Imaginary Journeys and Nightmares: “The Execution” and its Models

Stanislav Shvabrin, University of California, Los Angeles

Judging by its appearance in Poems and Problems (1970), the five-stanza, four-foot-iambic “Execution” bears many marks of paternal impartiality: not only did it merit inclusion in this rigorously selective bilingual edition, but was furnished with two footnotes – an honor bestowed on very few works in an already slim volume. Written in 1927 in Berlin (and published in 1930), “The Execution” follows the guidelines outlined by Nabokov in his introduction to the volume: it contains a series of events represented in their natural progression, which constitute a conspicuous plotline. In a haunting nightmare a Russian exile is repeatedly escorted to a ravine where he is about to be executed; he awakes in horror only to find himself in the safety of exile; his awakening, however, brings little relief: his heart, emphatically apostrophized in the poem’s last stanza, longs for a reunion with the homeland, even if it should come at the ultimate price. It is no accident that this memorable poem is among the most popular written by Nabokov: its embodiment of the exile’s predicament combined with its striking simplicity ensures it a place in any anthology of Russian exile poetry.

To what extent is this daringly old-fashioned (by the prevailing standards) poem original? What were the literary models that “The Execution”’s author either consciously chose to evoke or simply could not help evoking? The primary goal of this paper is to point in the direction of such models and juxtapose them with the poem’s text. It will attempt to trace “The Execution”’s creative lineage back to Fet’s “A. L. Bržeskoj” (“Dalekij drug, pojmi moj rydan’ja...," 1879) and Lermontov’s “Son” (“V poldnevnyj žar v doline Dagestana...,” 1841).

The bed, the lyrical persona’s preferred means of conveyance in his journey to his beloved – if unwelcoming –homeland, also strikes a familiar note with a reader acquainted with Shakespeare’s sonnets. Can the glimmer of “the gun’s steadfast muzzle” pointed at the persona be a refraction of Sonnet 27’s “jewel hung in ghastly night”? These and other similarities connecting “The Execution” with “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed...” will be discussed in the paper.