Many years ago now, I happened to be visiting one of America's most ravishing college campuses, a green Gothic strip where I would end up completing my graduate studies. Fresh air, the charm of the young and untried swimming nearby, one of the most awesome libraries machines and minds could ever erect, and a friendly welcome from the professors all settled my choice. One of those erudite gentlemen, himself a Russian émigré, was kind enough at the end of our chat to autograph one of his books as a parting gift. Since we shared an unabashed admiration for the book's subject, this was as fine a token of goodwill as could possibly be expected between two people who had been verbal strangers only twenty minutes before. I read most of the book in one sitting, filed it away as I almost always do for reevaluation, then swallowed the rest in small chunks during my coursework. The tome and scholar need not be mentioned here; anonymity is one of the blessings of non-conformist genius. But his theory was groundbreaking, original, and meticulous, and is perhaps best buttressed by the motifs in this sensational work of art.
Our narrator is a nameless and perhaps typical Frenchman (one who prefers "the grape to the grain"), with an atypically magnificent command of written English and a literature professorship in 1950s New England. Not ours to worry, in any case, since in more than one way he will only serve as a conduit for the descriptions and jeremiads of others. He begins his eerie tale by observing, with the cautious glee of someone who has lived his life for art's thrills, "a family of icicles" drip down the ultimate gables of a roof and defiantly into the setting sun. After staring at a multicolored windshield's reflection, he is nearly run over by an almost as anonymous acquaintance and fellow academic, D. D. immediately informs him that Cynthia Vane, a painter and the elder of two somewhat flighty sisters known all too well to our professors, has died of a weak heart. The news is as shocking to us as it is to the narrator because no one called Cynthia Vane should ever really be dead.
In time we learn the links. D. slept with and discarded that other sister, Sybil (a borrowing from this work), to whom our narrator once administered a disastrous French exam that concluded with Sybil's quite finite jest: "Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than life without D." The next morning she is no longer among the quick, her own hand blamed by her own handwriting. Four or five months later, the narrator consoles the sister with the warmth of all his hairy strength and discovers to his mild chagrin and amusement that our survivor believes she is puppeteered by specters. He initially imputes this to a heterodox form of Puritan fatalism, underpinned as it simply must be by charlatan chums and astrological calculations. And yet (igniting a domino-like trend) he turns out to be wrong:
For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said. I tried to argue that she might not always be able to determine the exact source since not everybody has a recognizable soul; that there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send; that, in fact, what Cynthia called 'a usual day' might be itself a weak solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel.
Amidst these phantoms Sybil's personality "had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus" – what one might reasonably expect given the age and method of her extinction. Actually, "extinction" is most definitely not the right word. Their affair drags on, as all affairs of physical convenience do, well past any semblance of affection or mutual understanding (one is reminded of that old, women's monthly adage that every failed relationship devotes its latter half to dysfunction). One especially fateful night collects the narrator, Cynthia, and a gaggle of "sociable weekend revelers" into a single bourgeois home for what would pass to most people for amusement, but can only horrify someone who finds society at large, well, repellent. Does this antipathy explain the added antipathy to the shaded powers of the afterlife? Or is our narrator simply an overeducated snob toying with a fragile, frowzy woman who probably enjoys this lack of control when confronted with the tools of adult pleasure? Our narrator mulls these and other oddities, but does not land at the conclusion we think these oddities might deserve.
You may strum your fingers or race to your shelves, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better short story in this century or any other. Nabokov's genius resides in his ability to take forceful, almost unnecessarily subjective opinions and coax therefrom a choir of paradise. With the possible exception of this incomparable man of letters, no other writer has possessed this talent to such a degree. The ending, so famous and yet so unprecedented in serious prose, brought Nabokov his first accolades as an inventor, a fact that would be painfully obvious to those of us who do not suffer gimmicks fondly. Cynthia does not, however, see matters that way. And since we and the narrator seem to like a few things about Cynthia, we can, should, and must be sympathetic; it is the only way we know how to relate to lesser beings. So when we coddle her with kindness and platitudes ("These rather tasteless trivialities pleased Cynthia hugely as she rose, with gasps, above the heaving surface of her grief," one of the most exquisite sentences ever composed) – the two are so coterminous at times we can almost claim they come naturally – we are doing the right thing. Her sister is dead, after all. We can also aver that icicles and parking meters will never feel quite the same again, nor will the sounds of those things that go bump in the night. You know, those things.