Study Guide

A Russian Beauty Suffering

By Vladimir Nabokov

Suffering

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. All these are ready-made formulae, of course, the usual dreary small talk, but it all did happen, there is no other way of saying it, and it's no use turning up your nose. (2)

Suffering sure seems to be a given to the narrator here.

But presently her life darkened. Something was finished, people were already getting up to leave. How quickly! Her father died, she moved to another street. She stopped seeing her friends, knitted the little bonnets in fashion, and gave cheap French lessons at some ladies' club or other. In this way her life dragged on to the age of thirty. (9)

Somehow Nabokov manages to make Olga's descent into poverty seem positively elegant. Did you notice how he compares it to the end of a ball? "Something was finished, people were already getting up to leave," sounds like a dance or a ball has finished and now people are going home. How glamorous for something so sad.

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. Her black tailored suit was in its fourth year. Her hands, with their glistening but untidy fingernails, were roped with veins and were shaking from nervousness and from her wretched continuous smoking. And we'd best pass over in silence the state of her stockings.… (10)

We almost feel bad because the last line of this quote makes us laugh! Why do you think the narrator uses humor in a moment like this?

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 [...](11)

This is a rare moment where the narrator doesn't make us laugh and we are just immersed in the sadness of Olga's situation. We kind of want to give her a hug.

[...] 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. And then there was also another thing or two that she missed. (11)

Here Nabokov is referencing the Greek myth of Tantalus. He was a guy who was punished by forcing him to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree. Even though he was hungry and thirsty, he could never reach the fruit tree and the water always receded when he tried to drink. So they're saying that no matter how hard Olga tries, she can never reach her dream of going back to Russia.

"No, my dear, I'm no longer that age," answered Olga, "and besides.…" She added a little detail and Vera burst out laughing, letting her parcels sink almost to the ground. "No, seriously," said Olga, with a smile. (12)

Vera's response to Olga's problems seems just like the narrator's, doesn't it? She laughs in her face, just like the narrator seems to want us to laugh.

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