Nabokov presents the narrator’s struggles with his wife against the background of the German occupation of France during World War II. Thus, domestic horror is likened to national horror; the bureaucratic problems the narrator has with the “consuls and commissaires” in obtaining the necessary papers to leave France are likened to the marital problems he faces upon learning of his wife’s possible infidelity. The narrator is married in 1940, the same year when the “gentle Germans roared into Paris.” As the Nazis bring suffering to everyone in their path, the narrator’s wife inflicts tremendous emotional and mental pain upon her husband.
While describing their flight from France, the narrator explains, ‘the farther we fled, the clearer it became that what was driving us on was something more than a booted and buckled fool with his assortment of variously propelled junk—something of . . . Read More
Communication and Miscommunication
Nabokov’s France is a place where attempts at communication routinely break down. For example, when the narrator and his wife write to her uncle in New York, they receive no reply. After finding his wife (and the train) gone at Faugeres, the narrator engages in a “nightmare struggle with the telephone” trying to find her, and sends “two or three telegrams which are probably on their way only now.” These examples of bureaucratic miscommunication serve to underscore the more subtle examples of miscommunication that occur throughout the story. For example, the narrator’s wife is initially attracted to his “obscure” verse, only to eventually find behind it “a stranger’s unlovable face.” She had thought the man would be as mysterious as his poetry, but was mistaken. Similarly, before his wife tells him that she has been unfaithful, her body language . . . Read More
Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko
An acquaintance of both the narrator and V. who has also emigrated to the United States, Gekko supplies the narrator with V.’s address.
Holmes Holmes is the “plain-clothes man” from the Nice police who assists the narrator in the search for his wife. Unlike his namesake, the infallible detective Sherlock Holmes, he fails in his attempt to solve the mystery at hand and leads the narrator to a seedy hotel, where he insists that a stranger he produces is the narrator’s wife.
“That in Aleppo Once…” takes the form of a letter written by an unnamed narrator to V., a fellow Russian expatriate living in New York City. A harmless, earnest, and innocent man, the narrator is reduced to despair over his wife’s probable infidelity. Her seeming naivete is what first attracted him to her. He met her several times “without . . . Read More
Nabokov’s story is written in the form of a letter from an unnamed narrator to V., his Russian expatriate friend living as a novelist in the United States. The narrator begins by telling V. that he has arrived in America. While in New York City, he fortuitously met a mutual friend of theirs (Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko), who provided V.’s address.
After fondly recalling their days as young, eager poets, the narrator begins telling the story of his doomed marriage—the real subject of his letter. He was married “a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris,” which occurred in 1940. However, the narrator claims that he is “positive” that his wife “never existed.” Her name is “the name of an illusion” and he is therefore able to speak of her with “as much detachment” as he would a character in a story. When he first met her, he felt no great emotions, but one night she said something . . . Read More
Prior to the twentieth century, writers structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, novels and stories ended with a clear sense of closure as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. Many writers during the twentieth century challenged these assumptions as they expanded the genre’s traditional form to accommodate their characters’ questions about the indeterminate nature of knowing in the modern age, a major thematic concern for these writers. Through their works they raised the epistemological question, “how do we know we really know what we think we know?”
Alain Robbe-Grillet continues this inquiry in “The Replacement” as he explores different methods of gaining understanding of an experience or an object. Through his meticulous shaping of the story, he presents an intriguing metaphor for the act of . . . Read More
The New Novel
The term New Novel (nouveau romari) became associated with a group of French writers in the 1950s, most notably Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, and Robbe-Grillet, who rejected literary traditions of plot, action, narrative, and characterization, and created a new novelistic form that presented an objective record of events. Robbe-Grillet coined the term New Novel in his published essays on the nature and future of the novel, later collected in his Pour un nouveau roman in 1963.
Originally this group of writers was referred to as romanciers du regard, “novelists of the glance.” Jeanine Plottel, in her article on Robbe-Grillet for European Writers, explains, “When the accuracy of this term came to be questioned and the diversity of these writers became more and more obvious, their novels more and more puzzling,” the term nouveau was . . . Read More
Robbe-Grillet constructs a nontraditional plot in “The Replacement.” He interweaves three fragments: the interaction between the teacher and the pupils in the classroom, the schoolboy peering intently at the tree, and the story that is being read aloud in the classroom. Robbe-Grillet continually moves among the three, which disrupts chronology and subverts readers’ understanding of the elements in the story.
The narrator does not make clear the relationship between the schoolboy looking at the tree and what is happening in the classroom. Readers are not sure whether the teacher periodically looks out the window to observe the boy or something else. Thus the schoolboy could be a figment of the teacher’s imagination, or the students’ imagination, as the students cannot see out of the frosted windows.
Robbe-Grillet again confounds readers’ expectations for an understandable plot . . . Read More
The main theme in “The Replacement” focuses on the attainment of knowledge. The story is about how people perceive the world and how they often become confused when they try to interpret it. Robbe-Grillet reveals this theme through the interweaving of three plot lines. The central story, that of the interaction between the teacher and his pupils, centers on communication problems. The teacher apparently has instructed the students on how to read a text by pausing for the punctuation. Yet when the students do this, the teacher is not satisfied, due to their monotone readings. The teacher has not been able to communicate his idea of how one should read a story.
The students’ lack of understanding could be due to their apparent boredom in the classroom. Every chance they get, they whisper among themselves and glance around the room, especially at the paper puppet that hangs in the front, instead of actively . . . Read More
The Children in the Classroom
The children in the classroom all exhibit similar behavior. Most of the time they reveal their inattentiveness. While the first boy is reading, they whisper among themselves instead of following along in the text. They also spend a lot of time staring at a paper puppet hanging at the front of the class. They apparently fear the teacher, as noted when they look toward the teacher and reveal “a vaguely questioning, or fearful, expression.” As soon as the first boy stops reading, their attention immediately returns to the book.
The first boy is one of three boys in the classroom to whom readers are introduced. At the beginning of the sketch, he reads aloud. As he is reading, he suggests that he is obedient as he has been following the teacher’s rigid directions about pauses for punctuation. When the boy suddenly pauses, the narrator . . . Read More
The narrative weaves together three separate scenes. The first involves a schoolboy who is standing by a tree, peering intently at something in the branches. He repeatedly tries to reach a branch that seems within his grasp. After failing to grasp it, he lowers his arm, appears to give up, and continues to stare at something in the leaves. He then returns to the foot of the tree and resumes the same position he took at the beginning of the story. The narrator describes the position of the boy’s body as he peers up at the branches. He holds a book satchel in one hand while the other hand is obscured, probably because he is using it to balance himself against the tree. His face is pressed to the tree and turned in such a way that it would not be visible to an observer. The boy scrutinizes something unidentifiable about a yard and a half above the ground.
The narrative then shifts to the second scene, which is inside a classroom. There a boy who has been reading . . . Read More