Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
By Vladimir Nabokov
Original Publisher: McGraw-Hill
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Kirstin Allio writes:
I admit right off the bat that I’m painfully aware of burning word-count for this trembly beginning. Who do I think I am, daring to step up and over the threshold of Nabokov? I approach him in terror, as if the King of Writing could see through me, lowly aspirant. His smoldering erudition, multi-dimensional weave and jigsaw of referents in who-knows-how-many languages, dark knowledge of vanished worlds, Vera’s beauty, tutors humbled by his genius in childhood, almost godlike resilience, exuberant, exorbitant vocabulary . . . And in Tyrants Destroyed I’m struck again: what has he been feeding his descriptions? They are giants.
I imagine sighting him through a crowd excited as flames, an old world costume ball. He’s wearing a two-headed mask: Apollo on one side, Dionysus on the other, so fluently does he inhabit both the objective and subjective. I twist through the crowd in a blushing fever, Vladimir Vladimirovich, please forgive me, I manage, but looking backward from my demotic, gossipy, literal-technological-minded era, (my whole era, as you say, describing your tyrant, “the incarnate negation of a poet”), you are really too crazy to have been published. You are my favorite writer.
Reading, I tell him, a seemingly introverted activity, is an absolute assault on this introvert when it’s you I’m reading. My blush surges. Is his silence, condescension, or is it because of the mask he’s wearing? Does anyone read as much as she thinks she should? I prattle. Only my fifth-grade son, who seems to have no saturation point, and no cares in the world to prevent him from reading, except my periodic admonishment to set the table or take out the compost, at which he has been known to thrust his book into my arms as if it were a baby. My son, I continue, like a peasant mother in a folktale, reads walking home from the library as if I were his seeing-eye dog. My son has inadvertently carried a book with him into the shower. A wet book―and at this my Nabokov ghost shudders, and vanishes.
Tyrants Destroyed is a diverse but not disharmonious batch of stories written between 1924 and 1939, published in 1975, when Nabokov was famous. In the notes at the back of my edition Nabokov writes of “A Matter of Chance,” from 1924 (a sad and somewhat formulaic sketch of Russian refugee-emigrants. I can’t imagine Nabokov not knowing the expression “like ships passing in the night,” and I imagine how he must have delighted in the conception of a husband and wife, long and tragically lost from one another, passing, in the night, on the same ship; or train, in this version), “I would never have traced it again had it not been rediscovered by Andrew Field [Nabokov biographer] a few years ago.” Nabokov is a story billionaire, so he can afford to lose a couple, and this comment seems accordingly casual. But it reminds me how fully in control he is of his creative powers. I guess this is no revelation, but it still shocks and thrills me every time I turn from lesser writers to Nabokov’s prolific and supremely confident court.
The title story, “Tyrants Destroyed,” begins with the narrator’s personal recollections of the proto-tyrant when the two were part of the same youthful circle. At first, the narrator wonders at the way they all “mistook [the tyrant’s] moroseness for the intensity of spiritual force,” but soon he is more interested, and bedeviled by the fact that he could so easily have snuffed the tyrant out on any number of occasions in that lost time when people still moved about freely.
Oh if it were possible to claw into the past, drag a
missed opportunity by its hair back to the present . . .
The story illustrates Nabokov’s virtuosity, a spellbinding soloist of language. The structure fairly simple, if dramatic, a full-throated, cri-de-coeur crescendo in which the narrator is increasingly obsessed and overwhelmed by the tyrant. In fact I want to say innerwhelmed, his inner life is taken over.
My hatred of him . . . ominously swelled in the center
of the space that was my soul, until it had nearly filled
it, leaving me only a narrow rim of curved light
(resembling more the corona of madness than the
halo of martyrdom), though I foresee an utter eclipse
still to come.
There’s something at once bombastic and delicate about this language. Nabokov’s notes say that the tyrant is Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, and the characterization sinks its knife into the heart of the paradox of tyrannical power: the demagogue is clichéd, and conventional. He possesses
the kind of sober, concentrated will deeply conscious
of its sullen self, which in the end molds a giftless
person into a triumphant monster.
In ratcheting up the sense of the epic and the devotional, Nabokov lavishes perverse power upon his tyrant.
The nails of his large humid hands were so closely
bitten that it was painful to see the tight little cushions
at the tips of his hideous fingers . . .
His lean, yet broad-hipped body, with its odd,
womanish pelvis and round back . . .
Here it is, the banality of evil, and the grandiose specificity of hatred.
Indeed the tyrant’s ascension is stifling, as if even the pores of the air are the tyrant’s. The narrator begins to see the world around him in the tyrant’s own image.
The schools’ curriculum now includes gypsy wrestling,
which, in rare moments of cold playfulness, he used
to practice on the floor with my brother twenty-five
And finally the law he established―the implacable
power of the majority, the incessant sacrifice to the
idol of the majority―lost all sociological meaning, for
he is the majority.
As the narrator loses himself in the outsized creature of his hatred he imagines he has only one option:
By killing myself I would kill him, as he was totally
inside me, fattened on the intensity of my hatred.
It’s a dramatic peak. What you don’t see coming is the swift, deft reversal. As the narrator prepares to kill himself like a voodoo doll of the tyrant, weighing the gruesome, rather amateur weapons available, a propaganda celebration mounts in the streets below his window. He pauses to watch the banners unfurl, he hears the stupid snort of the trumpets, and he is suddenly, inexplicably filled with love for the tyrant.
Love for the tyrant! I put the book down disgustedly. Maybe all that mask-wearing has overheated Nabokov’s brain: this isn’t the ending I thought I was being groomed for.
But there’s only one more page, and of course I have to finish:
Rereading my chronicle, I see that, in my efforts to
make him terrifying, I have only made him ridiculous,
thereby destroying him―an old, proven method.
This is an incantation, an exorcism, so that henceforth
any man can exorcise bondage.
And I’m shocked all over again. Here, almost quietly, at least with no fanfare, is the narrator’s spiritual-linguistic release from obsession.
The logic strikes me as emotional, as if Nabokov truly wants to destroy tyrants using words as weapons. I’m quite sure this is Nabokov’s uncynical, undying belief in the power of language. He sports some extraordinary costumes, indulges his sheer writerly prowess, but in the end, there’s faith and substance behind the style: a story like “Tyrants Destroyed” captures his deep, wise, optimistic humanity.
Kirstin Allio was selected for 5 Under 35 in 2007: many thanks to the National Book Foundation! She is the author of the novel, Garner, and numerous short stories, including one in The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Seattle. (Photo: Michael K. Allio)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Saul Bellow for Humboldt’s Gift
- Hortense Calisher for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher
- Johanna Kaplan for Other People's Lives
- Vladimir Nabokov for Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
- Larry Woiwode for Beyond the Bedroom Wall
Fiction Winner That Year: William Gaddis for JR
Fiction Judges That Year: Maurice Dolbier, William Gass, Mary McCarthy
The Year in Literature:
- Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Nabokov never won the National Book Award, but he was a Fiction Finalist six other times: in 1958 for Pnin, in 1959 for Lolita, in 1963 for Pale Fire, in 1965 for The Defense, in 1975 for Look at the Harlequins!, and in 1976 for Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories.