More on King, Queen, Knave

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.

7 comments to More on King, Queen, Knave

  • What a great post! Love your description of Dreyer’s “almost desperately fun personality.” Oh, the desperately fun folks I have known.

    And I’m excited to hear about all the disgust coming my way in this book. I’ve been meaning to do a little project on depictions of the disgust emotion since last year sometime, so this will be one more log on the gross fire.

  • Thanks!

    And yes, this is a great source for a disgust project, as is so much of Nabokov’s work, in my experience. I would love such a project; I don’t really know why but I’m rather interested in it.

  • “I am the voyageur!” still makes me laugh. And “a filthy thing resembling a baby’s pacifier” – muy excelente.

    Franz’s disgust is good comedy, too, although it has the more serious thematic purpose you describe, too. His excitement about living in Berlin is completely entangled with sex – he’ll finally have a room of his own, he’ll have money. Basically, he’s thinking about prostitutes, and think how well that would have gone.

    It’s curious how fate becomes a palpaple entity for Martha.

  • Oh yes, his interest in prostitutes was another surprise. What is he even thinking?

    I realized that about Martha when I was typing up that quote, in fact. She gets almost, I don’t know, spiritual when they really embark on the planning phases.

  • What do you think of that line – do not remember where it is – where we suddenly meet old Franz, far in the future, who has committed worse crimes?

    Martha’s her invention of the Great God McFate almost tempts me to move the book into the major category. Martha actually recognizes – it’s the observation theme – all of the coincidences and then turns them into a system, something meaningful, and as a result of her efforts, they actually become meaningful, although not in the way she predicted.

    And it’s all starts with Franz’s restlessness and disgust, his inability to sit in a rail coach with a man who has a facial disfiguration.

  • Are you thinking of the one about the landlord, and how “silly” it would be “to have a figment of one’s imagination using up expensive electricity or trying to open a jugular vein with a razor,” rather than bringing him to “some natural conclusion”? I can’t think of what else it might be, if not that. Anyway, I didn’t mention the landlord at all, and that’s because I don’t know what on earth to say about him.

    It’s funny that you’re thinking of categorizing this as major; I noticed that Martin Amis did so in the thing I quoted the other day, and was a bit surprised. I don’t know, I feel like I would be in a better position to decide at the end of this project. But it could well be.

  • Ch. 7, p. 138 – unless Vintage tinkered with the page numbers –

    “In those days – which as a very old and very sick man, guilty of worse sins than avunculicide, he remembered with a grin of contempt – young Franz was oblivious to the corrosive probity of his pleasant daydreams about Dreyer’s dropping dead.”

    The joyfully absurd but entirely genuine English word “avunculicide” reminds me that with King, Queen, Knave I am reading a novel that was substantially rewritten in 1967 by an incontestably major writer. How substantially, I have not the slightest idea. Maybe the Russian partner of “avunculicide” is right there in the Russian, along with the poetic Slavic equivalent of “daydreams about Dreyer’s dropping dead.”

    The landlord and the mannequins are exactly the elements of the novel that make me nervous. Inelegant solutions, I fear, better suited to some other novel. Surprisingly silly stuff. Although the landlord’s little internal monologue is the extreme version of the perception theme.

    Amis, at a certain point in his career, would have killed his father if it would have meant a novel as good as King, Queen, Knave. Gay, bright brutes – that’s Amis.