Music by Vladimir Nabokov, 1932
The magic trick:
Breathing high drama and desperate emotional importance into a simple, singular incident
We’re doing a week of Vladimir Nabokov stories. Rich, intense, brilliant stuff. Brace yourself.
I wouldn’t rank “Music” as one of Nabokov’s very best, but it is a great representation of the way he creates instant nostalgia. He is so good at isolating a certain incident or moment and elevating it onto a pedestal of immense emotional importance. In today’s story, Victor, our protagonist, is surprised to see his ex-wife at a concert. The moment sends him through a maze of memories. Truthfully, none of it is all that interesting. She cheated on him. They separated. They see each other now at this concert, but they don’t speak, and she leaves immediately after the performance.
But the writing! It feels momentous. We get comparisons through the language – the booming ocean and the booming piano. We get incredibly dramatic descriptions of the effect the sight of his wife has on him – “gasping for air,” “his heart rose like a fist,” etc.
Regardless of whether or not you feel like Victor’s situation is special, it is written like it’s the only marriage in the history of humanity.
And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.
The music must be drawing to a close. When they come, those stormy, gasping chords, it usually signifies that the end is near. Another intriguing word, end . . . Rend, impend . . . Thunder rending the sky, dust clouds of impending doom.
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