"That in Aleppo Once..." by Vladimir Nabokov (first published in The Atlantic Monthly -- month uncertain; later collected in in Nabokov's Dozen, 1958)
Told in the form of a letter to V., a Russian-born novelist living in New York, "That in Aleppo Once..." is a plea from the narrator (a poet) that V. make sense of the narrator's experience escaping from Vichy France with his new (and much younger) bride. The narrator proclaims that he has documents to prove his marriage, but also says that he is positive that the wife never existed.
He had gone out with the woman a few times but did not realize his passion for her until he first touched her hair -- an experience he likened to an innocent soldier picking up a booby-trapped doll: a blinding flash, then darkness peppered by bits of light. Shortly before the Nazis invaded Paris, the narrator determines that he and his wife must leave before this happens. The Germans would not take kindly to some of his works that ridiculed them.
His wife said she had a cousin in New York, married with a deaf daughter, and he would surely help them in America. She writes a passionate letter to her cousin but no answer ever came. In desperation, hey board a train, one of many that had an uncertain destination in this confused time. His wife begins to cry. When asked she replied that she was thinking about the poor dog they had to leave behind. There was no dog. She said the one they were considering buying at the pet shop. There was no pet shop. While the train was making a brief stop, the narrator left for just a few minutes to buy some food for the two of them. When he got back the train was gone. A callous stationmaster told him he should never have left the train.
Not knowing what his wife would do, the narrator then goes to Nice, the train's final destination. There was no sign of his wife. He then goes to where they had originally boarded the train. Again no sign. He checked with various Russians exiled to the area to no avail. After a week, a detective named Holmes (shades of Sherlock) tells him he has found his wife. Taking the narrator to an apartment building he introduces the narrator to a woman he has never seen. Both the narrator and the woman insist that Holmes is mistaken while the man in the woman's bed looks on.
The narrator wanders by a food store with a long line. At the end of the line he spots his wife. He seems confused. She tells him that, after she could not find him, she fell in with some Russian ex-patriots and stayed with them for a while.
The two now try to obtain official papers and enter the world of bureaucracy. They are bounced from one office to another trying to get papers which would allow them to get other papers which may allow then to get the papers needed to apply for a visa. Also during this time, she tells him that she has been lying -- she was actually being kept by a rough-looking man. She did this because she was certain that the narrator had abandoned her and although she did not enjoy making love to him, it became a little more tolerable each time. Later, she is tell him that this man was a figment of her imagination. Just before they are to sail to America, she disappears, taking all her clothing and belongings with her.
The narrator could not find her anywhere, although one old woman called him a cad who did not deserve her. She said that his wife had come to her, telling tales of beatings and mistreatment. His wife (she said) told her that she had met a rich man who had a grand estate and that she was going to be with him. The narrator sails to America alone, where he sends this letter to V., asking for his advice. V. indicates that his friend might as well commit suicide.
Was the marriage real, or a figment in the mind of a man gone mad under the pressures of the day? If real, was the wife simply a fabulist or insane? What hope does the narrator have being hopelessly in love with someone he will never see again, if he had actually seen her in the first place? Was the man's mania a symptom of the chaos and evil that the Nazis had given the world?
Nabokov laces this very short story with literary references from Conan Doyle to Othello to Pushkin, adding to the story's sense of unreality.
Nabokov (1899-1977) was one of the twentieth century's greatest literary stylists. He wrote his first nine novels in his native Russian while living in Berlin. His reputation began to grow once he started writing in English -- Lolita, Pnin, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Wild Fire, and Speak, Memory are among his most praised works.
"That in Aleppo Once..." can be read online.