Historical Fiction, Modernism, And Literary Fiction
Want to know "A Russian Beauty's" genre? Then look at the second paragraph. It's all there. The narrator says:
Her childhood passed festively, securely, and gaily, as was the custom in our country since the days of old. A sunbeam falling on the cover of a Bibliothèque Rose volume at the family estate, the classical hoarfrost of the Saint Petersburg public gardens… A supply of memories, such as these, comprised her sole dowry when she left Russia in the spring of 1919. Everything happened in full accord with the style of the period. Her mother died of typhus, her brother was executed by the firing squad. (2)
Believe it or not, this one paragraph shows that "A Russian Beauty" is a historical, modernist, literary piece of short fiction.
The historical part is easiest. Olga's mom comes down with typhus, her brother is killed by a firing squad, and she flees Russia. All of those events are references to the Russian Revolution, the focus of the whole plot. See? Easy.
Next is modernism, and that's a little trickier. Modernism is a literary movement that occurred after World War I. Writers were pretty freaked out by the terrible things they saw during the war, and so they tried to make a new fragmented type of storytelling to deal with how they felt.
You could definitely say that Olga's story is fragmented. The narrator skips straight from her birth to 19 years later when she has to escape the country. What happened to all the stuff in between? This time jump happens over and over again. Nabokov obviously manipulates our expectations of a traditional plot by playing with the story's timeline. If it were told in the traditional way, it would just be another sob story. We'd see Olga mourning her family and growing up without a mom. Nabokov turns it into something different, though, by leaving those parts out entirely.
Last on our list, literary fiction. Here's a hint: if Nabokov writes it, it's probably literary fiction. Literary fiction focuses on style, character development, and psychological issues. It's kind of the counterpart to genre fiction, like sci-fi and romance, which tends to focus on plot.
We'll admit that there is little character development happening in "A Russian Beauty," but no one could contest that Nabokov is a master of style. Just look at the transition between the second and third sentences of that paragraph:
A sunbeam falling on the cover of a Bibliothèque Rose volume at the family estate, the classical hoarfrost of the Saint Petersburg public gardens… A supply of memories, such as these, comprised her sole dowry when she left Russia in the spring of 1919. (2)
He lulls you into a comfortable place, thinking of home and your childhood. Then, BAM! No more happy memories for you. Because of the emphasis on style over almost everything else, it could be really easy to read this as Nabokov just showing off. There really is no plot or character development, so without his excellent style "A Russian Beauty" would barely be a story at all. But as it is, Nabokov's style elevates this short sketch to one of the greatest short stories he's ever written.