“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)