By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Razor’ by Vladimir Nabokov is a short tale – a short, sharp one, we might say. First published in the Russian emigré newspaper Rul’ in Berlin in 1926, the story is set in Berlin and features a title character who works in a barbershop. This man, a Russian, is working in the shop on his own one day when an evil figure from his past walks in for a shave.
In just a few pages, ‘Razor’ establishes a number of key themes: opportunity, revenge, psychological manipulation, and self-control, among others. Let’s take a closer look at Nabokov’s story, one of his shortest, by offering a close analysis of its meaning and symbolism.
‘Razor’: plot summary
Ivanov, a Russian emigré, has a nickname, ‘Razor’, which he acquired while he was in the army, because his face has such sharp features. Perhaps because of this nickname, he has ended up working in a barber shop in Berlin, much as men called Stone or Stein end up working with stones in some strange form of nominative determinism.
One day when business is quiet, Ivanov’s two colleagues at the barbershop leave him alone to hold the fort. Ivanov watches the people passing by the shop outside, until a thickset man with a mole to the right of his nose comes in and gestures that he wants a shave. Ivanov recognises him as a man who, six years earlier, interrogated him. Ivanov tells the man that he is still alive, implying that torture was also involved.
As Ivanov shaves the man, he tells him that if he should slip with his razor he would produce a good deal of blood. He then tells the man all about the interrogation, while continuing to shave him. Ivanov then points out that both corpses and people sentenced to death are shaved. Can the man guess what is going to happen next?
The man in the chair cannot move, his face pale, his eyes clamped firmly shut. He doesn’t speak. Then Ivanov tells him the shave is finished and that the man can get up and leave. He does so, looking petrified like a Greek statue as he staggers out of the shop and into the street.
Although ‘Razor’ is a short tale and it is not one of Nabokov’s major works of short fiction (which themselves are often side-lined in favour of his novels, such as Pale Fire, Pnin, and Lolita), it nevertheless succeeds in introducing its core themes and bringing its brief incident to a satisfying conclusion within the space of under four pages.
In essence, ‘Razor’ is a monologue, despite having two principal characters. The man who walks into the shop never speaks: his only communication is to signal that he wants a shave. At first, he appears not to speak because he is curt and simply there to have a shave (one of the oldest jokes on record, from ancient Rome, features a barber asking his customer how he would like his hair cut, to which the customer replies, ‘In silence’).
But his taciturn nature clearly gives way to terror when he realises that the man who now wields a razor blade over his head is one of the men he interrogated and tortured six years before.
But it takes Ivanov himself a few moments to realise the power he has over this man. It is only once he has lathered up the man’s face and sharpened his razor on the strap that he realises that the man is in his power. Of course, the feeling of vulnerability many people experience in a barbershop requires little probing: it’s undoubtedly one factor in the spine-chilling Sweeney Todd serial which entertained and terrified Victorian readers.
There is something about sitting down in a chair while a man stands over us with a razorblade sharp enough not just to give us a nasty nick but to put an end to our life in seconds which is likely to put a shiver down the spine of even a hardened military man.
And ‘Razor’, as his nickname (nick-name?) has it, is already, by virtue of his name, an extension of the object – the potential weapon – he wields in his hand. Yet having come to realise the power he has to exact revenge upon the man who has interrogated and tormented him, he decides not to do so. Instead, he shaves the man and sends him on his way.
This is not the same as forgiveness, of course. But it does signal that he is prepared to put the past behind him and try to move on with his life.
Nabokov’s story is about anti-climax and, in a sense, the absence of a story. Little actually happens: when we try to summarise the plot in terms of its action, we find it can be reduced to ‘man goes into a barbershop and asks for a shave; gets it; leaves’. And it’s telling (as it were) that Nabokov’s third-person narrator doesn’t recount to us whatever it is that Ivanov recounts to the man: we never learn the details of what this ‘interrogation’ consisted of.
Indeed, there’s even some uncertainty over whether the narrator is omniscient and knows the details of the story Ivanov tells: the narrator confides that the tale ‘must’ have been terrifying because of the gestures and movements that accompany it, but that ‘must’ implies that even he is not privy to the details. The past is the past: a secret between torturer and victim.