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A Nursery Tale

The original title of the above story found in this collection would be "a fairy tale," which suggests something not altogether fit for young ears. As it were, there is little to distinguish the prototypical fairy tale, replete with anthropomorphism, violence, and more than occasional wickedness, from our narrative. The protagonist is a lecherous bachelor still of marrying age by the name of Erwin; the place is a "fairy-tale German town." From our childhood on we learned that, by virtue of their beauty, serenity, and order, German towns tend to be perfect backdrops to the unusual and eerie. Erwin has a lot of free time on his clammy hands and spends it observing the nubile unattached maidens in his vicinage. There are many and he is but one, as alone as the toad upon the lily pad, so it takes him hardly any time to feel overwhelmed. After one unfortunate incident that ends in an upbraid and a hint of deterred sexual assault, Erwin alters his scheme:  

In compensation, separated from the street by a windowpane, clutching to his ribs a black briefcase, wearing scuffed trousers with a pinstripe, and stretching one leg under the opposite seat (if unoccupied), Erwin looked boldly and freely at passing girls, and then would suddenly bite his nether lip: this signified the capture of a new concubine; whereupon he would set her aside, as it were, and his swift gaze, jumping like a compass needle, was already seeking out the next one. Those beauties were far from him, and therefore the sweetness of free choice could not be affected by sullen timidity. 

I believe the waggish modern term for such a hobby is "eye candy"; it is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most forgivable hobbies in the world, as well as one of the hardest to relinquish. We would not be presumptuous in thinking that Erwin's fantasies are sketches for later portraits, hung ingloriously on the four bare walls of his humble studio. It is in this vein then, "on a frivolous evening in May" with the flower aria from this opera playing in the distance, that Erwin meets the one woman who can give him everything he wishes. And that woman is the Devil.

She introduces herself as such and also has another name, Frau Monde. Monde seems interested in pleasing Erwin and strikes up conversation in so casual a fashion as to be unconvincing in her claims. As Erwin reaches for his hat mumbling the niceties his mother taught him to mumble in such awkward situations, Monde directs his attention to an old man crossing before one of the ubiquitous trams loved by any lover of Germany and predicts disaster. The disaster occurs, although her phrasing allows the man to survive, and Erwin stops leaving, uncertain as to what turn their relationship is about to take. Monde fills him in concisely:

'Here is what I suggest. Tomorrow, from noon to midnight you can select by your usual method' (with heavy humor Frau Monde sucked in her lower lip with a succulent hiss) 'all the girls you fancy. Before my departure, I shall have them gathered and placed at your complete disposal. You will keep them until you have enjoyed them all. How does that strike you, amico?'

There is, as there ordinarily is with such pacts, an additional stipulation: his harem must be odd in number. Should midnight chime with an even collection, he will lose every single one of them – and perhaps a little more than that. So Monde stealthily exits, a mildly flabbergasted Erwin begins looking forward to tomorrow's eventful errands, and the dollhouse is built.

The informality of the encounter may remind students of Russian literature of this subsequent novel, both of which owe much more to the Faust legend than to each other (Nabokov's story antedated the palaver at the Patriarch's Pond by several years) – but close analysis yields no comparison of any value. What Erwin does or does not accomplish by midnight possesses much of the suspense wrought by the best of fairy or nursery tales, stories that do not so much as shock as fulfill expectations in an offbeat way. You and I and Frau Monde and any other experienced reader all know that Erwin and his harem are quickly parted; what we do not know are the circumstances of his occlusion. When he sets out that fateful afternoon, we are treated to a magnificent scene:

He went out just as the church clock had begun the laborious task of striking noon. Sunday bells joined in excitedly, and a bright breeze ruffled the Persian lilacs around the public lavatory in the small park near his house. Pigeons settled on an old stone Herzog or waddled along the sandbox where little children, their flannel behinds sticking up, were digging with toy scoops and playing with wooden trains. The lustrous leaves of the lindens moved in the wind; their ace-of-spades shadows quivered on the graveled path and climbed in an airy flock the trouser legs and skirts of the strollers, racing up and scattering over shoulders and faces, and once again the whole flock slipped back onto the ground, where, barely stirring, they lay in wait for the next foot passenger. In this variegated setting, Erwin noticed a girl in a white dress who had squatted down to tousle with two fingers a fat shaggy pup with warts on his belly. The inclination of her head bared the back of her neck, revealing the ripple of her vertebrae, the fair bloom, the tender hollow between her shoulder blades, and the sun through the leaves found fiery strands in her chestnut hair.

You would think this would be enough for most people, and indeed, our Erwin would have been better off stopping right there. German trees in the shape of playing cards will also call to mind another Russian work of art that again traces its spindly roots to Doctor Faustus and his endless thirst for what we boldly call knowledge. After all, Frau Monde's late third husband was a professor. And a worldly one at that. 

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