Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Writing Style

By Vladimir Nabokov

Writing Style

Artistic, Poetic, And Appropriately Lengthy

Has Nabokov ever published something that isn't artistic and poetically written? It's kind of his thing. Just like Paula Deen's thing is an excessive amount of butter, or Nicki Minaj's thing is wigs and strange accents.

Honestly, Nabokov plays it cool for most of "A Russian Beauty." We get simple, easy-to-understand sentences that are fairly no-nonsense even though they are well written. Then we get sentences like this: "There, the crickets stridulated, the branches swayed, an occasional apple fell with a taut thud, and the moon performed calisthenics on the whitewashed wall of the chicken coop. "(15) It's almost like Nabokov's been holding back his writerly skills and decided to get us over the head with them. "The moon performed calisthenics." Seriously? Calisthenics?

And then there are the lines that are not just artistic, but poetic. We know, that's not really a clear distinction. Think about it this way: these lines are artistically written but also leave a deep emotional impression when you read them. This is an earlier example: "There were flowers that she was too lazy to put in a vase, there were strolls in the twilight now with this one, now with another, followed by the blind alley of a kiss" (4). We don't really know what's going on with Olga in this sentence, but Nabokov manages to evoke some kind of dark, sad, and mysterious feeling with his word choice and structuring.

This isn't the only way that Nabokov seems to remind us how he can play with language. As we said before, the short story is mostly straightforward, but then the style changes a bit to become more than your average story. This also happens at the structural level. Most of the sentences are fairly short, but sometimes they will change into gargantuan monsters full of commas and semicolons. That's normally the sign of a bad or convoluted writer, but Nabokov's so skilled that the sentences are still really easy to understand. Check this out:

Now, when the silken insides of her handbag were in tatters (at least there was always the hope of finding a stray coin); now, when she was so tired; now, when putting on her only pair of shoes she had to force herself not to think of their soles, just as when, swallowing her pride, she entered the tobacconist's, she forbade herself to think of how much she already owed there; now that there was no longer the least hope of returning to Russia, and hatred had become so habitual that it almost ceased to be a sin; now that the sun was getting behind the chimney, Olga would occasionally be tormented by the luxury of certain advertisements, written in the saliva of Tantalus, imagining herself wealthy, wearing that dress, sketched with the aid of three or four insolent lines, on that ship-deck, under that palm tree, at the balustrade of that white terrace. (12)

Yes, that is a whole paragraph that is one sentence. But it was easy to understand wasn't it? By repeating "now" at the beginning of each phrase, Nabokov creates a sort of rhythm that gets us to feel the kind of obsessive run-on thoughts that Olga must be having about how horrible her life is now that she is poor.

Nabokov's writing style is so strong that it almost becomes an extra character, but since it only happens in flashes like this it doesn't overwhelm the story with its artistry. The poetry of the writing style combined with the narrator's humorous tone helps to lighten the mood of the story. Remember, it is a story about a girl who loses her mother at a young age, is forced to leave her homeland, becomes a spinster, and dies in childbirth. That's not exactly a happy tale. But how we feel about Olga's story is highly influenced by Nabokov's choice of tone and writing style.