Reading The Eye: the first line

I will continue to attack Nabokov the only way I can, that is, obliquely, with my second post on The Eye. I know that in later Nabokov there will be any number of first lines I want to talk about (and I’m hardly referring here only to “light of my life, fire of my loins,” which, as any good Nabokovian knows, is far from the first line of Lolita), so let’s start now.

I met that woman, that Matilda, during my first autumn of émigré existence in Berlin, in the early twenties of two spans of time, this century and my foul life.

The “my foul life” makes this, for me, one of the better first lines I’ve read lately. Not only is it about a thousand times less clichéd than the simple “my life,” it’s also just the sort of thing this narrator would say. Or, in terms of this post, immediately gives you a proper picture of the narrator (who must remain nameless). Not that his life is foul, mind (though it may well be), but that he would say it like that, in just that way.

What else have we learned? We know the narrator’s age at the time of the action, though not how much time has passed since then, and we know when the action takes place. We know the narrator is a foreigner in Berlin, and while we don’t know where he’s from it’s not much of a leap, considering, to get right to the point and admit we know he’s Russian. The fact that he specifies “my first autumn” means there were others, so if nothing else we can say the narrator is not telling his story until at least a year after its beginning.

What of “that woman, that Matilda”? We don’t know her yet, of course, but we know from those “thats” that we will, and that she will figure in some important role in the narrator’s life, if not, perhaps, in the novella itself.

Tomorrow I’ll get on to something real. You know, a bit of what the book is about. I’m taking it slow after bombarding you all last week. Ha, kidding, it’s just that Nabokov is a complete bear to write about.

6 comments to Reading The Eye: the first line

  • I’d be delighted if you blogged Nabokov sentence by sentence. I once thought of starting a blog with that very theme in order to explore Nabokov’s textual trickery, but realised that there might only be an audience of one.

  • It’s like game hunting – you have to make sure you are downwind from your prey first. Don’t want to spook him.

    He is able to get a split, time and the narrator, into the first line, too, although I do not see how it is particularly meaningful. But it gets the theme going.

  • Anthony—Do you know about Ada Online? Tom and I were tweeting about it last week. Despite its incompleteness, it’s still the most awesome example of sentence-by-sentence Nabokov around. And it is awesome.

    But I think you’re way off on your audience estimate. It could even be a group blog!

    Tom—Not 100% sure what you mean by “a split, time and the narrator”? Unless the indication that the narrator is talking about past events? Or you mean, the comparison of the century and his life?

  • That’s right, the 2X years of the century are this thing, the identical 2X years of the foul life are another thing. Even though the “two spans of time” are really just one span of time. So a little division is introduced right away, an early hint of the big divisions on their way.

  • Right, right, genius. Good one!

  • Don’t show me things like Ada Online. I have had things to do tonight.It is wonderful.