A Russian Beauty
"A Russian Beauty" is one of Vladimir Nabokov's literary red-headed stepchildren. His later English works like Lolita and Pale Fire get all the glory, while his earlier Russian works, including this piece, are left to hang out in their shadows. Poor earlier Russian works. The only people that know the virtues of Nabokov's Russian short stories are academics, diehard Nabokov fans, and now you. Congratulations! You are officially in the company of a bunch of smarty pants.
Do you ever wish you could go back in time and meet your parents when they were younger? Unless you've figured out time travel (and if you have, pretty please let us know...there are a lot of dead writers we'd like to have lunch with), this probably isn't in the cards. We're here to talk Nabokov, though, not parents (sorry, Mom), so we're actually in luck.
"A Russian Beauty" works as a bit of a time machine in its own right, giving us a sneak peek at Nabokov's literary adolescence, long before he'd turned into a giant and created a big stir. When "A Russian Beauty" came out, Nabokov was just a struggling writer in a foreign country with a famous dad. Though much of his trademark literary style appears (poetic word choice, unconventional plots), Nabokov just wasn't Nabokov yet when "A Russian Beauty" was published. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
"A Russian Beauty" does more than give us a glimpse of Nabokov before he was a household name, though. It also takes us back to the Russian Revolution, to a time when the nobility were being abolished, the Tsar was being killed, and the Bolsheviks were coming to power as the leaders of the new Socialist government. Instead of slamming us with historical facts, though, Nabokov does us a solid and invites us into the experience through a tale about a very pretty girl named Olga who flees Russia and struggles in a new country.
Despite being a thinly veiled critique of the experience Nabokov shared with thousands of émigrés who fled Russia due to the Russian Revolution (Russia wasn't exactly the best place to be if you supported the Tsar or were a member of the nobility), when "A Russian Beauty" appeared in the Parisian newspaper Polsednie Novesti on August 18, 1934, there was no controversy. No brouhaha. Nabokov dressed his political criticism up as a pretty girl and nobody gave him any trouble. Pretty clever, right?
Why Should I Care?
In her high school yearbook, Olga probably would have been voted "Most Likely to Marry Young and Rich." Or maybe even "Most Likely to have a Perfect Life." She had it all—money, looks, and a great family. Things should have ended great for her, right?
"A Russian Beauty" has a lot going on within its few pages, but a fairy tale ending definitely isn't included.
Sometimes it's easy to look at other people in middle school, high school, or even college and think that they are going to have perfect lives and perfect futures. But even the kids voted "Most Likely to Succeed" can end up unemployed and living with their moms. "A Russian Beauty" is here to remind us that our lives can change at the drop of a hat.
So, you know, don't get too comfortable. A revolution just might come along and change everything.