Christmas by Vladimir Nabokov, 1925
The magic trick:
Elegantly blending the present and the past
Much of this story is about the way Christmas can leave people to dwell upon their pasts and presents in comparison – especially in a place like Russia whose entire history was displaced into revolutionary chunks. In terms of story structure, Nabokov does a seamless job in blending the backstory – necessary to help the reader understand the plot – with the forward motion of the narrative. Sleptsov takes a somber walk through a snow-covered winterscape and remembers seeing his son, now dead, the last time he was at the estate during the summer. The boy is collecting butterflies on the bridge. It is a striking image that also lets the reader know why Sleptsov is mourning. Form and function. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.
Bitterly, angrily, he pushed the thick, fluffy covering off the parapet. He vividly recalled how this bridge looked in summer. There was his son walking along the slippery planks, flecked with aments, and deftly plucking off with his net a butterfly that had settled on the railing. Now the boy sees his father. Forever lost laughter plays on his face, under the turned-down brim of a straw hat burned drak by the sun; his hand toys with the chainlet of the leather purse attached to his belt, his dear, smooth, suntanned legs in their serge shorts and soaked sandals assume their usual cheerful wide-spread stance.