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Let's just get this out of the way. Olga is pretty. Really, really, really pretty. She's so pretty that it would be easy to read "A Russian Beauty" as a story about how pretty she is, and how unfortunate it was that she never got married in the prime of her beauty. But Nabokov didn't get to be famous by writing simple stories about pretty girls. Sure, it'll take some historical dirt digging, but there are a few more layers to this five-page tale.
Olga's story doesn't pan out the way that we expect it to. Normally there are two versions of her kind of story, right? Number one has the pretty girl that gets the prince, the hero, or just all the hot guys. Number two has the pretty girl with the lame personality who grows old, loses her beauty, doesn't get married, and becomes a crazy cat lady. But neither of these stories is Olga.
Where her story diverges is that she never loses her beauty. Even after her father dies, Nabokov still describes her as a pretty lady:
She was still the same beauty, with that enchanting slant of the widely spaced eyes and with that rarest line of lips into which the geometry of the smile seems to be already inscribed. But her hair lost its shine and was poorly cut. [...] And we'd best pass over in silence the state of her stockings… (10)
See what we mean? She's still pretty; it's just that now she's too poor to fuss over her appearance. But then why isn't she married yet?
Just to be clear, we know that people have a lot more going on than just their looks. Olga's living in the early 1900s, though, a time when so long as a girl was pretty, she could be set for life if she played her cards right and married rich. Of course, that was basically the only way for a lady to get rich back then. We guess they had no Oprahs. So, like we said before, why isn't this super pretty lady married?
That's the big question. Normally the pretty lady wouldn't get married because she had a bad personality or because her looks faded, but neither of these is the case. The narrator says: "But as for herself, no one fell in love with her" (8). But we're suspicious. Things aren't quite adding up. Just a few paragraphs earlier we're told:
But somehow, nothing came of it. Things failed to develop, or else happened to no purpose. 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)
That doesn't sound like no one fell in love with her, does it? It sounds like she doesn't want to fall in love with anyone.
If that's the case, we have an explanation for Olga's weird behavior when she meets Forstmann. You would have expected her to be on her best behavior, since a husband would save her from poverty. But instead she acts like this:
With his arrival Olga became difficult. Listless and irritable, she did all the wrong things and she knew that they were wrong. When the conversation turned to old Russia (Vera tried to make her show off her past), it seemed to her that everything she said was a lie and that everyone understood that it was a lie, and therefore she stubbornly refused to say the things that Vera was trying to extract from her and in general would not cooperate in any way. (14)
That sounds like someone who doesn't want to get married, doesn't it? We know that's not how we'd act if we wanted our date to like us.
This is just the first layer in the different levels of meaning that Nabokov manages to get into Olga's character in only five pages. It's the most basic reading that you could get of her story, but it still more complicated than it first appears. Why doesn't Olga want to get married? Why does she agree to marry Forstmann in the end? We don't know the answer to these questions, and things only get more complicated from here on out.
Before moving ahead we suggest that you check out the "Setting" section, but if you're already well versed in the Russian Revolution go right on ahead!
So here's where a good background in Russian history could come in handy. You see, Olga's birthday and the events of her life would have been a sort of inside joke for Nabokov's readers. The story was originally published on August 18, 1934 in Poslednie Novosti (Breaking News). It was one of the most popular newspapers for Russian émigrés living in Paris, so these people would have known exactly what he was talking about.
Olga is a symbol of tsarist Russia. She is born into a noble family, right in the middle of St. Petersburg (where the extra fancy nobles lived), at a time many émigrés might remember as a golden age for Russian culture. Even the time that she flees from the country coincides with the Russian Revolution. If that wasn't enough to convince you that Olga is tied to tsarist Russia, look at how she decorates: "Over the dresser in her Berlin room a postcard of Serov's portrait of the Tsar was fastened with a pin with a fake turquoise head" (5). In case you didn't get it by now, she clearly has the Tsar's image in her room. There's no way this girl has anything to do with the Bolsheviks.
So remember when Olga was dreaming about being rich again, and all the cool things that she would do? Well, many émigrés thought that maybe the Russian Revolution was just temporary, and that the tsars would return to rule. That would mean that they could go home and be rich again, just like Olga dreams about. But notice when she dies. It just happens to be one year before Trotsky is kicked out and Stalin begins to dominate Russian politics.
That was the point of no return. Once Stalin became head honcho, the émigrés knew that all hope for a return to tsarist Russia was lost. So of course, if Olga is supposed represent that side of Russia, it makes sense that she dies when all hope is lost.
You'd think that was a lot of information to pack into such a quick character sketch, but just like Inception we have to go even deeper.
It's not just old Russia that the émigrés see in Olga. They see themselves. Olga's story paralleled the lives of many of Nabokov's readers.
Olga was born into a French-speaking noble family. Much of Russia's nobility at the time (including the émigrés) spoke French because it was fancy. Actually, many spoke French better than they spoke Russian. Unfortunately, Olga is not one of those people. Her French is so bad that Nabokov makes fun of her: "She naively translated the Russian grabezhi (robberies) as les grabuges (quarrels) and used some archaic French locutions that had somehow survived in old Russian families, but she rolled her r's most convincingly even though she had never been to France" (5). But even with her failed French skills, Russians abroad would have still recognized her as one of their own.
These next two things are easy to miss. They could just slip under the radar, but many members of the Russian diaspora would have spotted them in a second.
For example, the narrator casually mentions that Olga's brother is killed by "the firing squad" (2). Not a firing squad, but the firing squad. Now what firing squad would he be referring to? Hmm? Russian émigrés would have known that this was the Bolshevik firing squad. You know, the one that ran them out of the country. Not only that, but they might even have family members who were killed the same way.
The narrator also says that Olga dances the foxtrot in Berlin with her new friends. That makes sense. She's a young girl having fun and the foxtrot was popular at the time. So of course she gets her groove on.
But it's a bit more complicated than that. In 1924 dozens of Russians were arrested, killed, or tortured because of their alleged anti-Communist leanings. It just so happens that many of these Russians regularly danced the foxtrot together at a popular mansion/dance hall. So guess what they called the event? That's right, the "Foxtrot Affair." Just by mentioning a dance Nabokov reminds his readers of violent oppression against people just like them. But anyone who wasn't in the know may have never noticed it. Clever, right?
But there's one more hidden layer to Olga, and it's very close to our author's heart.
That's right: Olga is Nabokov! Sure, he's a guy and he fled to Paris instead of Berlin, but it all matches up. Nabokov was born in 1899. Olga was born in 1900. Just one year's difference, and 1900 is a much nicer number than 1899, don't you think? They were both born to noble families, and Nabokov even has a sister named Olga. Coincidence? We think not.
So why do that? Why write a short story with a pretty girl who represents yourself, others like you, and the Old Russian regime? Maybe Nabokov was resentful of how starkly his situation changed from being über wealthy to fleeing his homeland. Maybe he was sad that he might never see Russia again and was mourning the death of his childhood home. Maybe he just likes writing about pretty ladies. What do you guys think?