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Vladimir Nabokov: “That in Aleppo Once…”

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 40

Yes, this is a most useful universe. We play, we die: ig-rhyme, umi-rhyme. And the sonorous souls of Russian verbs lend a meaning to the wild gesticulation of trees or to some discarded newspaper sliding and pausing, and shuffling again,…But just now I am not a poet. I come to you like that gushing lady in Chekhov who was dying to be described.

Sometime in my early twenties (a little while ago) someone explained to me the significance of the Nabokov reference in The Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”. That was the first time I had ever heard of Vladimir Nabokov or his many-times banned novel Lolita. Again, I was in my early twenties so when I heard of a book anyone might tell me I shouldn’t read because of its content – well, I was sure to read it which I did with Lolita. Yes, its content is offensive and I respect anyone who decides not to read it on their own accord. At the same time, I’ve always remembered that there was something enjoyable about the way Nabokov put his words together. Something that made me read it in spite of the novel’s offense.

So now, all these years later, I’ve just finished reading Nabokov’s short story ‘”That in Aleppo Once…”‘ and it reminds me of his wonderful wordsmithing all over again. Only this time the content is more tame.

The narrator (Nabokov, himself, perhaps) is an author writing a letter to presumably another author, maybe also a friend. He tells his friend of his attempted escape from Europe during World War II with his new wife – who may or may not have existed. That’s the catch – is the narrator relating a story that is true, one that is made up, or some combination of both? I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter because there was – you know – the words.

I highly recommend this story to anyone who wants to experience Nabokov without experiencing Lolita.

‘”That in Aleppo Once…”‘ is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 40 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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James Baker Hall: If You Can’t Win

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 38

…the letters tortured and jumbled up and painfully beautiful: I hope I win but if I don’t I hope my effort is courageous – when I see that I say amen.

The narrator of James Baker Hall’s short story “If You Can’t Win” is a doctor married to a gas station attendant. She is attempting to take care of her best friend’s mentally disabled adult daughter who has climbed on the roof because a horse died. The roof incident is the last draw.

The story is told in a very conversational manner and the fact that she is a doctor can take the reader by surprise. If the reader listens to the story, though, they can tell that the narrator has not only intelligence but perseverance, too. I would say that the effort in the quotation above is perhaps the theme of the story. This effort doesn’t come without pain. In spite of everything, she has more than muddled through.

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Queen of Clubs for Week 38 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.