This node contains my translation of The Wood Goblin, a 1921 story in Russian by Vladimir Nabokov, with an introduction to situate this story in the context of the writer's biography and literary preoccupations. The work's original title is Нежить and it is in the public domain.


The wonderful thing about Vladimir Nabokov is that he is one of those rare writers in the Russian language who managed to bring mythology and the fantastic into the settings of everyday life. The story "The Wood Goblin" - in my original translation from the Russian - was published in 1921 after Nabokov and his family emigrated from revolutionary Russia to Berlin. The theme that the story deals with is simple enough - the nostalgia of émigrés who desperately miss their old country. However, this theme is transformed into a mythical magical allegory. The story begins in Berlin with the narrator receiving an old friend he once knew from Russia. This old, graying man is grieving about a favorite woods that was chopped away. No other forest can replace the one lost. But as the talk later turns to being exiled from Russia and the realization that the post-Revolution country is not recognizable, the forest reveals itself as a metaphor for this very transformation. What can a chopped-down woods with corpses on the ground and in the water really symbolize?

Perhaps, it is a reference to Russia's post 1917 industrialization drive that appropriated the vast green expanses of the land to turn them into collective-farming enterprises. No need to divine the meaning of the corpses; they might as well represent themselves. The death toll of the revolution and the civil war is well known to every person familiar with the history. But the most important thing to take away from the story is the author's nostalgia for the lost freedom to dream and write. The post-revolutionary Russian mentality was anti-imagination and pro-materialism: the wood spirits and all mythological creatures diverted the population from the goal of technological progress. Literature had to deal with molding steal, raising cattle, and building bridges. Nabokov's style of writing - describing the colors and movements of nature, the way light and shadows penetrated a room and illuminated its objects, his references to mythology - was denounced as the navel-gazing of the idle and decadent bourgeois. Nabokov emigrated and was free to write as he wanted; but those who stayed behind had to wed their output to ideology.

Almost a century has gone by since the Russian revolution, but the goals of writing are still subject to the same debate. Should literature be engaged and occupy itself with social and political issues? Is it right for an author withdraw to the private sphere and write about his personal impressions, mythological or mundane, of his surroundings and social circle? Either way, in Nabokov's fiction personal impressions and reality intersect and contradict each other. The most interesting question of this story is whether the visitor who tells the allegory of the forest is a real person or only the narrator's hallucination.

Nabokov lived in Berlin from the 1920s to the mid 1930s, where he published his stories in Russian literary magazines. The Wood Goblin (Не Жить) аappeared in 1921 in the Berlin weekly Rul' (Wheel) that was founded by Vladimir's father. My translation of the story certainly affords you the pleasure of enjoying Nabokov's writing, but you could also consult Dmitri Nabokov's authoritative translation, "The Wood Sprite" in the anthology of Vladimir Nabokov entitled "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov."

The Wood Goblin

I was pensively outlining the round, trembling shadow of the ink pot. From a distant room hailed the tick-tack of a clock and it flashed upon me the dreamer that there was someone knocking at the door, gently at first but then ever more loudly: twelve times in a row but then dying down in quiet anticipation. -- Yes I am here, please come in.....

The door handle timidly creaked, refracted the flame of the tearful candle, and he emerged sideways from the rectangle bathed in darkness -- hunched and gray, powdered in the dust of the frosty, star-dusted night. His face - oh yes I knew it -- I had known it since way back when. That mossy gray wisp of hair on his temple, the pale silver of his barely visible brow, -- even the droll crinkle on the mouth deprived of a mustache -- how it vaguely stirred and poked around in in the recesses of my memory. I got up - he strode toward me.

His thin coat was buttoned up somewhat awkwardly, in the fashion of a woman; in his hand he held a hat - well actually, a dark, sloppily put-together bundle --.. even his hat was missing.....

Of course I knew him - perhaps, even loved him - only I couldn't recollect where and when we saw each other, but I was sure that these meetings happened often, otherwise his cowberry-red lips, pointed ears, and quirky Adam's apple wouldn't have imprinted themselves on my mind.

With friendly muttering, I squeezed his light, cold hand and touched the back of the dilapidated chair. He sat down, like a crow settling on a stump, and spoke up in a hurried tone:

It's awful outside. So I came in. Came in for a visit. Recognize me? We've had some wild times, we've howled at the moon! Did you really forget?

His voice literally blinded me, glittering lights started flickering in my eyes, and my head began spinning: the memories of happiness - boundless, reverberating, and irretrievable happiness.

No, but this cannot be happening! I am -- alone... All of this - it's really nothing but whimsical delusions. But someone was really sitting at my side -- bony and bumbling, in dog- eared German boots, and his voice rung out, rustled, golden, dew-green, but his words were rather simple, merely human...

So then, I did remember.. Yes, I - formerly the wood goblin - a boisterous creature.. But even I had to flee...

He sighed deeply, and I was transported to a vision of high staggering waves of foliage, glittering bits of birch bark, splashes of foam, and ceaseless delightful roaring. He leaned over toward me, and gently looked into my eyes.

Do you remember our forest, the black fir tree, the white birch? They were felled. It hurt and unbearably so; the birch trees crackle and fall over, but what can I do? They drove me into the swamp, I cried bitterly, drank, and lashed out in rage - then hopped over into a nearby forest.

I was in a deep fit of melancholy and I couldn't cry it all out. I was just starting to feel at home here - but then, in just an instant, there was no more pine forest - only the the blue-gray cinder left behind. I searched out a small woods - a small forest it was, think, somber, and fresh - but it just wasn't right. There were times that I played there from one dawn to the next, I whistled furiously, clapped my hands, and scared the passerbys.... You remember it well: you lost your way in the far-off corner of the forest - you and your white robe - I tied the paths together in a knot, circled around the trunks, and peeked through the foliage - wasted the whole night.. But that was only a joke, no need to denigrate me.... Then I quieted down; the house-warming party wasn't so merry after all. Day and night everything around me seemed to crack. At first I thought - my brother, the wood goblin is up to something; I called out to him and listened attentively. It was crackling and rattling - no it wasn't anything identifiable. Once, at dusk, I ran out onto the clearing and some spotted some people lying there - some on their back, others on their belly. Well, I thought to myself, I should wake 'em up and get them stirring! Then I started shaking the tree branches, flinging pine cones and making catcalls. I was at it for a whole hour at it and all for nothing. As I looked closer, I was horrified. The head of one them hung off a red thread, the other's stomach was a heap of worms. I couldn't take it anymore. I howled, started, and took off running.

I spent a lot of time wandering through various forests, but got no pleasure out of it. It was either quiet or deserted, a deadly boredom, how awful, better to just forget about it! Finally I made up my mind, and became a simple peasant, a vagrant with a knapsack, and left for good: goodbye, Russia. But there, a good soul! Gave me a helping hand. The poor guy was also on the run. Ah, he marveled, what times do we live now - a real disaster! Though it was true that he played tricks on people, and lured them (he was very hospitable), he certainly cherished them, he caressed and doted on them in the golden day, and regaled them with song. But now, he says, only the dead men float, visible or out of sight, and the river dampness is like ore, thick, warm, and sticky - make your way brother and find yourself a bush. Alas I didn't find anything and ended up in this strange, frightening city of stone. So then I became a respectable person, collars, boots, everything just like it should be -- I even learned to talk like them.

He grew silent. His words shone like wet leaves, his hands were crossed, and in the unsteady reflection of the floating candle appeared the eerie reflection of his glimmering silvering hair.

I know that you too suffer from melancholy - rang out his clear voice - but your melancholy, when compared to mine that is turbulent and windy, is only the even breathing of a sleep. But think: not a single person of our tribe remains in Russia. Some rose up and evaporated like fog, others dispersed over the four corners of the earth. Native rivers are gloomy, nobody's sprightly hand splashes the glitters of the moon, it is no accident that the lonesome, drooping bell flowers are silent - these were once the blue lyres of the field spirit, my adversary. The affectionate wood spirit, left your disgraced, spit-upon home in tears and the groves were blighted, those touchingly-bright magically-desolate groves.

Yes we are your inspiration, Russia, your unfathomable beauty, your centuries-old lure... Yes we all left, banished by a deranged and dreadful land surveyor.

My friend, I will soon pass away, so say something to me, say that you love me, a ghost without a home, come sit closer to me, give me your hand. Hissing, the candle snuffed out. Cold fingers grazed my palm and sad familiar laughter rang out and died down. When I turned on the light, there was no one in the chair.. no one... There was only a miraculously fine smell of birch and wet moss.

The End.

See Russian language version at

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