Vladimir Nabokov: The Christmas Story
Silence fell. Pitilessly illuminated by the lamplight, young and plump-faced, wearing a side-buttoned Russian blouse under his black jacket, his eyes tensely downcast, Anton Golïy began gathering the manuscript pages that he had discarded helter-skelter during his reading. His mentor, the critic from Red Reality, stared at the floor as he patted his pockets in search of some matches. The writer Novodvortsev was silent too, but his was a different, venerable, silence. Wearing a substantial pince-nez, exceptionally large of forehead, two strands of his sparse dark hair pulled across his bald pate, gray streaks on his close-cropped temples, he sat with closed eyes as if he were still listening, his heavy legs crossed and one hand compressed between a kneecap and a hamstring. This was not the first time he had been subjected to such glum, earnest rustic fictionists. And not the first time he had detected, in their immature narratives, echoes—not yet noted by the critics—of his own twenty-five years of writing; for Golïy’s story was a clumsy rehash of one of his subjects, that of The Verge, a novella he had excitedly and hopefully composed, whose publication the previous year had done nothing to enhance his secure but pallid reputation.
The critic lit a cigarette. Golïy, without raising his eyes, was stuffing his manuscript into his briefcase. But their host kept his silence, not because he did not know how to evaluate the story, but because he was waiting, meekly and drearily, in the hope that the critic might perhaps say the words that he, Novodvortsev, was embarrassed to pronounce: that the subject was Novodvortsev’s, that it was Novodvortsev who had inspired the image of that taciturn fellow, selflessly devoted to his laborer grandfather, who, not by dint of education, but rather through some serene, internal power wins a psychological victory over the spiteful intellectual. But the critic, hunched on the edge of the leather couch like a large, melancholy bird, remained hopelessly silent.
Realizing yet again that he would not hear the hoped-for words, and trying to concentrate his thoughts on the fact that, after all, it was to him and not Neverov that the aspiring author had been brought for an opinion, Novodvortsev repositioned his legs, inserted his other hand between them, said with a businesslike tone, “Now, then,” and, with a glance at the vein that had swelled on Golïy’s forehead, began speaking in a quiet, even voice. He said the story was solidly constructed, that one felt the power of the Collective in the place where the peasants start building a school with their own means, that, in the description of Pyotr’s love for Anyuta there might be imperfections of style, but one heard the call of spring and of a wholesome lust—and, all the while as he talked, he kept remembering for some reason how he had written recently to this same critic, to remind him that his twenty-fifth anniversary as an author would fall in January, but that he emphatically requested that no festivities be organized given that his years of dedicated work for the Union were not yet over….
“As for your intellectual, you didn’t get him right,” he was saying. “There is no real sense of his being doomed….”
The critic still said nothing. He was a red-haired man, skinny and decrepit, rumored to be ill with consumption, but in reality probably healthy as a bull. He had replied, also by letter, that he approved of Novodvortsev’s decision, and that had been the end of it. He must have brought Golïy by way of secret compensation…. Novodvortsev suddenly felt so sad—not hurt, just sad—that he stopped short and started wiping his lenses with his handkerchief, revealing quite kindly eyes.
The critic rose. “Where are you off to? It’s still early,” said Novodvortsev, but he got up too. Anton Golïy cleared his throat and pressed his briefcase to his side.
“He will become a writer, there’s no doubt about it,” said the critic with indifference, roaming about the room and stabbing the air with his spent cigarette. Humming, with a raspy sound, through his teeth, he drooped over the desk, then stood for a time by anétagère where a respectable edition of Das Kapital dwelt between a tattered volume of Leonid Andreyev and a nameless tome with no binding; finally, with the same stooping gait, he approached the window and drew the blue blind aside.
“Drop in sometime,” Novodvortsev was meanwhile saying to Anton Golïy, who bowed jerkily and then squared his shoulders with a swagger. “When you’ve written something more, bring it on over.”
“Heavy snowfall,” said the critic, releasing the blind. “By the way, today is Christmas Eve.”
He began rummaging listlessly for his coat and hat.
“In the old days, on this date you and your confrères would be churning out Christmas copy….”
“Not I,” said Novodvortsev.
The critic chuckled. “Pity. You ought to do a Christmas story. New-style.”
Anton Golïy coughed into his fist. “Back home we once had—“ he began in a hoarse bass, then cleared his throat again.
“I’m being serious,” continued the critic, climbing into his coat. “One can devise something very clever…. Thanks, but it’s already—“
“Back home,” Anton Golïy said, “We once had. A teacher. Who. Took it into his head. To do a Christmas tree for the kids. On top he stuck. A red star.”
“No that won’t quite do,” said the critic. “It’s a little heavy-handed for a small story. You can put a keener edge on it. Struggle between two different worlds. All against a snowy background.”
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