Since I was at such a loss last week discussing King, Queen, Knave, I have returned to it this week, after some more thought. Thanks to Amateur Reader for some excellent ideas about the book.
All novelists are, or at least all good novelists should be, concerned with perception. Nabokov is more so than most, or maybe just in a different way. I feel like you can often see his synaesthesia coming through. Also, with Mary we talked about memory, and I think you can slip that into the larger category of perception for Nabokov. He takes special notice of it along with how all the senses come together to produce a given feeling or experience. Here’s an idea: in Nabokov, memory—“a chromatic and tactile memory,” in fact—is a sixth sense. It works together with the usual senses to create the perceptions and feelings that make up a character’s inner life.
An example, from Franz. When he arrives at his uncle’s house looking for advice about an apartment, he finds only his aunt at home. She accompanies him to the building he’s considering renting a room in and helps him haggle with the landlord. At the end of the episode, she asks him not to mention it to her husband. Franz complies, but finds himself discomposed the next time he sees Dreyer.
Like the fake seed a fakir buries in the ground only to draw out of it at once, with manic magic, a live rose tree, Martha’s request that he conceal from Dreyer their innocent adventure—a request to which he had barely paid attention at the time—now, in the husband’s presence had fabulously swelled, turning into a secret erotic bond.
Having a sixth sense seems mostly to mean just having one more way to subjectively color your perceptions—one more sense to deceive yourself with. And neither Franz, Dreyer nor Martha has any trouble doing that. Dreyer injects his own ebullient and almost desperately fun personality into everything he sees; his world reflects his own agreeableness and genuine good nature. Instead of seeing in Franz a romantic rival who has designs on his life in addition to his wife, Dreyer “had filed [him] away in his mind long ago under ‘cretin’ with cross references to ‘milksop’ and ‘sympathisch.’”
He’s even more blind, sadly, when it comes to Martha. He impulsively decides to return home early from a trip to Davos, and very nearly surprises his wife with Franz.
“I am the voyageur,” he cried in his best English. “I half returned from shee-ing!”
The next instant he knew perfect happiness. There was a magnificent smile on Martha’s face. Oh, no doubt, he was pretty to look at, tanned, trimmed by gravity, shedder of at least five pounds (as if Martha and Franz had already started to demolish him), but she was looking not at him: she was looking somewhere over his head, welcoming not him, but wise fate that had so simply and honestly averted a crude, ridiculous, dreadfully overworked disaster.
The most clueless husband who ever lived. Poor, sweet Dreyer.
I mentioned Franz’s greatest weakness in this department in my post last week: his disgust. It’s visceral, it’s inescapable, and sometimes it doesn’t seem he can really function because of it. “Well, all that jagged glass hitting you in the face, that crunch of metal and bones, and blood, and blackness,” he explains to Martha after a car accident. “I don’t know why but I picture such things so clearly. Makes me want to vomit.” (Not) incidentally, Nabokov does love to write about just the kinds of things that make Franz want to vomit. After Franz sees the horribly disfigured man who drives him out of third class in the opening episode, “[h]is tongue felt repulsively alive; his palate nastily moist.” His memories—just another sense to be disgusted by, in Franz’s case—come flooding in.
He remembered a dog that had vomited on the threshold of a butcher’s shop. He remembered a child, a mere toddler, who, bending with the difficulty of his age, had laboriously picked up and put to its lips a filthy thing resembling a baby’s pacifier. He remembered an old man with a cough in a streetcar who had fired a clot of mucus straight into the ticket collector’s hand. These were images that Franz usually kept at bay but that always kept swarming in the background of his life greeting with a hysterical spasm any new impression that was kin to them.
Franz’s sense of disgust is so strong that I actually found it hard to believe at the beginning of the novel that he would really be able to have an affair at all. That would be much too earthy. Somehow he does, but as Amateur Reader noted to me, it is no surprise that he eventually turns his disgust on Martha as well. By the end of the novel, he is tiptoeing past her room, and when caught, “grimly expecting she would command him to fulfill a duty that he had managed to evade since they came here.”
Franz can see only one thing; Dreyer has one thing he cannot see at all. Martha is like her husband in this respect. And her husband is exactly what she cannot see. More on Martha tomorrow.