“That in Aleppo Once…” By Vladimir Nabokov

Week 28 – Deal Me In Short Story Challenge


Driving home from work one day last week, I tuned into NPR and was listening to news from Syria and how the Syrian rebels were about to lose the city of Aleppo (can you find it in the map above?) back to the forces of President Assad. It was no surprise, then, when I drew my latest card for my Deal Me In challenge, it was the nine of spades, which I had assigned last December to Vladimir Nabokov’s famous short story, “That in Aleppo Once,” making this the umpteenth coincidence wrought by my Deal Me In reading the past three and a half years.

This was another difficult story for me, with its strange narrator relating the tale of his and, ostensibly, his wife’s flight from the advancing Germans in war-torn Western Europe. It is presented in the form of a letter to a friend, and explains in detail the chaos that war has wrought in his life and in his mind.

By the end of the story, the reader (well, this reader for certain) is unsure how much of the story is real and how much the narrator has imagined. The narrator himself, in fact, seems to waver back and forth between thinking himself rational and delusional. There are lines like, “It was at that moment that I suddenly knew for certain that she (his wife) had never existed at all.”

He also struggles with his wife’s suspected infidelities (again, real or imagined?, and how are we to know if we’re not sure this wife has even existed?!), and it could be argued that the story could be about jealousy and infidelity (thus the reference to Othello in the story’s title and to Pushkin – also infamous for being jealous of a young wife – within the story), but I doubt that is it. The theme that it left with me was one of pitiable individuals who are caught up in great forces that are far beyond their control, and what a wreck such forces can bring about to one’s psyche – or sanity. One passage that supports this take: “I confess that one evening, after a particularly abominable day, I sank down on a stone bench weeping and cursing a mock world where millions of lives were being juggled by the clammy hands of consuls and commissaires.”

I own this story as part of my “Best American Short Stories of the Century” (edited by John Updike), but I also found the text of the story on line at: http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~mazalek/projects/aleppo/nabokov.html it was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1943 (pictured below)


This story’s title is a quotation from act five scene two of Shakespeare’s Othello, the same scene that includes the oft-quoted “one who loved not wisely but too well” lines. ****Spoiler Alert!**** “That in Aleppo Once…” was said just by Othello just before he kills himself. Near the end of Nabokov’s story, the narrator speculates that “all this may end in Aleppo” if he is not careful, making many wonder if he does, in fact, end up taking his life after having written the letter. I don’t know…

This week’s trivia tidbit. Nabokov is one of the most often mispronounced author names. Most stress the “Na” syllable, when – according to Nabokov himself – it’s actually the “Bo” that should be stressed. See http://inogolo.com/pronunciation/d453/Vladimir_Nabokov for one online explanation.

Have you read Nabokov? I read the (in)famous novel, “Lolita,” for a book club years ago and also his chess-themed novel, “The Defense” (of which there is an odd film version tiled “Luzhin’s Defense” starring John Turturro). I read another famous short story of his (“Signs and Symbols”) for another discussion group once as well. And that story has made a DMI appearance this year too.

(Below: a tortured Othello, self-recriminating)



  1. Paula Cappa said,

    July 14, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I’ve read so little of Nabokov. You’ve inspired me, Jay!


    • Jay said,

      July 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      I don’t know if he wrote any “tales of terror” though… 🙂


  2. July 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    VN wrote this poem as a pronunciation guide:

    The querulous gawk of
    A heron at night
    Prompts Nabokov
    To write


    • Jay said,

      July 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      I like that. 🙂 I was still using a long “o”…


  3. Dale said,

    July 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Thanks, Jay! I did not know the correct pronunciation. I always went by how The Police said it in “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”? Although sometimes words have to be pronounced differently in songs.

    I am assuming that Nabokov has some sort of Russian background, but I was surprised to see his story in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. I guess he was born in the U.S. or at least North America?


    • Jay said,

      July 15, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      I was recalling the song by The Police as well. Sting must’ve been no friend of Vladimir for his adding to the confusion! 🙂


      • Dale said,

        July 15, 2014 at 8:35 pm

        Yes! Sal Paradise is another great one. Perhaps a re-read of On The Road is warranted. Maybe not immediately but at least in the near future. I don’t think I have any posts about Jack Kerouac. I need to remedy that.


        • Dale said,

          July 15, 2014 at 8:38 pm

          Oops, this comment is a reply to your comment on my blog. I’m surprised I haven’t done this before!


  4. July 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    I proselytize Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve also read Lolita, but I wish I was far more well-read when it comes to his oeuvre.

    I can count myself as one of those who pronounces his name correctly, but I often stumble over his surname because I’m always ready to stress the syllable where we English speakers normally would.


    • Jay said,

      July 15, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks, I’ll look into Invitation to a Beheading.

      I’ve always liked Russian names, probably stemming from my time spent playing and studying chess. Lots of Russians there! I even played three separate opponents in AMERICAN tournaments named Vladimir. I was 2-1… 🙂


      • July 16, 2014 at 2:38 am

        I think Russian names are not as scary as we might think (but they’re still difficult). Just think in syllables; that’s how I mangle my way through it or I also like your approach: play chess!


  5. July 14, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    The story of how one of the greatest 20th century Russian writers became one of the greatest 20th century American writers is worth knowing. Much of it is told in Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory, a book as good as his best novels, in other words one of the best books of the 20th century.


    • Jay said,

      July 15, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      I’ve heard of Speak, Memory from several people over the years. Would likely be worthy add to the TBR mountain. 🙂


  6. Teresa Brooks said,

    September 5, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Just found you all here at this site, while preparing to read “That in Aleppo Once…” Wed 9/13/17 at Stories with Soul All Souls UU NYC, a short story reading group that’s entering its 25th year. We’re now on FB, though our entire archive doesn’t rest there. I don’t believe Nabokov has yet been read there, certainly not “Aleppo.” Glad to find this website.


  7. Jay said,

    September 6, 2017 at 7:58 am

    Wow! 25 years is quite impressive. That’s also a lot of stories! Among all the participants in the Deal Me In Challenge over the the past few years, I’m sure (though I haven’t been keeping exact track) we passed the 1,000 total stories mark long ago. I’d love to check out your club’s history. I searched FB but didn’t see your page. Can you reply with a link?


    • Teresa Brooks said,

      September 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      Absolutely. Where you you located? Expect the next few months will be quite exceptional at SWS. Besides our FB page (link below), which was established just a couple years ago, our archives have been maintained for the entire 25 years. Here’s our FB link.


      • Jay said,

        September 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm

        Thanks! I submitted a “join request” for the group so I can follow along. You’ve read a lot of great stories! – and there is quite a bit of overlap with ones I’ve read (and authors I’ve read) since I started my project in 1/2011. (Oh, and I’m in Central Indiana. )

        I also started a short story “book” club with people from my office a while back and we’re already up to our 28th story next week. I like how reading short stories virtually eliminates the “I didn’t have time to read it” excuse seen so often in “whole book” book clubs. 🙂


        • Teresa Brooks said,

          September 6, 2017 at 3:10 pm

          Thanks for joining. I ‘approved’ your request. It’s a public FB group, so many regular attendees haven’t joined… some don’t use FB. The SWS schedule is also available via the All Souls Monthly Bulletin and a flier I email monthly. There’s no discussion on the FB page – so far; but often the better part of our evening is the discussion following the reading.

          Turnout usually ranges from a dozen to, say, 35. We have Guidelines for Readers, Guidelines for Monthly Hosts, and so on. We adhere to them pretty well, with a sense of humor.

          I’ve been in NY for some time, but am originally from Momence, Illinois. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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