“To Da-duh, in Memoriam” is an autobiographical story told from the point of view of an adult looking back on a childhood memory. The story opens as the nine-year-old narrator, along with her mother and sister, disembarks from a boat that has brought them to Bridgetown, Barbados. It is 1937, and the family has come to visit from their home in Brooklyn, leaving behind the father, who believed it was a waste of money to take the trip. The narrator’s mother first left Barbados fifteen years ago, and the narrator has never met her grandmother, Da-duh.
Although an old woman, the narrator’s grandmother is lively and sharp. When she meets her grandchildren, Da-duh examines them. She calls the narrator’s older sister “lucky,” but she silently looks at the narrator, calling the child “fierce.” She takes the narrator by the hand and leads the family outside where the rest of the relatives are waiting. The family gets in the truck that . . . Read More
In his opening paragraph to V., the narrator of “That in Aleppo Once…” explains that he learned V.’s address from a mutual acquaintance who “seemed to think somehow or other” that V.”was betraying our national literature.” While the opinions of “good old Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko” matter little to V. or the narrator (who even slightly mocks him), this easily forgotten character raises the issue of betrayal in the story’s first paragraph. The different types of betrayal dramatized in the story are dizzying: the narrator may have been betrayed by his wife; the narrator may have betrayed his wife by leaving her to the Nazis in France; the Germans betray humanity; and V. betrays the narrator by giving his letter the title he does. In light of this title, the narrator is linked to his Shakespearian counterpart, who betrays his wife and is betrayed by “honest” lago. Betrayal is certainly one of . . . Read More
World War II and Occupied France
On May 10, 1940, German forces attacked the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. By June 9, the Germans had crossed the Somme River and effectively destroyed any hopes of French retaliation. In an attempt to appease the Germans and end the destruction they caused, Henri Philippe Petain (an eighty-four-year-old Marshal who had become the French premiere on June 16) asked the Germans for an armistice, which they formally granted on June 22. Petain offered the Germans the control of northern France (at France’s expense) and asked if the French could establish a government in the southern city of Vichy. The Germans agreed and on July 2 the Vichy government was established. At this time the Nazis held approximately two-thirds of France.
Petain was named chief of state of the Vichy government on July 10, 1940. As many suspected during its formation, the Vichy government proved to be a puppet regime for . . . Read More
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