Nabokov’s Otherworldly Mermaid: “Spring in Fialta”

Elena Rakhimova Sommers, University of Rochester

Nabokov’s 1936 story “Spring in Fialta” is an excursion, even an initiation, into the dreamlike realm of Nabokov’s otherworld embodied in the atmosphere of Fialta, a sleepy European sea-resort enveloped in the warm mist of its seemingly never-ending drizzle. As if born out of Fialta’s dreamlike mist, the personification of impermanence and seduction, the figure of the story’s heroine, Nina, is so ephemeral, it seems to be a product of the narrator’s imagination. Available and unattainable, slipping away and still catchable, Nina, whose love is compared to “springwater which at the least notice she gave anyone to drink,” is the perfect image of the “rusalka” (water sprite), the most elusive and truly otherworldly female mythological creature of all time.

Although the subject of numerous critical works, “Spring in Fialta” has never been looked at through the “rusalka prism,” until this study, which will trace a mermaid pattern in the watery kingdom of the story. After establishing the presence of the “rusalka”-mermaid watermark in Nabokov’s work and briefly reviewing the anthropological research on the Russian “rusalka” belief, the study will provide a close comparative analysis of the Russian and “Englished” variants of the story. Offering a glimpse at the working of the author’s mind, Nabokov’s divergences from the original will reveal the most “sensitive,” stylistically intricate parts of the text.

The spirit as well as the name of the ancient Russian holiday, “Rusal′naja nedelja,” ‘the mermaids’ week,’ celebrated beginning with the seventh Thursday or seventh week after Russian Easter, reflects the curious origin of the Russian “rusalka” belief, which is a blending of the Western tradition of holiday and games, “rosalia,” and the ancient Russian pagan holiday honoring the dead. This dualistic nature of the “rusalka” belief combining in itself both celebratory and funerary motifs, finds its reflection in the texture of the story where prefigurations of an impending death intertwined with the narrator’s tribute to his love manifest the very duality between life and death, celebration and mourning, joy and sorrow.

As the “mermaids’ week” comes to an end and Fialta is filled with sunlight, our “rusalka” leaves, granting her beloved a unique moment of “cosmic synchronization” that defies the finality of death. Although the last sentence of the story informs us of Nina’s death, we are left with a feeling that “the main text still lies ahead.” Like many of Nabokov’s otherworldly women, a temporary guest in the mundane world, this elusive and unattainable “rusalka”/mermaid/Siren/nymph does not vanish, but simply moves into another dimension. Like Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading, Nina seems to “ma[ke] [her] way in that direction, where to judge by the voices, st[and] beings akin to [her].”