Category Archives: Short Stories

Chorb’s Plato, Plato’s Chorb

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.

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On a Sentence in Nabokov’s ‘Signs & Symbols’

I don’t know when I’ll have time to read it all, but I have been picking through Yuri Leving’s Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols,” a collection of 33 essays, primary sources, and other items related to Nabokov’s most celebrated short story. I’m loving it so far.  Leving includes Alexander Dolinin’s well-known essay in which he argues that the numbers six and zero are the keys to understanding the secret message of the story: that the son has died, but that eternity is not a zero (not nothing) but a six (a tangible, though unseen, continuation of a series, in which life as we know it is 1-5–the named jelly jars–and eternity is the numbers beyond that, starting with six). This is why zero and six are the numbers mixed up by the unknown caller at the end of the story. Got it?  Add to this essays by Mary Tookey and Meghan Vicks, both of whom argue, to different ends, that zero is at the heart of the story.

I mention these articles in particular (there may be more on similar topics that I have not yet read) because they relate to an oddity that I noticed on one of my first readings of the story–namely, the repetition of certain letters in the story’s third sentence. Here it is:

Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in the abstract world.

The sentence contains two branching, parallel predicate phrases, the first affirming meaning (albeit malignant) and the second negating it. What I noticed about these phrases is that the first contains a series of “iv” and “vi” letter combinations (in fact, fittingly, five of them). For its part, the second phrase contains nine uses of the letter “o.” If we read the “v” and “i” as Roman numerals, they add up to six, Dolinin’s sign for meaning, while the preponderance of the letter “o” points to the zero (nothingness). Is it possible that Nabokov planted these numbers in the story’s first paragraph as a foreshadowing of the larger story’s numerical code? Or have I succumbed to the “referential mania” that so afflicts the unfortunate son?

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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.

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