The Clock at the Biltmore — Vladimir Nabokov: “Colette”

A few weeks ago The New Yorker had a story about some books that were on display.  These books had been in the personal collection of various famous authors, and all contained interesting marginalia.  One was Nabokov’s edition of a collection of New Yorker short stories from the 1950s.  In it, he’d assigned each piece a grade, some getting Cs, Bs, As or whatever.  He’d only assigned two the high grade of an A+: J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” (discussed here) and his own “Colette,” published July 31, 1948.  It turns out that both stories take place during a nice little summer vacation at a resort, though that’s about where the comparisons stop.  July is a good time to read either.

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This story eventually found its way into Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory.  I haven’t read that yet.  “Colette” is also sometimes titled “First Love.”  It is the memory Nabokov has of a summer trip taken in 1909, when he was 10.  The first two pages (of a four page story) take place on the train journey from St. Petersburg to Biarritz in southern France.  I kept waiting for Colette to show her face, but she doesn’t.  It turns out that is far from a bad thing.  In Nabokov’s hands, this train journey memory is magical.  For example:

It was marvelously exciting to move to the foot of one’s bed, with part of the bedclothes following, in order to undo cautiously the catch of the window shade, which could be made to slide only halfway up, impeded as it was by the edge of the upper berth.

Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp.  A dismembered newspaper stirred on a bench.  Somewhere on the train one could hear muffled voices, somebody’s comfortable cough.  There was nothing particularly interesting in the portion of station platform before me, and still I could not tear myself away from it until it departed of its own accord.

There’s such lovely peace there in that night, “somebody’s comfortable cough.”  A decade later Nabokov’s life — all of Russia — would be in turmoil, but in 1909 they were still able to travel to France for a two-month vacation.  The details feel like memory; the reader feels the nostalgia and the comfort.

Colette, who is nine (and whose real name was Claude Deprès), finally arrives at the narrator’s side: “On the browner and wetter part of the plage, that part which at low tide yielded the best mud for castles, I found myself digging, one day, side by side with a little French girl called Colette.”  As often happens with young children, they jump right into friendship, having no reason to distrust one another.  Our narrator develops an innocent passion for the young girl:

Two years before, on the same plage, I had been much attached to the lovely, sun-tanned little daughter of a Serbian physician, but when I met Colette, I knew at once that this was the real thing.  Colette seemed to me so much stranger than all my other chance playmates at Biarritz!  I somehow acquired the feeling that she was less happy than I, less loved.

I like how the love is innocent; it certainly feels true and pure.  He loves playing beside her, he worries about her, he empathizes with her.  She must trust his love, for one day while looking at a starfish, he kissed him on the cheek:

So great was my emotion that all I could think of saying was “You little monkey!”

I kept wondering just what would happen to this young couple.  Naturally, this summer fling could not last forever.  They were too young to have any power to make it last beyond, yet it does last in Nabokov’s memory:

The leaves mingle in my memory with the leather of her shoes and gloves, and there was, I remember, some detail in her attire (perhaps a ribbon on her Scottish cap, or the pattern of her stockings) that reminded me then of the rainbow spiral in a glass marble.  I still seem to be holding that wisp of iridescence, not knowing exactly where to fit it in, while she runs with her hoop ever faster around me and finally dissolves among the slender shadows cast on the gravelled path by the interlaced arches of its border.

This is a wonderful short story about an innocent love and its effect through the years.  An A+?  Well, I think “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” is the better of the two (I like Lolita quite a lot more than Catcher in the Rye, so that is not just a statement in support of the man who inspired this bi-weekly feature and its title), but it was such a pleasant read with some hearty sadness, perfect for a warm summer day when one doesn’t want to contemplate suicide.

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