Upon strolling recently through this exquisite museum, one of the New World's finest, I could not but recollect the happy childhood memories of other museums and books about museums that seemed so much more enthralling the less I knew about the world. As much as learning remains one of my great passions, museums tend not to interest me. The simple reason is that they now house things that have no business being in museums, much less meriting our admiration; the more complicated explanation is that they have lost their pedagogical flair. Modern art, that bastion of mediocrity, fraud and alleged democratic ideals, has polluted the walls and catalogs of museums for so long that we yearn for the day when someone actually had to have talent to get his works exhibited. Yet we also yearn for the systematic coherence that is the hallmark of civilization. If you were to visit this northern palace, this vessel of ancient wisdom, or this jewel amidst Florence's alleyways and fountains, your experience would be one of awe not only in the genius of homo sapiens, but also in the commonalities over which man has always obsessed – time, space, God, love, death, nostalgia, revenge, betrayal, and the unifying denominator among all these topoi, truth. Art, great art, is the truth within our souls. When one pair of eyes can perceive even for a moment the truth behind another's work and be edified by this revelation, the ultimate goal of art has been achieved. But as we know not all museums feature art; some are merely collections of empires from bygone days, which should inform our reading of this famous story.
Our Russian narrator is going to a place named Montisert, when a friend of his in Paris, equally Russian and equally without a homeland (this is, after all, the 1930s), asks him for a curious favor: drop by the local museum and try to purchase "a portrait of his grandfather by Leroy." The narrator accedes to this request if only to humor his friend as well as because he "had always had doubts about [his] friend's capacity to remain this side of fantasy." The setup in stories of this ilk, even from a master plotter like Nabokov, is the unpleasant comeuppance of someone who assumes that the dreams of others cannot be realized through the performance of small gestures of kindness. The narrator, an educated man by his allusions and diction, proceeds as planned to the museum where he encounters a caretaker who tries to dissuade him from being too interested in any type of acquisition. It takes a good survey of the odds and ends contained in this "building of modest proportions" before he finds something of greater interest than "old, worn coins resting in the velvet of their compartments," a Chinese vase, or "a red-and-green map of Montisert in the seventeenth century":
At once my eye was caught by the portrait of a man between two abominable landscapes (with cattle and "atmosphere"). I moved closer and, to my considerable amazement, found the very object whose existence had hitherto seemed to me but the figment of an unstable mind. The man, depicted in wretched oils, wore a frock coat, whiskers and a large pince-nez on a cord; he bore a likeness to Offenbach, but, in spite of the work's vile conventionality, I had the feeling one could make out in his features the horizon of a resemblance, as it were, to my friend. In one corner, meticulously traced in carmine against a black background, was the signature Leroy in a hand as commonplace as the work itself.
In a more traditional narrative we would expect a bustle over negotiating the transfer of the work, and our narrator would either shun inferior art in favor of his own good taste or come to understand that the nostalgic plainness of his friend's memories is a harmless trifle in a world teeming with ogres and demons – but this is hardly a traditional narrative. Unable to have the caretaker authorize the half-desired transaction and aware of the bureaucratic mechanisms at work, our protagonist promptly asks to see a supervisor. He is directed to the museum's director, a certain Monsieur Godard:
[He was] a thin middle-aged gentleman in high collar and dickey, with a pearl in the knot of his tie, and a face very much resembling a Russian wolfhound; as if that were not enough, he was licking his chops in a most doglike manner, while sticking a stamp on an envelope, when I entered his small but lavishly furnished room with its malachite inkstand on the desk and a strangely familiar Chinese vase on the mantel.
There is no chitchat as a prelude to the matter at hand. According to the director and his trusted catalog, the picture in question is The Return of the Herd, not, as our narrator claims, Portrait of a Russian Nobleman by Gustave Leroy. He offers the director the full sum his friend extended to him to verify what is looking more and more like a delusion or artistic imposition of the sort that Nabokov exploits in many other texts. Nevertheless, once the two reach the museum, it turns out that the narrator and his odd friend have been correct in their assumptions and observations. And this is where the narrator wanders into another wing of the museum and comes across several other items that he did not expect to find.
Why this tale is collected in books of ghost stories is not immediately evident, although there is certainly something otherworldly to its dénouement. Our narrator is soon abandoned by his host and sees that troupes of other visitors with unlike goals have entered the museum and, by their very presence and commotion, are in the midst of tearing it asunder. He sees, inter alia, marble legs, grand pianos, alembics, copper helmets, a room "radiant with Oriental fabrics," the entire skeleton of a whale, large paintings, aquariums, and a "bright parlor tastefully furnished in Empire style." But perhaps most important are those other visitors:
All was not well at the museum. From within issued rowdy cries, lewd laughter, and even what seemed like the sound of a scuffle. We entered the first hall; there the elderly custodian was restraining two sacrilegists who wore some kind of festive emblems in their lapels and were altogether very purple-faced and full of pep as they tried to extract the municipal councillor's merds from beneath the glass. The rest of the youths, members of some rural athletic organization, were making noisy fun, some of the worm in alcohol, others of the skull. One joker was in rapture over the pipes of the steam radiator, which he pretended was an exhibit; another was taking aim at an owl with his fist and forefinger. There were about thirty of them in all, and their motion and voices created a condition of crush and thick noise.
Someone more prone to disclosure might deem this scene the perfect allegory for modern art as symbolic of Soviet kitsch. Old Russia then becomes the object of extensive museum exhibits, an effect of endless richness and artistic grandeur that can be beheld in this spectacular film shot, amazingly enough, on one take. Like in that film, the narrator progresses through the development of Russian art and culture: from the simple cow herds and noblemen (the basic fiefdoms of yore) to the latest developments in science, art, technology and culture. All this, of course, is obliterated by the Soviet machine. But, I fear, such a dearth of subtlety has no place in a museum.