point—namely, that the story is told from perspective of a man who, though he is unaware of it, has been hit by a bus and is either very near death or already dead. If I am right, then “The Visit to the Museum” would represent Nabokov’s first attempt at presenting a first-person narrator speaking from the beyond—a trick he would attempt, in various guises, periodically throughout the rest of his career (indeed, his novella Soglyadatay [The Eye] posits just such a scenario, and was published in 1930, just a year after “The Visit to the Museum”).

While there are a few glimmers of the irrational early in the story (the odd friend, the “strange black lumps” in the museum’s display case) the storyworld seems to conform to rational laws. It is only when the narrator arrives at the house of the museum director, M. Godard, that inexplicable details—Godard throwing away letters he has just stamped and sealed—begin to enter the narrative. It is likely at this point that we as readers begin to look for details that will help us decode the increasingly odd events that unfold throughout the rest of the story. Nabokov, however, has already hidden in his seemingly innocuous exposition, the details essential to understanding his intended narrative. This is a typical Nabokovian move, the most famous example being John Ray, Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, in which he reveals the titular character’s fate, though first time readers do not yet understand the significance of “Mrs. Richard F. Schiller.” In the present case, the key moment comes when the narrator leaves the museum to go in search of the museum director.

Once again the cathedral began playing hide-and-seek with me, but I outwitted it. Barely escaping the onrushing tires of a furious red bus packed with singing youths, I crossed the asphalt thoroughfare and a minute later was ringing at the garden gate of M. Godard. He turned out to be a thin, middle-aged gentleman in high collar and dickey, with a pearl in the knot of his tie, and a face very much resembling a Russian wolfhound . . .

The cathedral reference here is crucial, both because it places what happens next in a religious context, and because it refers back to the narrator’s arrival in the village, where we find him searching for a store and “cursing the spire of a long-necked cathedral, always the same one, that kept popping up at the end of every street.” The narrator’s cursing of the cathedral may help to explain the nightmarish hereafter into which he is about to proceed, and, set against his looming fate, his claim to have “outwitted” the spire emerges as patently ironic.

The narrator asserts, in passing, that he was nearly run down by the bus. I am suggesting that, in fact, he did not escape the bus’s “onrushing tires” (any more than he outwitted the God masquerading as a trickster cathedral spire). My position arises from internal evidence, but also from knowledge of similar moments in other works. The closest precedent can be found in Nabokov’s short story “Details of a Sunset,” written and published five years earlier, in 1924. The story’s main character, Mark Standfuss, jumps from a moving streetcar (he has missed his stop) and feels himself struck from behind by “a roaring mass”:

He felt as if a thick thunderbolt had gone through him from head to toe, and then nothing. He was standing alone on the glossy asphalt. He looked around. He saw, at a distance, his own figure, the slender back of Mark Standfuss, who was walking diagonally across the street as if nothing had happened. Marveling, he caught up with himself in one easy sweep, and now it was he nearing the sidewalk, his entire frame filled with a gradually diminishing vibration.

At this point Mark says to himself, “That was stupid. Almost got run over by a bus.” As Mark continues to walk through the city, he notes a series of rapturous architectural details and wonders “how he had never noticed before those galleries, those temples suspended on high.” From this point, Mark’s experiences grow increasingly surreal and confusing, yet he remains unaware of the central fact that he has, indeed, been run over by a bus and that he is actually “lying supine, mutilated and bandaged.” In the end, the narrator informs us, “Mark no longer breathed, Mark had departed—whither, into what other dreams, none can tell.” The final phrase, echoing Hamlet’s searching “what dreams may come,” implies a hereafter that “none can tell” (“that we know not of,” says Hamlet), but “The Visit to the Museum” provides, I would suggest, a further glimpse.

But how can we be sure that the unnamed narrator, like Mark Standfuss, has been run down by the “furious red bus”? To begin, let’s look at the events immediately following the narrator’s bare escape. First, the narrator tells us that he “crossed the asphalt thoroughfare.” I have not conducted a survey of all the street crossings in Nabokov’s fiction, so I cannot say what percentage of these crossings highlight some kind of physical or metaphysical change; however, it is fair to say that in at least three instances, Nabokov uses a literal crossing as a marker of the passage into death or an alternate state. As we have just seen, Mark Standfuss, after he is struck by the bus, witnesses himself “walking diagonally across the street.” In an earlier story, “A Matter of Chance,” the suicidal train attendant Luzhin walks “diagonally to the next track” just before he is struck and killed by a train. And in Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote tells us that just before John Shade is shot, the two men cross the road from Shade’s property to Judge Goldsworth’s (whose house Kinbote is renting): “One minute before his death, as we were crossing from his demesne to mine . . .” In each case, the crossing over prefigures, or marks, a character’s death. So when the narrator of “The Visit to the Museum” crosses the thoroughfare after his close encounter with the bus tires, we should take this history into account.

Moreover, we should consider the narrator’s destination. After crossing the street, he finds himself “ringing at the garden gate of M. Godard.” Nabokov is here playing on the common notion that the souls of the newly dead find themselves before the gates of heaven. The first three letters of the museum director’s name emphasize the divine context, and the “pearl in the knot of his tie” may remind us of the pearl in “pearly gates.” But Godard has a face like a dog, the reversal of God, and it soon becomes clear that the museum director is a demon and his museum is, if not hell itself, then at least a kind of purgatory.

In the passages that follow the narrator’s first encounter with M. Godard, a number of details arise to confirm the narrator’s fatal, or near-fatal, state. After denying the narrator’s claims about the painting, the museum director asks if he “appreciate[d] the sarcophagus,” an apt question for a dead man. After this, Godard produces a contract for the narrator to sign, saying, “Here, take this red-and-blue pencil and using the red—the red, please—put it in writing for me.” Why red? Because everyone knows that when you make a deal with the devil, the contract is signed in blood.

As the scene shifts back to the museum, we encounter more details related to religion, death, and the afterlife. The first thing the narrator encounters is the custodian “restraining two sacrilegists.” When the narrator tries to negotiate for the painting, Godard demurs, saying, “I must first discuss the matter with the mayor, who has just died and has not yet been elected.” This statement seems like nonsense (how can one die and then be elected mayor?) until we realize that the director is speaking of divine election, the idea that God chooses who will and will not be saved after bodily death. If the mayor is dead but “not yet elected,” then he must be in a state something like the Catholic notion of purgatory, a place or condition in which the souls of the just must be purified before they can enter heaven. If the narrator exists on the same plane of reality with the mayor, we must infer that he, too, is trapped (along with other “sacreligists”) in some kind of median level of the hereafter.

The narrator then begins his tour of the ever-enlarging museum, which seems to include pieces of the whole history of the universe, including the natural (giant whale skeleton, fountains and brooks), aesthetic (paintings), religious (“delicate idols”), mythological (Orpheus), mechanical (typewriters, hammers, trains), scientific (a laboratory) and cosmological (“a gigantic mock-up of the universe”). One might be reminded of Mark Standfuss again, who, after the accident, imagines what he will find in the row of coffin-like vans:

There they stood, like gigantic coffins. Whatever might they conceal within? Treasures? The skeletons of giants? Or dusty mountains of sumptuous furniture?

In the museum, the narrator keeps “bumping into unknown furniture,” becoming more and more terrified as he moves from room to room full of artifacts “but not a living soul, not a living soul.” At one point, he turns and is startled to see, “scarcely an inch from me, the lofty wheels of a sweaty locomotive,” a transmuted image of the bus tires that have just run him down.

When he eventually emerges from the museum and finds himself back in Russia, he describes himself as “a semiphantom.” He tries to run (a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s clerk in The Double, who is “killed, killed utterly” just before the disintegration of his personality) and then strips off all his clothes and stands “ideally naked,” which may remind us of Job’s “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.”

At this point the narrator forswears recounting his “subsequent ordeals,” only saying that “it cost [him] incredible patience and effort to get back abroad.” While the narrator’s death nicely accounts for the fantastic elements of the story (as no other theory seems to do) we are still left to wonder whether this ending can be squared with the idea of a posthumous narrator. In “Details of a Sunset,” Nabokov normalizes the events of the story by revealing Mark Standfuss’s death in the story’s last sentence. But here, we are ultimately uncertain if the narrator even realizes what has happened to him. It may be that he has passed into one of those “other dreams,” another form of exile.

As an ending, I admit it’s not entirely satisfying. But I think we can now see how Nabokov was attempting different combinations of this same scenario. In “Details,” he hides the accident but then reveals it in the end. In “Visit,” he tries the same trick but wants to see if his readers can figure it out without his help. And in The Eye, he reverses the trick by having the narrator declare that he is narrating from the afterlife, while letting the reader figure out that this is not in fact the case. Same scenario, three combinations. Reading “The Visit to the Museum” as part of this series helps us to understand not only the story itself but its place in the story of Nabokov’s development as a writer.

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2 thoughts on “Can the “I” Die?

  1. nnyhav says:

    Four combinations, as this lends support (albeit indirect) to Carolyn Kunin’s thesis that Kinbote is Shade post-stroke (okay, an otherly sort of afterlife, but nonetheless …

    • matthewsroth says:

      Hi, Dave! Yes, and of course we can add The Vane Sisters, the ghost(s) of Transparent Things, and probably some others as well. I was focusing on those three because they were all written in a six or seven year period between 1924 and 1930.

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