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 Shakespeare’s predominant themes: works such as Hamlet, King Lear, Henry IV Part I, Richard III, Coriolanus, and, of course, Othello all explore the ways in which a character betrays his or her love, family, or country—and is sometimes betrayed by them as well. However, in Nabokov’s story, the distinctions between betrayer and betrayed are blurred and confused, perplexing the first-time reader who searches for clues concerning the “truth” of the events described by the narrator. Did his wife cuckold him? Was she really “testing” him with her story of the salesman? Does she really believe that she lives “several lives at once?” Or is the narrator the guilty party, who, like a character from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, tells his story with the most honest of intentions while simultaneously revealing his own perceptual limitations? These questions are deliberately left unanswered by Nabokov, who invites the reader to assume the role of judge yet never allows him or her the relief of hearing the gavel sound its note of finality. The issue facing a re-reader, therefore, becomes one not of facts (what really happened) but feelings (how it feels to betray or be betrayed). Despite his foolishness, King Lear can justly state,”I am a man / More sinned against than sinning,” but Nabokov’s narrator can never stand on such terra firma, nor can the reader, for whom all the story’s evidence remains inconclusive. Only V. passes judgment and whether he does so after a careful weighing of the evidence or simply as an act of cruelty to his desperate friend is never explained, although an understanding of Othello suggests the latter possibility as more probable.
The incident involving the uncle of the narrator’s wife can be read as a representative example of the kind of ambiguity that haunts the narrator and perplexes the first-time reader. His wife tells the narrator that she has an uncle living in New York. After she and the narrator compose a “dramatic letter” to him, however, they receive no reply. At this point, the reader assumes that the uncle is, like the narrator’s wife’s imaginary dog, “whining behind a locked door.” After his arrival in the United States, the narrator investigates the address his wife had given for her uncle and finds it to be “an anonymous gap between two office buildings.” The uncle’s name does not appear in the directory, which adds to the narrator’s (and the reader’s) suspicion of his wife and makes her adultery much more likely—she seems a very untrustworthy figure. However, immediately after these conclusions are drawn, Gekko (who significantly “knows everything”) tells the narrator that “the man and his horsey wife existed all right, but had moved to San Francisco after their little deaf girl died.” Now the reader is back where he or she started; nothing concerning the uncle can be said with any definitiveness other than that he existed. The narrator’s wife may have been lying about the address or she may have simply made a mistake. This ambiguity unsettles the reader but traumatizes the narrator, who can think of nothing concerning his wife to have any definitiveness. “Viewing the past graphically,” he explains, “I see our mangled romance engulfed in a deep valley of mist between the crags of two matter-of-fact mountains.” Mountains are likened here to immovable and unalterable truth, which is what the narrator seeks from V.: a “mountainous” explanation of what happened with his “misty” wife.
The narrator, like many people when faced with painful doubts, hopes to turn his mists into mountains and writes to V. for assistance in this endeavor. Early in his letter, the narrator fondly recalls his days as a poet composing his first “udder-warm bubbling verse.” Although he states “just now I am not a poet,” his artistic vocation deserves to be examined against V.’s vocation. The reader learns that V. has become a writer of fiction; he has moved from an art form often concerned with the impressions of things to one that (in its traditional sense) offers its readers a series of events possessing clarity and definitiveness. This clarity is missing from the story of the narrator’s wife, which is why she seems so unreal to him and why he asks V. to transform his miserable set of impressions into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. While the narrator knows that V. “can hardly be expected to puzzle out” his “misfortune in terms of human communion,” he does ask V. to “clarify things for me through the prism of your art.” In effect, he is asking V. to impose the order of fiction on the chaos of experience.
But what does V. do? He does not write a story about the narrator. He reprints the narrator’s letter, with all its pathetic pleas and confusion. No one who wrote such a letter would want anyone other than its recipient to read it, but this obviously does not affect V. Rather than offering his friend an artistic version of his suffering at the hands of a deceptive wife (which would vindicate him and excuse his jealousy) or one in which his friend is portrayed as a horrible man who abandoned his wife (which would be devastating but would at least ease his doubts), V. changes nothing in the letter. Since the narrator advises V. that he should not make the doctor he met on the ship a doctor in the story, “as that kind of thing has been overdone,” and the doctor remains, the reader can assume that V. has changed nothing else in the letter itself. V. also titles the story with the very phrase the narrator begs him to forsake:”Spare me, V.: you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title.” But V. does not spare the narrator and tacks the phrase from Othello before the text of the letter.
Why V. employs the accursed title can be understood by comparing the characters of the story to those of Othello. The narrator is obviously the Othello-figure, who moves from obsessive jealousy (“I must find out every detail, reconstruct every minute”) to remorse at destroying the woman he loved by leaving her in occupied France (“Somewhere, somehow, I have made some fatal mistake”). His wife is the Desdemona-figure, who uses a smile to “wriggle into the semi-security of irrelevant commentaries” when interrogated. While the audience never questions Desdemona’s innocence, it is questioned by Othello, just as the narrator’s wife falls under suspicion here. The hair-lotion salesman with whom the narrator’s wife may or may not have slept is like Cassio, the dashing and, as Bianca’s presence in the play suggests, licentious young soldier. The remaining major character in Othello is lago, the villain whose enthusiasm for cruelty and skill with language convinces Othello that Desdemona is false—and in Nabokov’s story, the lago-figure is V., who takes a collection of events and deliberately (and coldly) gives them a meaning he knows will drive his “friend” to suicide.
To understand how V. betrays the narrator in his own lago-like way, consider the manner in which lago works on Othello. In the middle of the play, after Cassio has disgraced himself with public drunkenness, lago and Othello approach Emilia (lago’s wife), Desdemona, and Cassio, who have been discussing the way in which Desdemona will beg her husband to reinstate the dismissed Cassio. Upon seeing his superior, Cassio leaves in shame and lago makes a seemingly nonchalant observation to Othello:
lago: Ha! I like not that.
Othello: What dost thou say?
lago: Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what.
Othello: Was that not Cassio parted from my wife?
lago: Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it, That he would steal away so guilty-like, Seeing you coming.
Othello: I do believe ’twas he.
Everything lago says here is designed to take a neutral, matter-of-fact event (Cassio’s exit) and fill it with significance. If lago had said nothing, Cassio’s exit would have appeared to Othello as simply a man hurriedly leaving a room. lago, however, transforms the exit into something suspicious (“I like not that”), unpleasant to discuss (“Nothing my lord; or if—I know not what”), and bordering on criminal behavior (“steal away so guilty-like”). This ability to turn, in the narrator’s terms, mists into mountains in so short a time is what makes lago so dangerous. Later in the play, he performs the same trick with Desdemona’s handkerchief (given to her by Othello while they were courting): after planting it on Cassio and then telling Othello he saw Cassio wipe his beard with it, Othello’s suspicions are aroused. He asks his wife, who has already expressed to Emilia her pain at having lost it, for the handkerchief. Desdemona tries to stall her husband’s relentless questions, for fear of hurting his feelings, but Othello is too far away from her by then:
Desdemona: Why do you speak so startlingly and rash?
Othello: Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is it out o’ th’ way?
Desdemona: Heaven bless us! Othello. Say you?
Desdemona: It is not lost. But what an if it were?
Desdemona: I say it is not lost.
Othello: Fetch’t, let me see it!
Desdemona: Why, so I can, sir; but I will not now. This is a trick to put me from my suit. Pray you let Cassio be received again.
Othello: Fetch me the handkerchief! My mind misgives.
By this point, lago has shown Othello his wife through the prism of his art and by the time Othello sees her without the artistic embellishments offered by lago, she will be dead.
V. and lago are both artists who offer their readers (the narrator and Othello) logical and definitive explanations for events. The falsity of lago’s explanations and the potential falsity of V.’s explanations are irrelevant; what is important is that these explanations are taken as truth by Othello and the narrator. As the narrator asks V. to “clarify things” through the “prism” of his art, lago pretends to clarify such things as Cassio’s exit and the missing handkerchief for Othello. Had V. titled the story “A Deranged Wife” or “Pity the Poor Cuckold,” he would have communicated to the narrator his opinion that he did the right thing by abandoning her in Marseilles, but like lago, he frames the data before him in such a way that the confused narrator must assume that V. finds him guilty of having made “some fatal mistake.”
When he learns of lago’s villainy at the end of the play, Othello asks him why he “hath thus ensnared” his “soul and body.” lago’s short reply (“Demand me nothing”) and refusal to speak confound the other characters. Similarly, V. offers the narrator an “unbearable implication” by titling the story as he does without offering any rationale or afterward explaining why he did so. However, while the motives of these artist-villains may seem inscrutable, there is one possibility for why each man acts as he does: each man enjoys, and employs, his creative powers as a means by which he asserts his superiority over weaker men. As artists can, in their work, create life, they can also destroy it. In Othello, a man kills himself because of the convincing lies (i.e., fictions) offered to him by his “friend,” as in Nabokov’s story a man will kill himself because of his “friend’s” artistic use of an allusion.
In his Lectures 1808-1819 on Literature, the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes lago as “A being next to Devil—only not quite Devil.” Coleridge’s reason for this assessment of”not quite” has to do with the fact that, at times, lago himself searches for his own motives, such as when he speaks of Othello’s rumored liaisons with Emilia or when he remarks of Roderigo, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse,” as if money is the reason why lago does the terrible things he does (Coleridge’s often-misunderstood phrase “motiveless malignity” applies in this context). In other words, lago is evil yet still retains, to a small degree, the human desire to find motives for his own inexplicable cruelty. Nabokov, however, offers no such motive-hunting in V., who offers no apologies or motives for his betrayal other than the betrayal itself which, with Shakespeare’s assistance, raises betrayal to an art form: specifically, a story entitled, “That in Aleppo Once …”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Vladimir Nabokov, Published by Gale, 2002.
Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on “That in Aleppo Once . ..,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.