Terra Incognita


Vladimir Nabokov’s Terra Incognita begins like a Conrad off-cut, its narrator, Valliere, and his partner Gregson waking to find themselves abandoned by their native porters and the mysterious Cook (“a runaway sailor?”) as they make their way through unexplored country. Cook soon reappears claiming to have been forced to leave – do they shoot him now or later? – and the three continue on their way. The narrator, however, is unwell:

“I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colours, but secretly I knew that I was ill.”

At first I wondered why Nabokov would choose the ailing Valliere to narrate, but this, rather than the spirit of adventure and discovery, is the real focus of the story. As his fever rises he begins to distrust what he sees:

“I was tormented by strange hallucinations. I gazed at the weird tree trunks, around which were coiled thick, flesh-coloured snakes; suddenly I thought I saw, between the trunks, as though through my fingers, the mirror of a half-opened wardrobe with dim reflections, but then took hold of myself, looked more carefully, and found that it was only the deceptive glimmer of an acreana bush.”

Valliere’s fever allows Nabokov to indulge in some wonderful writing. I particularly liked when Cook’s “glassy tattoo slid off his skin to one side, remaining suspended in mid-air; then it floated off, floated off, and I pursued it with my frightened gaze.” As befitting a story seemingly inspired by Conrad, it ends in madness: a violent confrontation between Gregson and Cook as observed by the delirious Valliere. Before, that is, Nabokov delivers his sign-posted, but still arresting, denouement.

The other two stories in Terra Incognita (‘Spring in Fialta’ and ‘The Doorbell’) are more typically (what I expected from) Nabokov, both featuring Russian emigres. That the former also contains a writer allows Nabokov to indulge in the kind of poetically savage criticism which is the equivalent of a shark’s tooth smile in a beautiful face:

“At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose… but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through the blazoned, ghastly rich glass…”

This was my first proper encounter with Nabokov (not counting Lolita which is one of those novels existing apart from its author), and it made me very glad I had taken the chance to buy a copy of Laughter in the Dark in the most recent tranche of Pocket Penguin Classics.


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8 Responses to “Terra Incognita”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    This sounds great! So I looked it up. I’m not sure if they were ever available here, but a search shows it out of print. Used copies can be found starting at $1 plus shipping—but you will be pleased to know, new copies start at $115 USD! Seems it was a wise purchase in more than one way!

    • 1streading Says:

      The little black classics (the most recreant ones) have a Canadian price on the back but the mini modern classics published in 2011 don’t.
      All three stories come from Nabokov’s Collected Stories which, at over 800 pages, sounds like the more cost effective investment!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, I love Nabokov’s writing. In some ways it’s a shame people think only of “Lolita” because his books are so varied and wonderful! 🙂

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    “Spring in Fialta” Is by far the more famous story, but leading with “Terra Incognita” is a good idea. The title invokes a number of Nabokov’s other settings.

    I had completely forgotten about this story, so thanks for the impetus to read it again. I wish I had remembered it when I wrote that post about Nabokov and Schopenhauer.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s interesting – ‘Terra Incognita’ is certainly much shorter than ‘Spring in Fialta’ – I suspect they just felt it was a more intriguing title.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I really liked Laughter in the Dark, though apparently it’s one of his more minor ones. It has probably my favourite opening paragraph in literature:

    “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

    This does sound rather fun. Is it excerpted from a longer short story collection? Many of these Penguin pockets seem to be.

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