Read The Eye Online

Authors: Vladimir Nabokov

The Eye

BOOKS BY
Vladimir Nabokov

NOVELS

Mary
King, Queen, Knave
The Defense
The Eye
Glory
Laughter in the Dark
Despair
Invitation to a Beheading
The Gift
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Bend Sinister
Lolita
Pnin
Pale Fire
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Transparent Things
Look at the Harlequins!

SHORT FICTION

Nabokov’s Dozen
A Russian Beauty and Other Stories
Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
Details of a Sunset and Other Stories
The Enchanter

DRAMA

The Waltz Invention
Lolita: A Screenplay
The Man from the USSR and Other Plays

AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND INTERVIEWS

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
Strong Opinions

BIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM

Nikolai Gogol
Lectures on Literature
Lectures on Russian Literature
Lectures on Don Quixote

TRANSLATIONS

Three Russian Poets: Translations of Pushkin
,
Lermontov, and Tiutchev
A Hero of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov)
The Song of Igor’s Campaign (Anon.)
Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)

LETTERS

Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya:
The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940–1971
Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940–1977

MISCELLANEOUS

Poems and Problems
The Annotated Lolita

F
IRST
V
INTAGE
I
NTERNATIONAL
E
DITION
, S
EPTEMBER
1990

Copyright © 1965 by Vladimir Nabokov

All rights reserved under international and Pan-American
Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by
Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published in hardcover by Phaedra Publishers, Inc.,
in 1965. This edition published by arrangement with the Estate
of Vladimir Nabokov.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimorovich, 1899–1977.
The eye / by Vladimir Nabokov—1st Vintage international ed.
p.  cm.—(Vintage international)
eISBN: 978-0-307-78756-9
I. Title.
PS3527.A15E9 1990
813′.54—dc20        90-50265

Cover art by John Gall
Cover photograph by Alison Gootee

v3.1

Translated by Dmitri Nabokov
in collaboration with the author

To Véra

Contents
foreword

The Russian title of this little novel is
SOGLYADATAY
(in traditional transliteration), pronounced phonetically “Sugly-dart-eye,” with the accent on the penultimate. It is an ancient military term meaning “spy” or “watcher,” neither of which extends as flexibly as the Russian word. After toying with “emissary” and “gladiator,” I gave up trying to blend sound and sense, and contented myself with matching the “eye” at the end of the long stalk. Under that title the story weaved its pleasant way through three installments of
PLAYBOY
in the first months of 1965
.

I composed the original text in 1930, in Berlin—where my wife and I rented two rooms from a German family on quiet Luitpoldstrasse—and at the end of that year it appeared in the Russian emigré review
“SOVREMENNYYA ZAPISKI”
in Paris. The people in the book are the favorite
characters of my literary youth: Russian expatriates living in Berlin, Paris, or London. Actually, of course, they might just as well have been Norwegians in Naples or Ambracians in Ambridge: I have always been indifferent to social problems, merely using the material that happened to be near, as a voluble diner pencils a street corner on the table cloth or arranges a crumb and two olives in a diagrammatic position between menu and salt cellar. One amusing result of this indifference to community life and to the intrusions of history is that the social group casually swept into artistic focus acquires a falsely permanent air; it is taken for granted at a certain time in a certain place, by the emigré writer and his emigré readers. The Ivan Ivanovich and Lev Osipovich of 1930 have long been replaced by non-Russian readers who are puzzled and irritated today by having to imagine a society they know nothing about; for I do not mind repeating again and again that bunches of pages have been torn out of the past by the destroyers of freedom ever since Soviet propaganda, almost half a century ago, misled foreign opinion into ignoring or denigrating the importance of Russian emigration (which still awaits its chronicler)
.

The time of the story is 1924–5. Civil War in Russia has ended some four years ago. Lenin has just died but his tyranny continues to flourish. Twenty German marks are not quite five dollars. The expatriates in the Berlin of the book range from paupers to successful businessmen. Examples of the latter are Kashmarin, Matilda’s cauchemaresque
husband (who evidently escaped from Russia by the southern route, via Constantinople), and the father of Evgenia and Vanya, an elderly gentleman (who judiciously directs the London branch of a German firm, and keeps a dancing girl). Kashmarin is probably what the English call “middleclass,” but the two young ladies at 5 Peacock Street obviously belong to the Russian nobility, titled or untitled, which does not prevent them from having Philistine reading tastes. Evgenia’s fat-faced husband, whose name sounds rather comic today, works in a Berlin bank. Colonel Mukhin, a nasty prig, fought in 1919 under Denikin, and in 1920 under Wrangel, speaks four languages, affects a cool, worldly air, and will probably do very well in the soft job into which his future father-in-law is steering him. Good Roman Bogdanovich is a Balt imbued with German, rather than Russian, culture. The eccentric Jew Weinstock, the pacifist woman doctor Marianna Nikolaevna, and the classless narrator himself are representatives of the many-faceted Russian intelligentsia. These tips should make things a little easier for the kind of reader who (like myself) is wary of novels that deal with spectral characters in unfamiliar surroundings, such as translations from the Magyar or the Chinese
.

As is well known (to employ a famous Russian phrase), my books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff, and recoil. A serious psychologist, on the other
hand, may distinguish through my rain-sparkling crystograms a world of soul dissolution where poor Smurov only exists insofar as he is reflected in other brains, which in their turn are placed in the same strange, specular predicament as his. The texture of the tale mimics that of detective fiction but actually the author disclaims all intention to trick, puzzle, fool, or otherwise deceive the reader. In fact, only that reader who catches on at once will derive genuine satisfaction from
THE EYE
.
It is unlikely that even the most credulous peruser of this twinkling tale will take long to realize who Smurov is. I tried it on an old English lady, two graduate students, an ice-hockey coach, a doctor, and the twelve-year-old child of a neighbor. The child was the quickest, the neighbor, the slowest
.

The theme of
THE EYE
is the pursuit of an investigation which leads the protagonist through a hell of mirrors and ends in the merging of twin images. I do not know if the keen pleasure I derived thirty-five years ago from adjusting in a certain mysterious pattern the various phases of the narrators quest will be shared by modern readers, but in any case the stress is not on the mystery but on the pattern. Tracking down Smurov remains, I believe, excellent sport despite the passing of time and books, and the shift from the mirage of one language to the oasis of another. The plot will not be reducible in the reader’s mind—if I read that mind correctly—to a dreadfully painful love story in which a writhing heart is not only
spurned, but humiliated and punished. The forces of imagination which, in the long run, are the forces of good remain steadfastly on Smurov’s side, and the very bitterness of tortured love proves to be as intoxicating and bracing as would be its most ecstatic requital
.

Vladimir Nabokov

Montreux, April 19, 1965
.

I
MET THAT WOMAN, THAT MATILDA, during my first autumn of
émigré
existence in Berlin, in the early twenties of two spans of time, this century and my foul life. Someone had just found me a house tutor’s job in a Russian family that had not yet had time to grow poor, and still subsisted on the phantasmata of its old St. Petersburg habits. I had had no previous experience in bringing up children—had not the least idea how to comport myself and what to talk about with them. There were two of them, both boys. In their presence I felt a humiliating constraint.

They kept count of my smokes, and this bland curiosity made me hold my cigarette at an odd, awkward angle, as if I were smoking for the first time; I kept spilling ashes in my
lap, and then their clear gaze would pass attentively from my hand to the pale-gray pollen gradually rubbed into the wool.

Matilda, a friend of their parents, often visited them and stayed on for dinner. One night, as she was leaving, and there was a noisy downpour, they lent her an umbrella, and she said: “How nice, thank you very much, the young man will see me home and bring it back.” From that time on, walking her home was one of my duties. I suppose she rather appealed to me, this plump, uninhibited, cow-eyed lady with her large mouth, which would gather into a crimson pucker, a would-be rosebud, when she looked in her pocket mirror to powder her face. She had slender ankles and a graceful gait, which made up for many things. She exuded a generous warmth; as soon as she appeared, I would have the feeling that the heat in the room had been turned up, and when, after disposing of this large live furnace by seeing her home, I would be walking back alone amid the liquid sounds and quicksilver gloss of the pitiless night, I would feel cold, cold to the point of nausea.

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