Monday, 23 March 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: The Passenger by Vladimir Nabokov

"Our imagination flies -- we are its shadow on the earth.” 
Card Drawn: 7 of Diamonds.

What a brilliant piece of meta-fiction! Lolita is one of my favorite novels but I had yet to read anything else by Vladimir Nabokov...until now. The Passenger is such an intelligent and clever short-story that plays with the readers expectations of narrative conventions. In a sardonic and cheeky fashion, Nabokov designs an elaborate ruse to test the reader's response to fundamental narrative principles that have been indoctrinated into our learning and understanding of stories since we first learned how to read. Despite one's fondness for the abstract or experimentation in literature, most people, myself included, prefer a story with an arch plot: A-B-C. Perhaps not always in that order but we expect the author to tell a story that follows a certain narrative logic and moves forward towards a satisfying conclusion. How many times have you started a book and in the first opening pages, you have already established a general idea of where the story is heading, can anticipate various plot developments and can predict the climax? I would expect that this happens quite often. 

Our voracious appetite for story has made us incredibly perceptive readers. We seem to encounter the same stories over and over again, just told differently. We have become experts on particular genres, grown familiar with the various tropes, archetypes, themes, symbolism and other conventions associated with said genre. Hence, whenever we first encounter a story, our subconscious mind is already working out the details, conjecturing what comes next with almost pinpoint accuracy. It's kind of scary.  However, it is source of great amusement and pleasure when reading a story that is unpredictable, offering something new that we have never encountered before. Vladimir Nabokov's The Passenger is one of those rare gems that defies expectations; or at least, it did for me. While it may seem as if every story has already been told, genres saturated to the point of agonizing cliches and literary talent in short-supply, I believe that originality still exists--this is certainly the case here. I will not bother going into the details of the actual story because that will obviously ruin the fun of experiencing it on your own. As an experienced reader, do you think that you are smarter than most authors? I don't mean in terms of intelligence, knowledge or writing talent but in the ability to surmise their intentions and predict the plot with startling precision. Track down this short-story and see if you can beat Nabokov at his game. 


  1. Oh, yay! I have a huge book of Nabokov stories and I'm looking forward to exploring some of them.

    Your examination of expectation with regard to stories got me thinking. When you read the ancient Greek works, you can tell immediately that the concept of suspense in the way we expect suspense, is completely alien to them. In The Iliad, you are basically told what is going to happen early on. Being a modern, it completely threw me at first, but as I've read more, I've learned to appreciate that approach, as the writer really has to be on the top of his game to craft an amazing story without shielding the plot. It made me wonder when the concept of "suspense" or "unexpectedness" was born with regard to story-telling? Was it cultural or did it develop at a certain time period? I have no idea ......

    In any case, suspense, or no suspense, I think Nabokov would do a fabulous job with either. I'm really looking forward to reading his works.

    1. Cool, glad I could get you interested in reading him. I am quite ignorant on the works of Nabokov and had no idea he wrote so many short-stories and literary criticism. I am trying to track down his lectures that he gave at various universities. Have you read Lolita?

      If all goes according to plan, I do plan on reading The Iliad very soon and will have to keep these observations you make in mind. You bring up some interesting questions but I can't help you there either. It would make for an interesting thesis topic though: exploring the evolution of "plot" throughout various time periods.

      I'd be very curious to know what you make of this story.