Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
This post first appeared as a “Christmas in July” feature in 2012.
The short story “Christmas” by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov is a little literary gem that for me addresses the temptation to despair when grief overshadows hope whether on a stark winter’s day or some unexpected “Christmas in July.”
Constrained with grief over the death of his young son, Sleptsov, the main character in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Christmas,” considers suicide. The day after the child’s funeral, as the story goes, Sleptsov brings his son’s coffin, “weighed down, it seemed, with an entire lifetime,” to its resting place in the family vault near their summer home in the country. Finding no solace in being near the entombed body of the boy and bone-cold in the frigid Russian winterscape, Sleptsov treks back in the thinning light to the unoccupied summer manse and walks through rooms of shrouded furnishings and mute chandeliers, the flame from his kerosene lantern shadowing the walls with his solitary figure.
Arriving in the study, Sleptsov sets the lamp on the desk and opens a wooden box that holds the boy’s treasures: a butterfly net, a “biscuit tin with (a) pear-shaped cocoon,” a spreading board for mounting butterflies, and the boy’s notebook. As the father reads the son’s daily entries of the summer just past, hearing in them that beloved young voice now stilled, his grief crescendos. It is at this point he realizes what will end this “earthly life (that) lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible—and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, (and) devoid of miracles […]” It is at this point, Sleptsov decides to end his life. Just then he hears “a sudden snap—a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking.”
The grieving father looks up and sees that the cocoon in the tin has “burst its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse (is) crawling up the wall above the table.” Before his eyes, the Attacus moth that had lain dormant inside its “taut, leaf-and-silk envelope” slowly unfurls its great black and purple wings, emerging now because of a thin shard of warmth from the lantern’s light. The moth, rising finally under the power of those wings “(takes) a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness”—as does Sleptsov, himself (Nabokov writes, between the remaining lines), who only moments before felt inextricably bound in his own kind of cocoon….
In this seemingly impossible scene—the metamorphosis of moth and of man in the dead of winter and of grief—hope transcends despair, a spirit bereft of comfort rekindles, and a miracle unfolds.
In Nabokov’s story, you might say that one in darkness sees a light, however fragile, even as those at the first Christmas saw a Light, emerging at just the right moment, a Light that overcame the darkness. And, another writer reveals, a Light that is “the life of men” through Whom “all things were made” (John 1:3,4) including cocoons that release extraordinary creatures, hearts that can change of a sudden, and hope that revives grieving spirits. And once again, the glory of the Lord unfurls.
I pray you too will be rekindled today in the light and warmth of Christ’s love, for He promised to never leave nor forsake you no matter how bleak the landscape of home—or of heart.
(on Nabokov’s “Christmas”)
for breath and flight,
man and moth emerge,
both lately from
the Crafter’s hand,
each sheltered while He worked.
A sinew here
a heartbeat there,
in silence crafted He,
’til at the last
His breath He gave
A sudden burst,
a shock to life
when Crafter stilled His hand,
but gave His Spir’t
to lead and guide
and clear ahead a path.
man and moth,
of new voice and wing,
the one to praise,
the other, soar,
both new life witnessing.
“…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” -Jesus
Scripture: John 10:10, NIV
Image of oil lamp from PublicDomainPictures.net
Thank you for all your thought provoking articles Phyllis. Merry Christmas to you!
Your welcome! And my best to you and your family as well 🙂