‘The Fight’ by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov

‘The Fight’ is a story from Nabokov’s Berlin period. Oddly structured, it begins with a lengthy description by the first-person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake near the city, where he swims and lolls in the sun. There the narrator regularly sees an older man, with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. Later, while strolling through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, he stops at a bar which, it turns out, the man, one Krause, owns. The narrator becomes a regular, and takes pleasure in watching the developing romance between Krause’s daughter and a young electrician named Otto. On a sultry day, with a storm about to break, the narrator watches as Krause and Otto argue over whether the latter, who thinks of himself as one of the family, should have to pay for his drinks. Matters escalate and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.
For me, ‘The Fight’ is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, Freytag’s Pyramid, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action leading to climax and descending to resolution. Instead of these hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?
There’s delight, too, in Nabokov’s language, nicely apparent in his son Dmitri’s translation: as a class, we always linger in wonder over the narrator’s description of a barfly with “appetizing folds of fat on his nape” and his offhanded revelation that the fight reminds him of “a splendid scuffle I had once had in a seaport-dive with a beetle-black Italian, during which my hand had somehow got into his mouth and I had fiercely tried to squeeze, to tear, the wet skin inside his cheek.” Beetle-blackSomehow. Decorous, mandarin Nabokov is, as always, unsettling and sordid.

First published in Russian in 1925. Published in English in The New Yorker, February 10, 1985Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf 1995

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