And we make it sound like so much fun. But no, really, the oh-so-good intensity of "Spring in Fialta" lies in the sad, somber attitude of its narrative. Because Victor is looking back on Nina’s death, his nostalgia is bittersweet, both melancholy and appreciative. We’ve got a whole Shmoop Theme to talk about fatalism, but suffice it to for now to say that, because we know right from the start that Nina is going to die, Fialta takes on an almost doomed tone.
"Spring in Fialta" is one of Nabokov’s greatest short works. It’s not about action or drama; rather, it’s intricate and carefully orchestrated, combining the most cunning of narrative techniques with a prose prowess that leaves us all drooling. In short, it’s literary fiction. Undeniably.
Our other genre, magical realism, is a bit more interesting to talk about. The world created in "Spring in Fialta" is one of memory. It’s unreliable, shifting, even dream-like. Just look at the first paragraph: "Far away, in a watery vista between the jagged edges of the pale bluish houses, which tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way)…" Victor even acts like he’s in a dream – unaware of what’s around him and sluggish in his response to the external. A man talks about the weather, and Victor doesn’t understand why. He sees a piece of tin-foil shining on the ground, and concludes hours later that the sun must be shining. This is very much something out of a dream – that’s what memory does to reality.
The magical realism really kicks in at the end of "Spring in Fialta," with lines like this one: "From somewhere a firm bouquet of small dark, unselfishly smelling violets appeared in her hands." Because "Spring in Fialta" is largely realistic in nature (a man meets a woman with whom he’s previously had a relationship; he recalls their past experiences; she dies) with only pieces of the mystical and the odd thrown in, the text belongs to magical realism and NOT surrealism. (For reference, compare "Spring in Fialta" to something like Waiting for Godot, the premise of which is not grounded in reality in any way.)
"Spring in Fialta" takes place on a day…in spring…in Fialta. Setting is enormously important to the text, as is the spring-like weather of the town in question, which explains why both were significant enough to make it into the title. We talk about these both in much more detail later on, but for now, you could probably go on and on about the fact that spring is a time of re-birth, yet "Spring in Fialta" ends with a death. (The narrator even mentions that it’s Lent during the second paragraph, which should get you thinking in this direction.) It’s also interesting that the story devotes more text to Victor’s memories than it does to actual scenes in Fialta. So this story may be about a spring day in Fialta, but that day itself is an accumulation of all that’s happened in the past.
There are so many pieces to talk about in the ending of "Spring in Fialta," it can seem a bit overwhelming. In fact, the first time we read this story, our reaction was something along the lines of… "Huh?" Fortunately for all, we read it about ten more times and things became a bit more clear. And don’t worry, we’ll try to avoid drooling all over this most beautiful of final paragraphs ever written. In fact, we won’t even mention its awe-inspiring language.
The weather is the first piece of the ending we’re going to tackle. As you might have noticed, the weather in Fialta is the discussion of the first sentence and last paragraph in the text. When we start the narrative, we hear that "Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp." Then, by the end, we see that "the white sky above Fialta had got saturated with sunshine." Now, we get a series of hints throughout the text, hints that the sky is getting brighter and brighter and that Victor isn’t noticing it. And you can read all about those hints in more detail in Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory, or even better, by reading your text.
But as far as the ending goes, we have to think about what’s up with the weather pulling a switcheroo. First, "Spring in Fialta" deals with transience. Everyone is coming and going, moments are fleeting, and train stations are the symbolic centers for action. By the end of the story, we realize that even Fialta itself (or "herself," as Victor would refer to the town) is in flux. Nothing is constant. Secondly, and more interestingly, is the idea of Victor suddenly realizing a truth that he’s missed all along – the sun has been bright for quite some time, but it’s not until this moment, at Nina’s departure, that he realizes. Of course, this Small Truth draws our attention to The Big Truth that Victor has been ignoring. And that is… open to interpretation. Maybe Victor "suddenly realizes" that his love for Nina is genuine. Maybe he concludes that he doesn’t love her after all. Or he has another premonition about her death, because the circus poster hints have correlated with the hints about the sunshine. Or the ending is about the reader suddenly realizing what all those circus posters were for.
The second thing we have to talk about with the ending is the circus. We’ve heard about this traveling circus at five distinct passages in the text, and now it finally arrives – to kill Nina. This is where the whole "fatalism" bit really kicks in. For all of "Spring in Fialta," the circus is coming. It’s coming. It’s coming. Reading "Spring in Fialta" with this ending in mind sheds an entirely new light on passages like Victor’s musings on "the variety of intricate routes one feverishly follows in order to keep that final appointment which the most confirmed dawdler knows to be unavoidable," or his vision of Nina pondering "over the plan of an eternal sleeping car." Final appointment? Eternal sleeping car? Like we said, the circus is coming.
Yes, of course, Nina dying is a HUGE part of the ending to "Spring in Fialta." But to grapple with that, you’re going to have to understand a bit more about her character. So read her character analysis and we’ll deal with it there.
That Narrative Time Disruption Thing
See? We TOLD you a lot went down in the ending of "Spring in Fialta." Did you notice that time gets a lot more screwy in this last passage? We suddenly and without any explanation jump from Victor waving good-bye to Nina to Victor standing on a train platform in Mlech. Either it’s poorly crafted and awkwardly executed, or Nabokov did this intentionally. (Hint: he did this intentionally.) We wanted to draw your attention to this narrative technique while we’ve got you thinking about the ending, but if funky time stuff interests you, check out Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory for a full discussion.
There’s More! Honestly!
Phew. We just threw a lot of stuff at you, but that’s certainly not all that’s to be said about this phenomenal last paragraph, or even about this last sentence. There are many more questions to attack: Why does Victor call Ferdinand and Segur "salamanders of fate, basilisks of good fortune"? What does it mean for them to live while Nina dies? In what way had she "imitated" them in real life? See – we left plenty on the plate for you.
The first question is, WHERE is Fialta? We’ll tell you right off the bat that it’s fictional; there is no "real" Fialta. In the text, we see that it is a fishing village-turned-tourist-destination (and we’ll get to that in a minute). We know that it has a "Riviera" side. And take a look at this line in the second paragraph: "I feel in the hollow of those violaceous syllables the sweet dark dampness of the most rumpled of small flowers, and because the alto-like name of a lovely Crimean town is echoed by its viola." There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. First of all, "violaceous" really just means "purple." Victor is saying that the name "Fialta" reminds him of purple. (In fact, Nabokov was a huge fan of synesthesia, or the mixing of senses. To say something sounds like a color is a great example.) The name "Fialta" also reminds him of violets, which sounds pretty reasonable phonetically. Violets are important to this story – just think about the bouquet that "appears" in Nina’s hands "from somewhere" at the end of the text.
Then you’ve got this idea of "the alto-like name of a lovely Crimean town [being] echoed by its viola." The "alto-like Crimean town" is Yalta, a real fishing village located in Crimea, in the Ukraine. (Here’s a map. Crimea is in dark green, and Yalta is on the Southern edge, on the coast of the Black Sea.) Again, Nabokov is playing with phonetics, this time using musical terms: "Yalta" is like an alto, and "Fialta" is the viola echoing it. Yalta is important for one big reason: Chekhov. You can read in Shout-Outs about Chekhov’s short story, "Lady with Lapdog," which many scholars think "Spring in Fialta" is alluding to. And "Lady with Lapdog" takes place in…Yalta.
Now that’s a LOT of information from one little sentence in "Spring in Fialta," so you can see what we mean about having to unpack a lot of Nabokov’s prose. Still, how do we know Fialta is on the Adriatic Coast? From Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada. Buried at the end of this massive work is a mention of "Fialta, on the Adriatic." Nabokov = a clever, tricky man. (Oh, the Adriatic is part of the Mediterranean. Here’s a map.)
Now that we’ve filled our detective quota for the year, let’s talk about the setting within the confines of "Spring in Fialta." It got its name into the title, after all – it must be important. And look at what Victor has to say: "This time we had met in warm and misty Fialta, and I could not have celebrated the occasion with greater art […], even if I had known that this was to be the last one." Fialta seems to him the perfect place for his last rendezvous with Nina – why?
We think there are three big reasons. 1) "Fialta consists of the old town and of the new one; here and there, past and present are interlaced, struggling either to disentangle themselves or to thrust each other out." Sounds like Victor’s narrative to us. (You should also check out the first paragraph, where Victor talks about how different Fialta is than its 1910 postcard likeness.) 2) Victor has a past in Fialta. He’s been there before. His relationship to Fialta is, like his relationship to Nina, a product of past experiences overlaid with the present. 3) Victor is on a business trip in Fialta. He’s somewhere else, remote from his family and children and away from his normal world. When he interacts with Nina, Victor explains, "the pace of life [alters] at once, all its atoms […] recombined." He and Nina encounter each other "in another, lighter time-medium." And Fialta, mystical, misty, surreal – almost a floating island in Victor’s mind – makes this possible.
"Spring in Fialta" is almost like a visual work of art. We use the words "mosaic" and "gouache" because, to be quite honest, we stole them from the text. You’ve probably heard the term "mosaic," a work that’s composed of many small fragments. In this case, the small fragments are Victor’s memories of Nina, mini-vignettes which together make up the short story. "Gouache" refers to a type of painting that’s a little but like watercolor, except the paint is heavier, reflective, and not as transparent. Victor uses this word to describe the sky above Fialta, but it’s an apt description of "Spring in Fialta" as well, a series of stories which reflects for Victor his own feelings for Nina.
This probably feels a little over the top. Do we REALLY need to use complicated art terms to describe the style of "Spring in Fialta?" Probably not, but it’s in the style of "Spring in Fialta" to do so. The narrative is artful, carefully crafted, and incredibly selective in its word choice. Just look at the first sentence of the story: "Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull." Read that out loud. Do you hear the meter? "SPRING in fiALta is CLOUdy and DULL." It’s not just sound and rhythm, but meaning that is stuffed into every sentence. You have to unpack the details, sometimes word by word, sometimes with a dictionary. Nabokov said that "art is difficult," but he also said that we all read for one thing: the "spine tingle" of figuring something out. When you realize that "Fialta" is an echo of "Yalta," that’s a spine tingle. When you recognize that the native with beads around her neck makes TWO appearances in the text, but the narrator doesn’t realize it’s the same girl, that’s a spine tingle. So… go tingle!
Over the course of the story, the weather in "Spring in Fialta," shifts from a "cloudy and dull" start to a "saturated with sunshine" finish. It’s also interesting to look at the hints we get; this sunshine doesn’t just come out of the clear blue sky (Ha!). It’s actually apparent from the get-go. To start, Victor notices a bunch of sponges "dying a thirsty death," a.k.a. drying up. Not so common in humid, rainy weather. Next he sees a man with dry, bloodshot eyes and dry lips – again, an indication of the weather shifting. Later, Segur starts complaining of the weather, but Victor "[does] not understand what he [is] talking about," and he mentions without comprehension that "a bit of tin-foil someone had dropped [is] shining in the […] street." We, if we’ve been paying attention, knew this was coming – much like the effect of the circus posters.
In many ways, the weather in "Spring in Fialta" has to do more with the way the story is being told and the nature of memory than it does with the actual content of the narrative (that is, the relationship between Victor and Nina). The idea of seeing everything, of having all the pieces, but of not realizing what they mean is a familiar one. Often, it’s not until after the fact that you can piece together the significance of a past series of events. (Think about Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense.) And that’s the whole nature of "Spring in Fialta" – a look back at past occurrences with the added benefit of retrospect. This functions doubly, since Victor-in-Fialta looks back at his past meetings with Nina, while Victor-the-narrator looks back at Victor-in-Fialta. Victor-the-narrator knows what Victor-in-Fialta did not – that Nina is going to die. The interesting question is, do WE, the reader, know anything that Victor-the-narrator hasn’t yet pieced together?
Much like the hints we get as to the shift in Fialta’s weather, we get a number of indications that the circus is a big deal in "Spring in Fialta." We counted five. But we probably missed one, so you should go through the text and find them yourself. ☺ In this way, the circus is another piece of the memory puzzle, another example of the way that, in retrospect, we can remember the details that turned out to be important, though at the time we had no way of recognizing their significance.
But the circus serves a second purpose in "Spring in Fialta": it combines the tragedy of Victor’s relationship Nina with the absurdity of his feelings for her. Look at it this way: Victor barely knows Nina. He didn’t know her name or anything about her when they first hooked up, and they seem to have had no meaningful conversations whatsoever. As he explains, they "never [think] of each other during the intervals," and each of their marriages continues "unimpaired" despite their various rendezvous. So what could possibly explain his "’What if I love you?" comment? Victor’s feelings are absurd. They’re absurd for existing at all, but they’re even more absurd for their intensity. When Nina casually greeted and then ignored him at a party, Victor says his "heart felt like breaking." But he sums it up best when he says that he learned "with a ridiculous pang" that Nina was going to marry Ferdinand. Ridiculous pang – the absurd, and the tragic, right there in one phrase.
So…what does this have to do with the circus? Easy. Circus = entertainment. Clowns, smiles, candy, laughter, elephants – everything Victor saw on those circus posters. The circus is about the comic. Then there’s the whole nature of Nina’s death; her car crashes into a circus truck. Come on, that’s a little nuts. That’s quite a way to die. "How did she die?" "Oh, you know, she crashed into the circus." It’s almost funny. Of course, it’s also unbelievably tragic. Victor reads about the death of the woman he loves shortly after he told her of his feelings. He has just celebrated their past, only to find that they have no future. And all because of a traveling circus that he never saw coming.
In a story about transience, train stations are going to be important. There isn’t much to add to Victor’s comments, which pretty much speak for themselves. Victor first introduces Nina to his wife "in a big railway station where everything is something trembling on the brink of something else, thus to be clutched and cherished." This is Nina in a nutshell, a woman who "had always either just arrived or was about to leave." In his mind, the quintessential Nina image is of her "leaning upon a counter at Cook's, left calf crossing right shin, left toe tapping floor, sharp elbows and coin-spilling bag on the counter, while the employee, pencil in hand, pondered with her over the plan of an eternal sleeping car." So it’s fitting that Victor reads about her death while standing "on the station platform of Mlech," and that Nina died while she was traveling.
We argue in "Style" that "Spring in Fialta" is sort of like a painting or mosaic; it’s a piece of art. If this is true, then its palette has two basic color groups: blues/purples, and reds/oranges. Nabokov, being Nabokov, finds about fifty different ways to express the former, including: "pale bluish," "glaucous," "marine," "slate-blue," "violaceous," plain old "blue," "violet," "aquarium," "sea-blue," "purpures," and "hazy blue." Once you start looking, you’ll see that a lot of the story’s details come in blue, from the Englishman’s wandering eye to the vases on the table to the rug in the Paris hotel where Victor and Nina once hooked up. Anything related to the "somnolence of [Fialta’s] humid lent" is blue or purple. It’s calming, or, as Victor says, it "especially anoints one’s soul."
Then you’ve got your reds and oranges, which we see most prominently in the circus posters. From the "tomato-nosed clown" to the "red hussar and […] orange tiger," these colors are associated with energy, change, activity, and because the circus causes Nina’s demise, death. Once you know the ending, reds and oranges pop out of "Spring in Fialta." We see them in the oranges the little boy is carrying, and the "crimson" drink resembling "pigeon’s blood" which Ferdinand sees the Englishman drinking and orders himself, right before Segur discusses a woman named "Ruby Rose." All of these are more and more hints of the impending ending to "Spring in Fialta."
(And if you like this sort of thing, you should go through your text and look for the word "yellow.")
Time is going to be a little off in any story that largely features memory. But notice that things start to get really screwy towards the end of "Spring in Fialta," in the scene where Victor and Nina walk to the hotel and she points out Segur’s yellow car. Until now, we’ve jumped back and forth between the present in Fialta and the past. Within each of those, time has been consistent: happenings in Fialta go in order, and happenings in the past come in order. But now it gets weird. Victor and Nina hang out by the yellow car while Ferdinand and Segur approach. Then we go BACK in time to the lunch they had earlier that day, followed by Victor’s foppish declaration of love, and then we SKIP FORWARD again to the trio’s departure in the yellow car. Victor also claims to have had a premonition of Nina’s departure while they were standing motionless by the car outside the hotel. And in the story’s final paragraph, we move without explanation from Victor standing with Nina on the terrace to his realization that the sky is sunny to his standing on a train station platform.
Accompanying this funky time stuff, the action gets a little more magical as well. After Victor declares and then retracts his feelings for Nina, "from somewhere a firm bouquet of small dark, unselfishly smelling violets [appear] in her hands." From somewhere? Appear?
In a way, this funny business – both with respect to time and to realism – reflect that Victor is losing control. This is where we really get a sense that our narrator’s artistic memory has taken over and is manipulating the story; reality is now cloudy, and his descriptions can’t be trusted as "real."
When Victor sees the car that will later bring Nina to her death, he describes it as "a long yellow-bodied Icarus." He’s referring to the model, it seems, but of course it’s the name itself that’s important.
Does "Icarus" sound familiar? We’re thinking of Daedalus and Icarus, of Greek mythology fame. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this: Daedalus was a famous maker of stuff (also known as a craftsman), which was working well until this woman got a hankering to have sex with a bull, and Daedalus crafted a way to make this possible. (We are not kidding.) As punishment, Daedalus was imprisoned in the labyrinth he designed himself (and very foolishly neglected to equip with secret emergency exits). Anyway, Daedalus was imprisoned with his son Icarus, and being a master maker of stuff, he made them some wings out of wax and feathers. The happy duo flew off in to safety, but not before Daedalus portentously warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. (Note: if you ever find yourself in a Greek myth, try to avoid warnings; they always turn out badly.) Icarus of course flies too close to the sun, melts the wax, and falls to his death in the ocean below.
So how about that "Spring in Fialta" story? Does Nina, perhaps, in her own way, fly too close to the sun? Does she try to be immortal, like the gods, which was a big no-no? It seems like Victor, at least, tries to make her immortal. He certainly sees her as mystical, as something more than human, which is why he’s so surprised by her death. (One ballsy critic argues that "Spring in Fialta" is so steeped in water imagery because Nina is like a mermaid. That’s certainly one way to skin the Nabokovian cat.)
Oh, and lastly, Victor describes the yellow Icarus car as looking "like a giant scarab." In Ancient Egyptian culture, the scarab was a hieroglyph that meant "to transform" or "to come into being." It was also a symbol of death. DEATH. It looks like we have more and more evidence supporting the theory that Nina’s death is a transformation from an ideal in Victor’s imaginative memory to a real and mortal person in reality. And for more on that, you should read her character analysis.
The cypress tree is mentioned twice in "Spring in Fialta," in the very first paragraph, and again in the very last. Funny how that works. Victor says that it "indicat[es] the way" to Fialta, which is a bit morbid when you remember that cypresses have been a symbol of death since way back in the Greek day when, according to mythology, they made up most of the Underworld’s foliage. Since "Spring in Fialta" is fatalistic and tells us over and over that Nina is going to die, this isn’t too surprising a portent. The second time we see the cypress is when Victor and Nina are standing on the terrace after lunch. Right before he tells her he loves her, Victor describes the view for his reader: "the smoke of an indiscernible train undulated along [Mount St. George’s] rounded base—and suddenly disappeared; still lower, above the jumble of roofs, one could perceive a solitary cypress." His declaration of love, like Nina’s life, is doomed.
Like most first person stories, the point of view of "Spring in Fialta" has some weighty ramifications for the way we interpret the text. Because everything is filtered through Victor, and because his memory is at best dream-like and at worst a hazy fog, we have to doubt everything he says – not because he’s lying, but because he can’t possible portray with accuracy the story of his last encounter with Nina. He surely leaves some details out, and he includes those that he knows in retrospect are important – like the circus posters.
Victor’s narrative is also aware of its artifice. The narrator knows he’s telling a story, and he doesn’t let you forget it. English majors would call this metafiction, or fiction that addresses the process of writing fiction. We see this most prominently when Victor attacks Ferdinand for his writing. "I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other," he says, adding, "Were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory."
We can’t help but apply Victor’s claims to this particular work of writing – to "Spring in Fialta." The narrator is indirectly commenting on the story from within the text. He goes so far as to describe his relationship with Nina in terms of the written word. "Again and again she hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text," he says, and later, "Occasionally, in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence." Victor sets Nina not only in an artificial world of memory, but in a fictional world of his own writing. Tricky, isn’t it?
This famous first line and the following description of damp and misty Fialta form the initial situation. Yes, that’s right – we start off talking about the weather. (And we end the same way, so stay tuned.) The way this initial situation is structured tells us the important things we need to know about "Spring in Fialta," and draws our attention to setting and environment, two important pieces of the work.
It’s not until Victor spots Nina that we’re really off to the races. The conflict is inherent in their relationship: two married people with a romantic intrigue. Notice that this is where time disrupts, as Victor travels "back into the past, back into the past" to reveal his first meeting with this woman.
As if an extramarital affair were not complicated enough, we see that Victor and Nina’s interactions are anything but clear-cut. We can’t tell how Victor feels about Nina, and neither can he. We don’t know how she feels about him; one minute she’s bursting with affection, and the next minute she’s sitting across the room having forgotten about his existence entirely. In Fialta, matters are complicated when Ferdinand and Segur show up, as Victor now has to deal with the narrator’s arguable antagonist. And there’s something weird going on with the weather…
This whole passage is an odd choice for climax, but reading "Spring in Fialta," this is where we’re the most invested as a reader. Everything afterwards has a sense of falling action, a feeling that the biggest part of the story has passed. Even when we hear about Nina’s death, it’s in an anti-climactic way, a sense of revelation, a winding down, not a crescendo. In this paragraph, Victor finally confronts his own feelings for Nina. He admits the futility of their various rendezvous and of his hopeless desire for the woman. The lines listed here are the finale of this introspection, and the style (think exclamation points) adds some weight to the case that this is the emotional climax of "Spring in Fialta."
OK, so we already know a variety of important factors at this point in the text. We know Nina is going to die. We know there’s something up with the circus and the weather, though we don’t know what exactly that something is. When Victor foresees Nina getting into the yellow car, which looks like a scarab (death!) and is called an Icarus (death!), we have a sense (death! Oh, sorry…) that this car is going to factor in as well, in one way or another. The suspense comes in our seeing the pieces, but not knowing how they fit together.
In this denouement, everything is finally revealed. All the hints we’ve been noting throughout all of "Spring in Fialta" finally make sense. We realize what the circus posters were for, why we got all those mentions of the weather, what the significance was of Segur’s yellow "Icarus" car, and what Victor was talking about when he repeatedly referred to Nina’s impending death.
This conclusion has some pretty serious consequences, all of which have little to do with classic plot and a lot to do with Nina’s character and Victor’s vision of her. If you want to know more, read Nina’s character analysis. We’ll see you there.
Literary and Philosophical References
Alphonse Daudet, Fromont jeune et Risler aine (19) – "…while a song of the last century (connected, it has been rumored, with some Parisian drama of love)…"
Anton Chekhov, "Lady with Lapdog"
There’s no specific moment in "Spring in Fialta" that explicitly shouts out to Chekhov, but the whole short story, many believe, is an allusion to "Lady with Lapdog." For one, Chekhov’s short story tells the tale of a married man, the first-person narrator, who meets a married woman, named Anna, while vacationing in the seaside town of Yalta. They have an affair, go their separate ways, can’t stop thinking about each other, and find each other back in Russia to continue the affair.
There are a number of specific words that lend weight to this theory. Fialta, of course, is a self-proclaimed echo of Yalta (which Nabokov refers to in his second paragraph as a "lovely Crimean town"). Images like flower bouquets and posters (for the theatre in Chekhov, for the circus in Nabokov) crop up in both pieces. The first-person male narrators both discuss fate’s role in their little love affairs. Of course, it’s possible that this is all coincidence, and there are certainly a fair number of scholars who think so. (The argument is that general motifs like "flower bouquets" and broad topic like "fate" are not enough to warrant this discussion.) You should probably just read "Lady with Lapdog" and go from there. (Not that we’re trying to get you to read great Russian literature or anything…)