‘Breaking the News’ by Vladimir Nabokov

In the Nabokov story ‘Breaking the News’, Eugenia Isakovna is an elderly widow, rather deaf, living alone in exile in Berlin. She has an only son, working in Paris. At least, she thinks she has: in fact the second and third sentences of the story are: “Her only son had died on the previous day. She had not yet been told.” He had fallen down a lift shaft. The story relates how her friends the Chernobyskis hear of this first. They distractedly debate how to break the news, whether to tell her somehow “by degrees”, suggesting first that he is very ill. A group of emigré friends assemble for tea at the widow’s house, getting more and more agitated as they fail to break the news. Finally, in anguish, as she pushes her hearing aid toward her visitors fearfully, “sobbing Chernobyski roared from a distant corner: ‘What’s there to explain – dead, dead, dead!’ but she was already afraid to look in his direction”. The metaphorical aspect of her literal deafness is terrifying; though Nabokov almost over-does the effect with the letter from the son recently received by the widow, which speaks of his being “plunged up to the neck in work and when evening comes I literally fall off my feet, and I never go anywhere.” The twisting of “literally” to mean “metaphorically”, but as it turns out, horribly literally, is shocking.

First published in Russian in 1935. Published in translation by Nabokov and his son Dmitri Nabokov, in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, McGraw-Hill, 1973. Collected in The Collected Stories, Penguin, 2016.

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