A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “The Return of Chorb,” first published in Rul‘ in 1925. The plot is fairly simple. Newly married Chorb loses his wife when she is electrocuted by a downed wire in Nice. Rather than tell her parents, Chorb hordes his grief and, in an attempt to immortalize the memory of his beloved, retraces the steps of their honeymoon, finally arriving back in the German city where they married. Chorb informs his in-laws’ maid that his wife is sick, then hires a prostitute to chastely sleep with him in the room where the couple spent their wedding night. Chorb wakes during the night and screams because he has seen an apparition of his wife sleeping beside him. The prostitute flees the hotel room just as Chorb’s in-laws arrive at the room to see what has become of their daughter.
Most interpretations that I have encountered (surely there are more) rightly note how the story draws on the Orpheus myth (a statue of Orpheus is glimpsed outside the hotel window). The wife’s electrocution by the snake-like wire mirrors Eurydice’s death by viper-bite, and Chorb’s retracing of his steps seems akin to Orpheus’ descent and return from the underworld. This association is partly responsible for the sympathetic treatment Chorb receives from most critics. He, like Orpheus, is an artist who has suffered great loss, only to be teased with the notion of a reunion that is doomed to fail.
I want to propose another reading which likewise uses the Orpheus myth, but draws specifically on Plato’s version of it from The Symposium. Here, Plato says:
But Orpheus . . . they sent empty away, and presented to him an apparition only of her whom he sought, but herself they would not give up, because he showed no spirit; he was only a harp-player, and did not dare like Alcestis to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter Hades alive.
Plato’s description of what happened to Orpheus seems applicable to Chorb. Like Orpheus, Chorb is presented with an apparition of his dead wife, whom he was trying to immortalize through a kind of spatial recollection. But Chorb, like Orpheus, is unwilling to die for love. We know this notion, present in Plato, is also important to Nabokov when we remember the scene of Chorb’s wedding night. The Kellers have prepared a room in which the newlyweds are to spend their first night together. The room’s adornments include a rug with the inscription “We are together unto the tomb.” Chorb and his wife flee from the room and spend their wedding night in the hotel instead. This anecdote is presented to us in the favorable light of Chorb’s own recollections, so we may not realize at first the importance of the rug’s inscription. In fact, the couple’s violation of ceremony prefigures the more serious offense: Chorb’s unwillingness to follow his wife “unto the tomb.”
The irony is that Chorb himself is nothing if not a Platonist. He is, in fact, paralyzed by his idealism. On his wedding night, instead of consummating the marriage, he merely gives his wife a chaste kiss and sleeps on the couch. Indeed, it is unclear whether the marriage is ever consummated. Chorb seems to be afraid that the pleasures of the body might taint the idealized form he keeps in his mind. Likewise, after his wife dies, he is unable to tell her parents because he wants to preserve, as if it were a tangible form, his grief without “tainting it by any foreign substance.” Yet Chorb, the aesthete who seems to spurn the body in favor of the mind, tries, like Orpheus, to restore/preserve his wife without the courage to give up his own body, his own life, for love. Chorb’s version of Plato thus succumbs to Plato’s (and Nabokov’s) criticism of Chorb.