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She does not accept a world in which their native land has fallen and they have no emotional reaction to leaving it. So she negotiates an identity which has lost something. When her husband cannot accept this identity, and then apparently abandons her at the train station, she negotiates the idea of an identity that is strong enough to survive and find love and gratification and recognition without him. When her husband cannot accept that identity and cries out that it is unbearable, she is forced (again) to recant it... In that moment, her husband kills her salesman-brute-lover as surely as he killed her dog. Is it any wonder that when she creates a noble, good lover in her mind, she conceals it from him for fear he will kill it... Or kill them both, by forcing her to again deny her dream self? When she tells him "Perhaps I live several lives at once. Perhaps I wanted to test you. Perhaps this bench is a dream and we are in Saratov or on some star," (Nabokov, "That in Aleppo Once") she is inviting him to understand and share in her identity which is so mutable and internal. His inability to do that is in the end what crushes and murders her identity and reality. When his vision of her - as hips and hair and skin and blind devotion to his poetry and happy jaunty days on the beach while their country burns - is not sustainable, and she tries to negotiate her own identity, the conflict becomes deadly.
The conflict in Nabokov's "Conversation Piece" is somewhat less tragic and more amusing, though none-the-less important. In it, one finds a man who is becoming consistently defined by outsides against his will based on the fact that apparently, "I happen to have a disreputable namesake, complete from nickname to surname, a man whom I have never seen in the flesh but whose vulgar personality I have been able to deduce from his chance intrusions into the castle of my life." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece")
The question becomes, to what degree does the perception of strangers regarding one's self have the ability to create that self?
The two, according to the narration, have only one point in common, their shared tendency to travel. Yet as the story progresses, more and more points in common are discovered. One must even ask (though the question cannot be answered from the text) if they are the same person in different guises. Is this a tribute to Jekyll and Hyde - the confused narrative of the "good" side of a flipping coin? For his namesake apparently practices in excess the vices which he hides in lesser degrees, and has had most of the same experiences that he himself has had. At first glance, the similarities may not be so obvious. To begin with, however, they each keep the same sort of friends. The narrator has "my acquaintance Mrs. Sharp, who had for some reason always resented my contempt for the Party line and for the Communist and his Master's Voice" and whom he suspects of setting him up to speak with "some old fool who had had caviar in the Kremlin." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece") Then, he appears shocked that this "Mrs. Sybil Hall, a close friend of Mrs. Sharp..." would set him up to speak with a distinguished professor who had an equal sort of passion for the German people? (One ought not forget that Russia had also had its pogroms and mass graves, albeit not to the degree that Germany did!) He seems to judge those whose conversation he joins very harshly for their prejudices - and yet with one glance he claims to know that the women he has joined are all "cheerfully sterile" and that "All, one could be certain, belonged to book clubs, bridge clubs, babble clubs, and to the great, cold sorority of inevitable death..." He even seems certain he knows what they are thinking as they sit there, "Something in the middle of the table, she was thinking. I need something that would make people gasp - perhaps a great big huge bowl of artificial fruit." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece") the small vice of judging people harshly by their accents or weights is, in a small way, what the vice of hating people for their race or religion is ina major way. There are, of course, other striking similarities between himself and his double. He complains of his namesake's public drunkenness in Zurich - and his double writes him a letter complaining that he ought not to have appeared "in a drunken condition at the house of a highly respected person." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece") Both have been arrested in the name of the other, as well. Indeed, their experiences have an eery echo of each other, and it seems they consistently are experience a unique sort of prejudice - that of having others assume they know them (even intimately) based only on a name. They both experience having prejudices attempting to define them, and yet neither is able to escape committing prejudice himself. Additionally, the narrator is not even able to sufficiently define himself that when he speaks of his outrage he is able to be coherent or to take credit for his own thoughts: "I tried to tell him as neatly as I could that the police, the authorities, would explain [my remark] to her." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece")
Both short stories, "That in Aleppo Once..." And "Conversation Piece," have in common themes which address the high costs of turning other living people into fantasies. In "Conversation Piece" there are certain obvious costs, such as the way that the narrator is consistently getting arrested, molested, or harrassed in place of his double. However, there is also an undertheme of the more severe costs of fantasizing others rather than letting them be themselves. This is evident in the narrator's inability to express his opinions regarding the harms which Nazi-ism had done to the women who probably needed to hear it, because he could not get past his stereotype of them as blind and sterile individuals, and his vision of Germans as murders or worse. The inability to connect to them as humans left him unable to interfere with their banal evil in any way - he could not correct them or argue with them, and he couldn't even remember their faces or names well enough to report them to the police! The absurdity of ignoring others so completely comes through in his failure to interact positively with their world in any way. However, his personal inability is mirrored in the story Dr. Shoe tells about why people are willing to conquer others in the name of a mad dictator. "They innocently believed that they were bringing hope and happiness and wonderful order to the fallen town... they smiled at everybody and everything because they were pathetically good-natured and well-meaning. They innocently expected the same friendly attitude on the part of the population." (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece") the reader, at least, ought to consider the possibility that he is right in this instance. Is it not plausible that the Germans have the same flaw as the narrator himself - they are so blinded by their ideology that they cannot see their enemies as anything other than fantasy-constructs? They tried to create an identity for those they conquered, and when that identity failed to match the reality of the situation, "they were forced to imprison [them]" (Nabokov, "Conversation Piece," emphasis added) So imposing one's fantasies on others may have costs as mild as inconveniencing them or making communication impossible - but it can also be as horrendous as to promote the destruction of an entire race of people in that vain attempt to preserve the illusion. The destruction that appears in "That in Aleppo Once..." is somewhere inbetween these extremes. In it, the narrator's inability to recognize his wife's true needs and nature creates a fantasy around her that destroys her and, in the process, their marriage. There is, in fact, a strong implication that one or both of the partners are killed. Through-out the story, there are slight references to the story of Othello, such as when the narrator refers to his wife's lover as a Cassio. Indeed, the title is itself a reference to Othello, one that the narrator begs his author not to use because it has such "unbearable" implications. The implications, of course, is that as the Othello in this drama, the narrator has not only plotted the death of his wife's imagined lover, but also that he has murdered her as she lay innocent, and that he will take his own life as well. Is that implication possibly so unbearable because it is true? "Since the story does have part of the famous quotation as its title, the implication is that V is publishing the letter and that therefore the narrator has…[continue]
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