So, I am thigh deep in this monstrous collection of Nabokov's stories. I had read "Despair" somewhere in a previous life, and had enjoyed it well enough to never read Nabokov again. This is not mean as a criticism-- I used to be something of a masochist when it came to reading, in that, if I found something I liked, I generally read nothing else from that author. The exceptions were Douglas Adams and Chuck Palahniuk; the former because Adams's work was a childhood friend to me (and a grown-up friend as well, which is a rare treat-- I was disappointed to find that He-Man did not age as well as "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"); the latter, because I went to college during the Age of Palahniuk, and if you weren't reading Palahniuk you weren't cool. And let me tell you: I was cool with a capital "K." (As a side note, I bet you're wondering if Nabokov relates to He-Man in any meaningful way; you will be pleased to know he does, and the matter will be addressed with bracing insight in my completely fictional doctoral thesis, "Nabokov, He-Man, and Yevtushenko's So-Called Clatter of Surgical Tools: Manhood and the Aesthetic Structure in Modern Media.")
But anyway again. These short stories are brutally weighty and depressing. Weighty in an existential way; depressing in a good way. "Terra Incognita" is my favorite so far-- the story of a doomed jungle expedition and the associated abandonments, violence, and illness. There are some fun games here with perception and ontology, if one knew what that word meant, and had subsequently used it properly. Nabokov only needs about five pages to destroy you. It's a subdued, lyrical destruction though-- a lovely autopsy of reality. The knife in this story does not rip or tear or any of that. It is a rusty blade that enters unseen and by the time you register it, it's done with.
What happens in the story? Everyone dies. I hope I'm not ruining it for you. Let me, in fact, ruin all of Nabokov's short fiction for you: everyone dies. That's not literally true of course-- some people improbably survive-- but it might as well be. Death is the overarching detail that seems to float to the surface in the 30 or so stories I've read so far. Oh, a more critical and worthy eye would find a myriad of more fascinating themes and parallels, but I am not reading this to dissect it so much as enjoy it (Nabokov himself would've been a fan of this approach). I haven't read enough (read: any other) Russian literature so as to be able to say "It's very Russian" without being supercilious, but what the hell-- life's short and you probably know what I mean anyway. This is very Russian. Blammo. Checkmate.
I've been reading the stories here and there over a period of months, and have just about hit the halfway mark. I've been reading as the opportunities arise-- in the bathroom, while waiting to have my teeth cleaned, sitting at the local Subway on my lunch hour-- and am further convinced that the short story is my favorite form. Novels are great; but this is a 65-course meal.
EDIT: "Perfection" is now possibly my favorite story so far. If you happen to read the story, and want to gallop farther along the Reading Rainbow, here's a nice critical breakdown:
Behind the Glass Pane: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Perfection” and Transcendence
DOUBLE EDIT: Only read this comment if you've read the story so I don't ruin it for you. Waiting...waiting for you to finish the story...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...still waiting...done? Okay, so what did I tell you before? The guy dies. Everyone dies.