ENG 582 W: Nabokov
February 15, 2007
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
In addition to the Rilke that can be read into the plot of “Wingstroke,” the pre-Modernist poet also serves as stylistic antecedent to Nabokov’s early work. Rilke scholar Anna A. Travis characterizes his imagery as haunting, tending to focus on the “difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety” (1). This characterization can be applied directly to the particularly discordant images and sound symbolism in “Wingstroke.” Compared in varying degrees to the narrators of Nabokov’s other early short fiction, such as “Sounds,” “Beneficence,” “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” and “Fight,” the narrator of “Wingstroke” is third person limited, tied to Kern’s perspective. Unlike the other protagonists, Kern is not blissfully in love with life. Correspondingly, the descriptions associated with his thoughts will have none of that kaleidoscopic harmony. A man who damns his inability to understand anything, Kern has no “musical ear [that] knew and comprehended everything” as does the narrator of “Sounds” (22). Kern’s world is instead pierced with discordance and jarring discomfort. When pushing aside the magazine picture of his wife with “childlike eyes,” her absence and the suggested absence of innocence is punctuated with Kern’s “fingernail squeaking on the glossy page” [my emphasis] (27).
Eyes and “the gaze” figure prominently throughout the story, often to underscore dissonance, or lack of communion. Monfiori the voyeur, is described as having “leechy eyes,” for instance, which seek to “peek” into Kern’s as he resolves to shoot himself. At the hotel ball, Kern notices that “around him floated past the intense faces of angular couples with perversely absent eyes” (30). Such lines are reminiscent of the solitude captured in early imagist poetry, not unlike the apparition of faces in Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro.” At its most piercing, “gaze” imagery functions to highlight the delicate membranes people erect to separate from each other: “Somebody’s curious gaze pricked [Kern] like a needle touching the nerve of a tooth. He turned back abruptly” (27).
This haunting detachment, appropriately, operates at the level of sound symbolism as well. Specifically, the repetition, or assonance of long vowel sounds reverberates throughout the piece, particularly in conjunction with Kern. Whether these deliberately repeated long vowels symbolize the “gaping black gap,” “chasm,” and “porcelain depths” of Kern’s nihilistic imagination is debatable (28, 29). The vowel play certainly does, however, express a profound isolation. Note, for instance, the way assonance serves to create an poignantly resonant echo in this description of the loneliest dinner in the world: “…Kern changed, and, at the sound of the gong’s hollow clanging, rang and ordered cold roast beef, some grapes, and a flask of Chianti” (27).
If Isabel is to symbolize the figure that pierces Kern’s stupor, or at least the last in a series of “silk rags” that Kern futilely tries to “hang… across the gaping black gap,” her descriptions are attributed with livelier sound play (28). Specifically, when Kern views her, she is often associated with more “abrupt” sounds, and tongue-twisting consonance. Note the relative lack of mouth and tongue movement in the modifier associated with Kern in comparison to the more active movements necessitated in the modifier associated with Isabel: “[mopping his brow, Kern] set off after [Isabel, who, with a flutter of her black fan,] was heading for the door” (30). As Kern feels older, less sprightly and gayer in comparison to Isabel, her descriptions become even harsher, the movements necessitated by the conjunction of consonants practically a series of spit curses themselves: “Indefatigable girl, he thought—the dog, the guitar, the icy drafts” (32).
Brockman, William S., Jeff Edmunds, and Maxim D. Shrayer, comps. Zembla. Vers. 1. 1 Dec. 1995. Pennsylvania State University. 15 Feb. 2007 <http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm>.
Nabokov, Vladimir. "Sounds." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006. 14-24.
Nabokov, Vladimir. "Wingstroke." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006. 25-43.
Rilke, Rainer M. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke / Edited and Translated by Stephen Mitchell ; with an Introduction by Robert Hass. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1982. 1-356.
Travis, Anna A. Rilke's Russia: a Cultural Encounter. 1st ed. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1994. 1-195.