‘The Vane Sisters’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I started getting to know more Nabokov after reading W. G. Sebald’s essay ‘Dream Textures’: a brief note on Nabokov in Campo Santo, his posthumous collection of essays. It’s more about ghosts and shadows rather than nocturnal sojourns and lead to me seeing ‘The Vane Sisters’ from a previously unknown angle. 

The story is well known for its hidden acrostic, the ending that Nabokov said “can only be tried in a thousand years of fiction”. I like it more for showing VN’s skill as a topographical writer and there is an awful depth, something else Sebald wrote about, to the environment his narrator observes. He sees “icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house.” Where he’s “sure the shadows of the falling drops [will] be visible too.” And the “elongated umbra cast by the parking meter upon some damp snow”. Everything is infused with the spooky sisters of the title without the narrator even being aware of it. There is a wonderful phrase in Nabokov’s Transparent Things: “the secret life of detritus” and here we see the inanimate animated with full force. 

First published in the Hudson Review, New York, Winter 1959, and then in Encounter, London, March 1959. Collected in Nabokov’s QuartetNabokov’s CongeriesTyrants Destroyed and Other Stories, and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

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