Even if you are not involved in the literary community, you are probably familiar with the name Vladimir Nabokov. His most well-known work Lolita is equally praised and controversial, but is undoubtedly one of the biggest literary work of our time.
I, on the other hand, was first introduced to Nabokov’s work through his poetry in October 2016 as I read his collected poems and therefor discovered my favorite poem of all-time to this day. “The Snapshot” combines the beauty of language he uses in his works with the ambiguity we rediscover in his major works as well.
Upon the beach at violet-blue noon,
in a vacational Elysium
a striped bather took
a picture of his happy family.
And very still stood his small naked boy,
and his wife smiled,
in ardent light, in sandy bliss
plunged as in silver.
An by the striped man
directed at the sunny sand
blinked with a click of its black eyelid
the camera's ocellus.
That bit of film imprinted
all it could catch,
the stirless child, his radiant mother,
and a toy pail and two beach spades,
and some way off a bank of sand,
and I, the accidental spy,
I in the background have been also taken.
Next winter, in an unknown house,
grandmother will be shown an album,
and in that album there will be a snapshot,
and in that snapshot I shall be.
My likeness among strangers,
one of my August days,
my shade they never noticed,
my shade they stole in vain.
“The Snapshot” (Снимок) by Vladimir Nabokov, originally written in Russian and translated into English by Nabokov himself. This poem appears in the 1969 collection Poems and Problems.
At first it might appear to be a serene scene at the beach observed by the narrator of this poem. The family at the center of the narrator’s observation is at first glance there to give context to the following situation taking place. At a second look, there is much more to link the two, the narrator and the family, together. An interpretation of this situation could be that the narrator is looking at a reflection of his own childhood and remembering his childhood days while observing the family and the little boy.
To me, there is something more sinister going on in this poem. It appears to be about the loss of childhood innocence through a traumatic experience, dealing with grief as a family as well as depression. The poem is equally about the little boy as it is about the narrator of the poem.
We get several hints throughout the poem that direct the reader to this interpretation and that something will happen or is even currently happening to the boy.
He is described as very still and is also separated by description in several instances.
His mother and the little boy are described separately: she happy and radiant, he still and stirless.
In the background we see “a toy pail and two beach spades,” very closely mentioned to the narrator’s location. And it is the narrator’s last words in the poem that gave me the ultimate hint for my interpretation: “my shade they never noticed. / my shade they stole in vain.” When we link these words with the seemingly abandoned toys next to him and take the little boy into the frame, this, to me, all hints towards a forced loss of innocence for a child. Maybe through abuse. Both the little boy and the narrator seem to share this horrific experience. The narrator looks to have developed a depression as he describes himself as if something has been taken from him and this encounter with the little boy refreshed the horrible memories.
The fate of the little boy seems more unclear, but there must be a tragedy involved.
A hint for that is the grandmother looking at the picture. In moments of grief, that is a very common way of remembering. It could be that we encounter an instance of child suicide. What I rather suggest though, as the little boy still seems to be very young, that the abuse ended up in something much more horrific.
No matter what happened exactly to both characters, Nabokov achieves to leave the reader with chills by only hinting towards what is truly going on. The impact of what we interpret is much stronger without a clear explanation and underlines Vladimir Nabokov’s ability to draw us into a dark and sinister situation.