a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories
By the end of the 1930s, prompted by the threats of the Nazis, Nabokov had moved from Berlin to Paris – the second centre of Russian emigration. From there he was to travel even further westwards to America in 1940. Undoubtedly conscious of this growing exile from his native land, he turned back in 1939, for one of his last short stories to be written in Russian, to the topic he had treated in poems and stories many times before – the return to Russia. And for this occasion he chose to employ the form of the conte fantastique. a tradition in story-telling which goes back to Gautier and E.T.A. Hoffmann.
The narrator of ‘The Visit to the Museum’ (September 1938) has been asked by a friend to locate and purchase a portrait of his Russian grandfather which has found its way into a small provincial museum in France. The narrator is sceptical and reluctant, but when he visits the museum the portrait is there. Suddenly his interest is aroused: ‘It is fun to be present at the coming true of a dream, even if it is not one’s own’ (RB,p.70).
He applies to the curator for permission to purchase, but the curator denies the existence of the painting. The narrator bets him the money he has been given to make the purchase, and when they go to check the curator admits that he was wrong. But when the narrator presses his claim the curator disappears and the narrator becomes lost in a maze of rooms in the fantastically expanding museum.
Gradually he finds himself amongst familiar houses and streets, a light snow is falling, and he realises that he is back in Russia. It is not the Russia of his childhood however, but that of the present day under the Soviets. His dream turns into a nightmare, and he is forced to throw away everything which would identify him as a returned émigré. Then the story ends abruptly with a summary of subsequent events:
‘I shall not recount how I was arrested nor tell of my subsequent ordeals … it cost me incredible patience and effort to get back abroad, and … ever since I have foresworn carrying out commissions’ (p.79)
The formula is traditional enough – a transfer from one plane of reality to another and back again, though the ‘return’ is dealt with in so rapid and summary a fashion it seems that Nabokov is more interested in establishing the shock value of the initial transfer. It is this which gives rise to the principal problem with the story and the reason why it might have to be counted amongst his interesting failures.
The problem is the lack of relation between the first and the second part of the story. A realistic setting is established and the museum visit is perfectly credible, all in keeping with Nabokov’s normal manner of controlling narratives. Then along with the entrance of the curator, one or two mysteries are introduced: he resembles a Russian wolfhound, throws letters he has just written into a wastepaper basket, and does not know his own collection.
But none of these mysteries has any apparent connection with the portrait or the narrator’s subsequent experience in the museum where he wanders from rooms full of steam engines, railroad stations, and The Section of Fountains and Brooks, back into the reconstruction of the Soviet Union. The only element which unites the request, the portrait, narrator, curator, and the fantasy world is that they are all Russian. And these elements cohere only under the canopy of a ‘What if …?’ – the impossibility of recovering the Russian past.
In fictions of the conte fantastique variety we are usually offered some tantalising evidence of the fantasy world when the protagonist returns to the ‘real’ one. In Gautier’s ‘La Cafetiere’ as a typical instance, the narrator awakes from his reverie of dancing with the figures from paintings – but he has a fragment of the coffee pot from this other world beside him. No such evidence connects the two worlds of ‘The Visit to the Museum’.
Of course the story is not offered in a state of high seriousness, but it recalls ‘The Thunderstorm’ in failing to make a convincing connection between realism and fantasy. It is as if Nabokov was not comfortable with this mode. He seems to operate at his best when straining against but staying within the bounds of literary realism.
© Roy Johnson 2005Vladimir Nabokov links
Nabokov’s Complete Short Stories – critical analyses
Vladimir Nabokov: an illustrated life
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Just above, hear émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. author of Lolita read the opening sentences of that novel in both English and Russian, after offering some brief comments on his relationship to his former native country. Then, after a few minutes of discussion of a work that became incorporated into his Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle . we get Nabokov the cantankerous critic. Or rather, Nabokov, the critic of critics. The author had little regard for critics themselves. In a Paris Review interview, he opines that the only purpose of literary criticism was that it “gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.” In the filmed interview above (at the 3:24 mark), Nabokov points his lance at the inflated popular notion of “great books”:
I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.
That Lolita regularly tops such “great books” lists, such as the Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels,” would hardly have impressed its author.
Nonetheless, after his takedown of such venerated names as Thomas Mann, Boris Pasternak, and the “corncobby” William Faulkner, Nabokov doesn’t hesitate to name his “greatest masterpieces of 20th century prose.” They are, in this order:
4) The first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time
So there you have it, from the mouth of the master himself. Should you hang in there for the next clip, you will hear Nabokov read from his notebook titled “Things I Detest.” How seriously we are to take any of this is hard to say—one never really knows with Nabokov.
Josh Jonesis a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Nabokov House is the house in Saint Petersburg with the modern street number of 47 Great Morskaya Street (Bol'shaia morskaia ulitsa), 190000.
In 1897, the mansion became the property of the liberal statesman and jurist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov. and as such the house hosted many important political meetings, including the final session of the National Congress of Zemstvos (1904).
It was also in this mansion that novelist Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899. Currently, the first floor of the house contains the Nabokov Museum. dedicated to the author's life.History of the House [ edit ]
V. D. Nabokov who became owner of the house in 1897. As such it hosted many important political meetings.
It is a medium to large townhouse, built in the 19th century, in the Neo-Renaissance style for the Polovtsev family.
Between 1897 and the October Revolution the house was the property of the liberal statesman and jurist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov. who had obtained it as a dowry of Elena Rukavishnikova. As such, it became host to many political meetings, particularly in the lead up and following the first Russian Revolution of 1905. It was in this house that the final session of the National Congress of Zemstvos was hosted in 1904.
The house is also notable for being the home of Vladimir Vladimirovich, who lived in the house until November 1917. The house is meticulously described in his autobiography The Other Shores and Speak, Memory . For Vladimir the house remained the only house in the world. Subsequently, even when he grew rich, he never acquired any other house and preferred to live in hotels.
A close childhood friend of Olga Nabokov was Ayn Rand (Alisa Rosenbaum). As children the two would engage in endless political debates in this house; while Nabokova defended constitutional monarchy, Rand supported republican ideals. 
The house was broken into by Bolshevik revolutionaries during the October Revolution (1917).Nabokov Museum [ edit ]
Since April 1998 the first floor of the house (the family floor in Nabokov's time) is occupied by the Nabokov Museum and the upper two stories (the parents' floor and the children's floor ) are occupied by the offices of the newspaper Nevskoe Vremya. In the museum space are the Phone room. Dining room. Library. Committee Room (where most of the meetings of the Constitutional Democratic party were held) and the Kitchen .
Inside Nabokov's House
Very little has remained from the Nabokov's family life in the house. Time and history spared nothing, except the interiors of several rooms on the first and second floors of the building and the old stained glass window above the flight of stairs leading to the third floor.
Nabokov memorabilia, including Vladimir Nabokov's personal effects (index cards, pencils, eyeglasses, scrabble game ) as well as books and other objects connected to his life and art, form the core of the museum's collection. The museum is dedicated to fostering Nabokov's memory and his artistic legacy and cultural values, both within Russia and internationally. The museum not only houses exhibits related to Nabokov's life and milieu and provides a research library for Nabokov scholars but also holds many events and activities inspired by Nabokov: readings of works by Nabokov and those he admired, (such as Chekhov and Joyce ), lectures, international or single-nation conferences ("Nabokov and Russia", "Nabokov and England", "Nabokov and France", "Nabokov and Germany", "Nabokov and the United States"), an annual international Nabokov summer school, and exhibitions and installations related to Nabokov. Its activities have the regular support of leading Nabokov scholars from around the world.Vandalism [ edit ]
The museum is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Monday.
Saturday Shorts Week 2
Welcome to our new weekend series for 2014.Every Saturday this year one of our staff will suggest a favorite short story from the library’s collection, all of them a great choice for quick weekend reading.
Look for The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov in our fiction section: FIC NABOKOV
Great thing about short stories: the best of them will pluck you right out of reality if you let them, leave you somewhere far more thrilling for a few moments, and then—snap— you’re right back where you started. Novels tend to create an extended unreality that we return to again and again, and are often less dreamlike for all their extra weight.
Nabokov’s “The Visit to the Museum” goes right to the heart of this kind of short story dream state. Our narrator is a twentieth century Russian emigré in France. He is asked by a fellow Russian, “a person with oddities, to put it mildly,” to visit a small French museum and attempt to acquire a family portrait that ended up in its collection. Eight pages after our narrator reluctantly makes his visit we find ourselves somewhere else entirely and we’ve traveled through an eerie, entrancing, confounding museum of the mind to get there.
The story is funny at times, a bit terrifying at others. It abounds with the atmosphere of an odd, somewhat moldering museum. It’s clearly about the nature of exile, and yet I don’t know exactly what to make of the story’s meaning—it’s pleasantly puzzling.
Stop by the library and pick up our copy of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov . “The Visit to the Museum” is a few minutes of reading that you will never forget or regret.
Review by MatthewShare this:
This small museum to the life and works of the great author Vladimir Nabakov is set up in his family home when he lived in St Petersburg, prior to emigrating to the US.
It has a number of items from his carer as well as family photos and some of his butterfly collection. He was a passionate butterfly collector and Dimitry Nabakov donated the net he used to catch them with.
It is run as part of the University and is free of charge.
We visited the museum last summer, and it was hard to found, when you're trying to get there on foot. But it was very nice experience when we had no map and lost somewhere, and then found a beautiful house with a wooden balcony. The interior is very rich and authentic, the butterfly collection, sketches and other stuff can really put you to atmosphere of the author of Lolita, Invitation to an execution and other masterpieces. If you have red any of the books of Nabokov you sure need to visit the museum.
“ Maybe interesting for dedicated fans, but not for other people”
Malejne S (11 reviews)
Very small museum, informal atmosphere, free entrance. Beautiful butterflies. Info in both Russian and English.
“ Small, but interesting, free and centrally located”
ElectricalEngineer (111 reviews)
This museum was put together in the last decade or so and sits on the ground floor of the townhouse that Nabokov grew up in. It has lots of explanation of Nabokov and his life in English and lots of his artifacts including some of his butterflies. It is very low key, but interesting if you are a fan of his works.
Most importantly it is right downtown near other tourist sites so if you have a spare hour you can drop in for a crowd-free respite.Vladimir Nabokov Museum, St. Petersburg: Hours, Address, Attraction Reviews