"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: From “The Wood-Sprite” by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve wanted to read more Vladimir Nabokov for a while.  The little I’ve read intrigues me, especially for his prose style.  He may be the best prose stylist in English since World War II, and English is not even his first language.  It may not even be his second language.  Just look at how precise and to the point are his sentences in this short story that isn’t even anything he seems to have put real effort in.  The Wood-Sprite”   is such a short little story—three pages—that one could consider it a throw away exercise.  The story is about a “wood-sprite,” some sort of fairy or diety who has been chased out of Russia, presumably by the Bolsheviks, and meets with an exile, the first person narrator.  Nabokov was also chased out by the communists.  The story I believe, though I could not verify, was translated by Nabokov himself.  It was Nabokov’s first published short story. Here is the first quarter of the story.

I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand's circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly. 

"Yes, I'm here, come in..." 

The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night. 

I knew his face - oh, how long I had known it! 

His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust....That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth - how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory! 

I got up. He stepped forward. 

His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong - on the female side. In his hand he held a cap - no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap.... 

Yes, of course I knew him - perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam's apple.... 

With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand, and touched the back of a shabby arm chair. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly. 

"It's so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don't tell me you've forgotten?" 

His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy - I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness....

You can read the entire story, a very short read, at A Longhouse Birdhouse, here  or you can hear the story read on Youtube here.  Or listen as you read along.  I enjoy a good oral presentation with the words right in front of me.


  1. This looks interesting. I do like a good Russian tale now and again, even if I don't have much use for Russians right now.

    1. Jan, the story will take you about fifteen minutes to read. It's very short. Just follow the link. And hearing it read on the other link was a pleasure too.

  2. Dear people who read this blog,

    This story by Vladimir Nabokov which our friend Manny has recommended to us is SO worth the few minutes it will take you to read. Please follow the link and enjoy! Those old style Russian authors really know how to convey what they are trying to get across.

    1. Oh thank you Jan. I have to say those old Russian authors are the best.