Nabokov has always been a conjurer writer whose rippling presence we can feel on every page and yet one who holds himself satanically aloof from us. He has one message. It is the message not of art but of the artist: "I am the puppeteer pulling the strings; you will notice how enchanted you are watching my amiable or wretched-face little dolls; you will remark with what zest and wit and verisimilitude (if I may employ one of the countless cliches dear to the hearts of reviewers) I invest them with; they are dolts, of course, though not nearly as silly as the dramatis personae of gassy Dostoevsky or thin-lipped Stendhal; still, though they are of little interest to me, it is through them I create my magic mirror, my dance, my whirlwind, my life." In these thirteen dazzling miniatures, written in Europe between 1924 and 1940, we are once more surrounded by the old Nabokov irony (a spoiled beauty marries late only to die in childbirth) or misanthropy (a salesman, "a dashing fellow," never bothers to tell his latest conquest that her father is dying because he doesn't want to ruin his evening) or metaphysical sideshows (a spectral museum illustrates the labyrinth of life) or the flotsam and jetsam of emigres struggling to keep afloat in dreary beery Berlin. The superb "Potato Elf," a grotesque and vivid piece about a luckless dwarf, Nabokov characteristically dismisses with the following prefatory note: "I do not believe, however, that my little man can move even the most lachrymose human-interest fiend, and this redeems the matter." Such froideur! And all to hide the fact that just possibly the puppeteer has a heart.