I am fond of Fialta; I am fond of it because I feel in the hollow of those violaceous syllables the sweet dark dampness of the most rumpled of small flowers, and because the altolike name of a lovely Crimean town is echoed by its viola.
It is, one supposes, of paramount importance that the town named in the title of this story does not exist; well actually, if you subscribe to the opinions contained therein, that's not entirely true. Fialta represents the loving combination of geography and memory, the extirpation of a pleasant scene from a place now long forsaken to a greener pasture where real, forceful, and elegant life can bloom anew. And what time could be better to regain a lost love than amidst the fragrant fog of spring? That would depend, it seems, on the mnemonic forces at your disposal.
Our year is 1932 and our protagonist is a Russian-born businessman by the name of Victor. He may be handsome, obsequious, wealthy, or intriguing – we're not quite sure. The only information available summarizes his family life ("I had left my wife and children at home, and that was an island of happiness always present in the clear north of my being," one of the greatest sentences in the English language) and his intermittent fling with a thin, dark girl he calls Nina. Nina and he meet, he recalls with some certitude, amidst the upheaval of the year 1917, astride a wintry red barn belonging to nobility and the nineteenth-century storytellers that had poised Russia on the brink of becoming the world's greatest literary tradition. In that first encounter caresses are exchanged before names, their soundtrack being "that crunch-crunch-crunch which is the only comment that a taciturn winter night makes upon humans." The second tryst is at a Berlin cocktail party years later; Victor is now almost married, whereas Nina has left her "incredibly well-bred and stolid" fiancé. The third and fourth encounters are so boilerplate (a German train station where they barely touch; a Paris hotel room where they barely speak) that some readers might be repulsed by the treacly nature of the whole affair – and, as it were, they would not be wrong. Hints are generously sprinkled as to the fate of poor Nina, and among the imaginative hindsight is almost invariably clairvoyant. It is for that reason that, in Fialta, Victor takes Nina "back into the past, back into the past, as I did every time I met her." The past remains the only explanation for their intimacy ("How familiar to me were her hesitations, second thoughts, third thoughts mirroring first ones, ephemeral worries between trains"), for the difference between their interaction and that of two verbal strangers. Victor's recollections have at once the sheen of fiction and romanticized truth, a dichotomy that does not have to be as disparate as it sounds – but we will return to that point. And in that past, and sadly in the present as well, lurks a Franco-Hungarian writer, Ferdinand, who just so happens to be Nina's husband.
As the man that Nina chooses, at least legally, as her companion, Ferdinand wallows in the ephemeral fame so commonly incident to the second-rate writer. In fact, the description furnished by Victor suggests that this needn't have been his fate:
At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose ... but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through that blazoned, ghastly rich glass, and it seems that were one to break it, nothing but a perfectly black void would face one's shivering soul.
For those steeped in Nabokov's categories, the compartmentalization is painfully clear. Which makes an article on Spring in Fialta from an allegedly prominent source averring that – and here I paraphrase to throw off the Google hounds – we are supposed to sympathize with Ferdinand, that Victor is insanely jealous of this amazing writer who greatly resembles Nabokov, and that Victor might have concocted the whole affair with Nina in his mind, one of the most unfortunately misinformed reviews in recent memory. As it were, Ferdinand epitomizes the "healthy second-rater" whom Nabokov always lambasted for the former's intrusion into every possible field except literary excellence. His entourage is composed solely of other such frauds, in books and society, and his most recent publication exemplifies his lack of sincerity:
After a brief period of fashionable religious conversion, during which grace descended upon him and he undertook some rather ambiguous pilgrimages, which ended in a decidedly scandalous adventure, he had turned his dull eyes toward barbarous Moscow. Now, frankly speaking, I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that a ripple of stream consciousness, a few healthy obscenities, and a dash of communism in any old slop pail will alchemically and automatically produce ultramodern literature; and I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash. In Ferdinand's case .... he didn't care a damn for the plight of the underdog; but because of certain obscurely mischievous undercurrents of that sort, his art had become still more repulsive.
One wonders what could possibly induce anyone to think kindly of such a beast, much less compare him to the staunchly anti-trend, anti-scatological, anti-communist Nabokov – but I fear that last reviewer has already effectively obliterated himself.
What the tale accomplishes in its saltatory excuse for a plot cannot be retold or repenned: in terms of fluidity and sheen, it ranks among the finest short stories of the twentieth century. Nina is both as real as her body is real, and as fake and evanescent as any hope may be of owning her spirit. She is the perfect and the most dreadful of affairs, one that means everything because it always meant nothing, because it was always a matter of happenstance that congress or affection occurred. Victor reminisces about what appears to be his only extramarital activity, justifying it implicitly by the fact that its kernels antedated his wedding, and trying, with one feeble and belated attempt, to apotheosize the experience into something it could not possibly become. Memory, "that long-drawn sunset shadow of one's personal truth," will have to suffice; but Victor and we know that, for all its triumphs, memory is rarely enough. Nina, on the other lonely and now horribly withered hand, never seems to have bothered with such detail.