Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On "Cloud, Castle, Lake"

Just read “Cloud, Castle, Lake” and am puzzling over it. Here are these coarse and cruel Germans, and then the somewhat spineless Vasily Ivanovich, forced into traveling with them. His fellow travelers are repulsive, but being on a train, he is unable to escape them except briefly at their final stop. While the Germans seem stereotypes of the extreme nationalism of the Nazis, I have to admit my own stereotyping – wanting to draw an equal sign between Russian and Communism instead of remembering all the exiles driven out during the revolution who opposed that ideology.

At first reading I was drawn into the possibility of Vasily’s escape – who wouldn’t want to extend that triumphant moment when Vasily recognizes in the transcendence of the landscape the possibility of happiness? The imagery is beautiful – I can picture the cloud reflecting in the lake and the castle jutting up above the landscape – vivid enough to make me think I’ve been there. I wonder if I am imagining some actual lake we visited in Colorado or an image on a calendar.

But I wonder at Vasily Ivanovich for presuming to think he could just stay there, that his happiness would be complete because of this room with a view. And at the unmitigated coarseness of the Germans. They become caricatures, and in their lack of humanity, weaken Vasily’s character. Is his playing along at their singing and games supposed to show how easy it is to get drawn in by bullying and propaganda? Or to show his courage for sneaking off to the little inn by the lake? Should he not have gone back to the group to announce he wasn’t returning but let them look for him?


Vasily’s defeat seems indicative of a failure of the romantic individualist. This story seems to exemplify what I just read in a friend’s “Last Lecture” about “The Romance of Domesticity,” in which he describes Romanticism’s myth of escape as a heresy based on the idea that man’s real happiness and wholeness is found somewhere else in this world, not, as the Christian believes, in the next. He points out that what is true in Romanticism is the feeling that we are wayfarers and the longing for something more exciting, something lovelier, something more fulfilling, just like Vasily. For the Christian, these restless longings are intimations of the desire for union with God. And while the Romantic believes that imagination leads to knowledge and action, (eg, Vasily’s move to extricate himself from the ugliness of his travelers after a harmonious vision), the Christian uses imagination to take inspiration from the extraordinary that can be seen in the ordinary. So the narrator, telling Vasily Ivanovich’s story to the object of his affection, is able to avoid the despair that Vasily feels upon his return after his failure to escape because he is in love, the ultimate means of sanctifying the ordinary.


If I hadn’t read the story right after reading these lecture notes, I wonder if I would’ve sympathized with Vasily more instead of pitying him almost to the point of contempt.

9 comments:

Pentimento said...

I don't share your near-contempt for V.I. I think he's very much in the model of a certain type in Russian literature -- the little, harassed, oppressed clerk or civil servant, whose unlikely innocence puts him in the company of that other Russian type, the Holy Fool. Don't forget that VI is also in love -- an impossible love -- with a married woman. The second-hand narrative device is, in my view, what saves the story from Nabokov's wonted near-contempt for his own characters.

VI fails in his quest for happiness, but in a sense the absolute crushing of his spirit by the Germans is a metaphor for the death of the romantic ideal itself in the face of the coldness, the cruelty, of modernism. And certainly Nabokov is also foreshadowing the war.

I was thinking last night about the trope of innocence in American literature, and I believe there is a similar trope running through Dostoyevsky et al. -- there is generally a character who is too innocent to easily survive in the world as it is, like Alyosha in Brothers K.

Emily J. said...

Even if the tropes don't always work this way, I wonder if it isn't the truly innocent who are the best survivors, because they don't see the ugliness, while the romantic idealists fall in love with a dream that can't come true, like a woman they can't have, and thus can't turn away from the cruelty.

Pentimento said...

The story reminds me a lot of a novel that I love, My Friends by Emmanuel Bove, an interwar French writer. His main character is a somewhat less sophisticated innocent who is dealt with just as cynically as V.I., though perhaps with not as overt cruelty. It's actually a wonderful little book and short.

Pentimento said...

And, interestingly, the main character, M. Baton, is a veteran of WWI, the great modern destroyer of innocence and of the romantic ideal.

Emily J. said...

I'll look for it at the library or use my Christmas Barnes and Noble card - which sits here waiting because there are so many choices...

Pentimento said...

I wonder if we should put it on our list?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

After I read the story, the pity I felt for Vasily was the kind I'd have for a child who doesn't understand why others are being cruel to him--only much greater because Vasily's innocence doesn't seem the kind one can grow out of.

Even after the experience of the return trip, he can't even grow a hard, cynical shell, but thinks his only means of self-preservation is to run away from the world.

Pentimento said...

That's why it is a sad story. I think there must be many Vasily Ivanoviches in our world.

Enbrethiliel, I wonder what you would think of *My Friends*, too.

mrsdarwin said...

What struck me as I read was the descriptions of the beauty of the fields and the paths and the lake. That beauty was real -- it existed separately from the cruelty and ignorance of the travelers and the suffering of Vasily. I think that his glimpses of objective beauty gave Vasily what little strength he had to resist the encroaching horror of the trip.

It made me think of the bit in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam are traveling through a blighted landscape toward Mordor, and they see, for a moment, a glimpse of the stars through a tear in the black clouds. That reminder of a beauty and goodness that exists outside the cruelty and ugliness that surrounded them gave them strength and reminded them of their purpose. As I read I thought of the victims of Communism, perhaps shut away for years in prisons, perhaps tortured relentlessly, who might have taken strength from a memory of real beauty that cannot be blotted out by the consuming hardness of their physical surroundings.

I don't think that this is a huge theme of the story, but as Nabokov makes specific reference more than once to these mysterious visions of beauty, I found that they were the part of the story that remained with me.