There are only two things that really exist – one's death and one's conscience.
Some of us, foolishly perhaps, believe in fate. We believe that somewhere, somehow, divorced of any particular spiritual affiliation, a destiny is unfolding, a destiny that may not be unique, because death is the great equalizer, but a destiny individual to our choices, to our thoughts, to our character. Some others of us, even more foolishly perhaps, consider such impressions the idle daydreams of those unwilling to perceive the world for what it really is: a lonely planet of endless extinction. It is of no small coincidence that those who have endured not-so-simple twists of fate feel most persuaded of its powers; even less hazardous are the lives of the jilted, the spurned, the exiled, for they shall repay scorn with scorn. A fine way to introduce this classic tale.
We begin with a former Russian peasant girl who will quickly become, in time's occasional gallop, La Slavska. Her sobriquet she owes to the French who, despite repeated claims to the contrary, cannot resist a gypsy songstress, or in this case, a one-seventh gypsy songstress. Yet the "physical splendor of her prodigious voice" does not compensate for her aesthetic sensibilities (or lack thereof):
Her artistic taste was nowhere, her technique haphazard, her general style atrocious; but the kind of people for whom music and sentiment are one, or who like songs to be mediums for the spirits of circumstances under which they had been first apprehended in an individual past, gratefully found in the tremendous sonorities of her voice both a nostalgic solace and a patriotic kick. She was considered especially effective when a strain of wild recklessness rang through her song. Had this abandon been less blatantly shammed it might still have saved her from utter vulgarity. The small, hard thing that was her soul stuck out of her song, and the most her temperament could attain was but an eddy, not a free torrent. When nowadays in some Russian household the gramophone is put on, and I hear her canned contralto, it is with something of a shudder that I recall the meretricious imitation she gave of reaching her vocal climax, the anatomy of her mouth fully displayed in a last passionate cry, her blue-black hair beautifully waved, her crossed hands pressed to the beribboned medal on her bosom as she acknowledged the orgy of applause, her broad dusky body rigid even when she bowed, crammed as it was into strong silver satin which made her look like a matron of snow or a mermaid of honor.
It is unlikely that such a woman could have sustained herself alone; that is to say, either a series of lovers ensued, or just one. And if in the singular, then one who in every way was as unassuming, uninterested in attention, and slight of figure and words as our diva absorbed every corner of any room she entered. The name of this lucky fellow is General Golubkov, and his profession very often involves the unassuming collection of other people's secrets.
Among his fellow White Russian émigrés, our General – whose surname means dove when his life's entire purpose is hawk – has been, in career terms, steadily climbing the rungs to a penthouse balcony. He is an "efficient member" of the White Warriors Union, syncopated simply to W.W., perhaps to avoid the dreadful echo of its antagonists. A plum job, surely, even if some may deem it "but a sunset behind a cemetery" (such was the Russian exile's recurring landscape). Like all intelligencers, however, he is fundamentally a fraud. Although he may counter that his utter commitment to his craft (he is a "triple agent," which somehow suggests a cleaning liquid) makes him realer than all the charlatans, socialites, and pseudo-intellectuals polluting the company he keeps. He is not like the Slavic thugs we have come to admire as paragons of a certain quaint alcoholic anarchy; nor does he possess – and how could he, after all – any of the solid religious mantel engirding Russian poets and politicians alike. Even his appearance implies hollowness, a carved-out shell:
Physically he lacked attraction. There was nothing of your popular Russian general about him, nothing of that good, burly, popeyed, thick-necked sort. He was lean, frail, with sharp features, a clipped mustache, and the kind of haircut that is called by Russians "hedgehog": short, wiry, upright, and compact. There was a thin silver bracelet round his hairy wrist, and he offered you neat homemade Russian cigarettes or English prune-flavored "Kapstens," as he pronounced it, snugly arranged in an old roomy cigarette case of black leather that had accompanied him through the presumable smoke of numberless battles. He was extremely polite and extremely inconspicuous.
The physical description we receive is not so much that of a ghost as that of a lackey, a ghost enslaved to a purpose, but our author does not hesitate to say as much. Golubkov, you see, is something of a folk hero among his erstwhile compatriots, if a folk hero whose genteel manners trick more than one faction into mistaking serpentine stillness for unflappable poise. As the W.W. chairmanship, or supreme commandership, or whatever title a bunch of exiles wish to foist on a purely symbolic and likely short-lived position, seems within reach, we come to understand why some folk heroes begin their public life as enemies of the people.
The Assistant Producer is a very typical Nabokov story in setting, but very unusual in its effect. It does not read, at first blush, as a tragedy; it does not, in fact, seem to be of any significance whatsoever until Golubkov's terrible game is revealed. Here and there, snippets of genius cannot be avoided ("Russian émigrés whose only hope and profession was their past"; "The sentries of history have let it pass unchallenged"; "Russian humor being a wee bird satisfied with a crumb"; "Certain dark symptoms attending his sudden illness suggested a poisoner's shadow"; "It had half slipped down from one of those vestibule chairs which are doomed to accommodate things, not people"). But unlike the lyricism in most of Nabokov's prose, the gauche vulgarity of Slavska and her thin, chain-smoking cardboard cut-out of a husband renders what would normally be the conspicuous leisure of once-wealthy snobs into something far more sinister, a hell parallel to the one they fled:
A very horrible criminal, whose wife had been even a worse one, once told me in the days when I was a priest that what had troubled him all through was the inner shame of being stopped by a still deeper shame from discussing with her the puzzle: whether perhaps in her heart of hearts she despised him or whether she secretly wondered if perhaps in his heart of hearts he despised her. And that is why I know perfectly well the kind of face General Golubkov and his wife had when the two were at last alone.
And why could our General come to hate the beloved, the inimitable Slavska? What man can ultimately resist a voluptuous and bawdy woman? A woman whom bearers of ill tidings suspect could faint on a whim? A woman whose siren song has charmed one benefactor after another, resulting in the General's good fortune, both materially and for other ends? That would mean that the quote that begins this review could not possibly exist, at least as an idiom in the Russian language, and that, furthermore, it was concocted as a means to demonstrate how little people take into account life's twists and turns. And how incorrectly, of course, they foresee their own sad lot.