“[T]he only happiness in this world is to observe, to spy, to watch, to scrutinize oneself and others, to be nothing but a big, slightly vitreous, somewhat bloodshot, unblinking eye.”

If I haven’t already given away the “reveal” of The Eye, and you feel strongly about such things, please don’t read on. I would caution you that the reveal is hardly anything of the sort, and not terribly important in itself. But all the same.

In the opening of the novella, the narrator is attacked by a mystery man. At the end, the identity of the mystery man is revealed in a very nice tight way along with the identity of the narrator himself:

I walked leisurely along the very edge of the sidewalk and, half-closing my eyes, imagined that I was moving along the rim of a precipice, when a voice suddenly hailed me from behind.

“Gospodin Smurov,” it said ina a loud but hesitant tone. I turned at the sound of my name, involuntarily stepping off the sidewalk with one foot. It was Kashmarin, Matilda’s husband, and he was pulling off a yellow glove, in a terrific hurry to proffer me his hand. He was without the famous cane….

The cane is our signal that, for sure, it was Kashmarin knocking the narrator—I mean, Smurov—about earlier. Kashmarin is here to apologize, and he hopes to make it up to Smurov by helping him get a new job that pays better than his current one. Smurov has to “restrain a desire to say something nice, something to show how touched I was,” but they part on fairly amicable turns.

This leads to the narrator’s final contemplation:

Kashmarin had borne away yet another image of Smurov. Does it make any difference which? For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist. Smurov, however, will live on for a long time. The two boys, those pupils of mine, will grow old, and some image or other of me will live within them like a tenacious parasite. And then will come the day when the last person who remembers me will die.

Very timely, this, so soon after my Your Face Tomorrow opus. There are some striking similarities and differences here between the outlooks of Smurov and Deza. Both would, I think, agree that “the population of phantoms resembling me increases”—that the images and remembrances based on what you have told others are more phantom and impostor than the real you. But where Smurov says he does not exist, I think Deza would say the opposite, holding tight to the self he assumes he understands (unlike Smurov, who admits to not understanding himself at all). All the “tenacious parasite[s]” are, for Deza, an unavoidable danger of interacting with other people imperfectly. The self no one knows is the real one, but for Smurov this person is sneaky, slippy, and unidentifiable.

“I am happy that I can gaze at myself, for any man is absorbing—yes, really absorbing!”

As you may have learned from my sonnet on The Eye, relatively early on in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novella The Eye, the narrator attempts to kill himself shortly after losing his position as a tutor. He hasn’t exactly lost his position; someone has come into the house where he is employed and unceremoniously beaten him for undefined crimes. But he leaves the children he’s been teaching as soon as the beating is over, returns to his former residence, and shoots himself.

Shortly afterward, he “dreams” that he is waking up in a hospital, with doctors and nurses explaining what’s gone wrong, that he missed a vital organ. He continues to dream that he goes home, finds a new place to live, and meets a new group of people including Vanya, a young lady who appeals to the narrators fondness for chubby women. Smurov, an unsuccessful suitor of Vanya’s, is also a member of this group, and the narrator develops an obsession with him.

The obsessions that will haunt the narrator later in the novel are set out even before his beating. When he explains who “that Matilda” is, he describes how he would leave their trysts “inspect[ing] my puny little bliss…and feel[ing] despondent and afraid”:

The summit of lovemaking was for me but a bleak knoll with a relentless view. After all, in order to live happily, a man must know now and then a few moments of perfect blankness. Yet I was always exposed, always wide-eyed; even in sleep I did not cease to watch over myself, understanding nothing of my existence, growing crazy at the thought of not being able to stop being aware of myself, and envying all those simple people—clerks, revolutionaries, shopkeepers—who, with confidence and concentration, go about their little jobs. I had no shell of that kind….

After the narrator’s failed suicide—which we are reminded at intervals he still believes was successful—this unceasing self-watching takes on a new form. The narrator instead watches Smurov, living and dying, for unknown reasons, with Smurov’s chances with Vanya. He also keeps a close enough eye on Smurov to know about his affair with Vanya’s maid. And he wants to know so badly how Smurov is perceived by others in the house that he steals letters to find out what they write about him. Why not simply ask? Well, why assume that the Smurov-obsession is any different than the self-obsession—any different at all?

In his 1965 introduction to the novella, Nabokov wrote that “the theme of The Eye is the pursuit of an investigation which leads the protagonist through a hell of mirrors and ends in the merging of twin images,” and that he took great pleasure in “adjusting in a certain mysterious pattern the various phases of the narrator’s quest.” That pattern is something not clear to me; perhaps my fellow readers will come to my assistance here. I know I need them desperately to deal with VN. It stops me, I fear, from seeing much more here beyond a cute exercise, complete of course with the usual Nabokovisms, any number of which I surely do not understand—yet.

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.

A sonnet on The Eye

“A mystery!” the book announces
Curious; is it really true?
You’ll suss it in no time, VN pronounces.
But of all people, dear Volodya, I can hardly trust you.

A tutor with his charges,
Nervous and awkward as we’d expect,
Until the mystery man (is he?) barges
In, our hero to eject.

A suicide, failed or not?
Who can tell but the man himself?
He sets down to rot
Not in the ground, but in the torture of self.

But VN was right, I passed one test;
The “mystery” was easy—now what of all the rest?

“the real Luzhin, the elderly Luzhin, the writer of books”

Over in the comments to Emily’s post on The Luzhin Defense, she and Amateur Reader have an interesting discussion about Luzhin’s mental illness and his childhood lack of affection for his father, and what that father is like. And here, yesterday, AR made the claim that Mrs. Luzhin is linked to Luzhin’s father, not his mother, as I implied. So let’s have a look at Luzhin père.

AR is certainly right that Luzhin has a strange and unsympathetic relationship with his parents, from the very beginning of the novel. In fact, the first scene is all about this. The elder Luzhin must break the news to his son that he will have to begin school. The family hasn’t been able to tell him; they’re all afraid of how badly he’ll react. And while at first they think they’ve dodged a bullet, it turns out his reaction is even more extreme than they’d feared. His sullen, unloving, antisocial nature is already getting more sophisticated.

It is indirectly through his father that Luzhin first discovers chess. The family is having a musical evening at home, and a violinist is in Luzhin’s father’s study, admiring a new set of chessmen. The father has trouble tearing the violinist away from it, and Luzhin is immediately intrigued. As soon as he can, he persuades another connection of his father’s, the aunt he’s having an affair with, to teach him the game. He soon begins to play against a succession of older men, with whom he gets on much better than with his real father.

By the end of chapter four, Luzhin and his father are alone together, his mother having committed suicide. Chapter five continues the jogs in time Nabokov has been instigating. Just after his mother dies, Luzhin begins a chess-playing tour of Russia, his father in a black armband. Then we slide forward again, not quite sixteen years, but almost. The elder Luzhin, a writer when he’s not escorting a child prodigy around Europe, “planned to write a novella about precisely such a chess-playing small boy, who was taken from city to city by his father (foster father in the novella).” In the book, however, the child had “the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy, the result being both sickly and angelic—eyes strangely veiled, curly hair, and a transparent pallor.” And this chess-playing angel would “die young, his death will be logical and very moving.” This to avoid his growing up to become the unpleasant, unlovable man that really developed out of the chess.

Planning this novella, Luzhin senior is showing his softness. He is a dear, but foolish. He’s forgotten the day of the week and is sitting in a Berlin coffeehouse wondering where his émigré friends are when he dreams it up, letting his romantic love of music color the sad nature of his real son. In Nabokov’s foreword, he makes up a story (it must be made up) about an early English-language publisher who considered having the book translated if chess were replaced with music and Luzhin were “a demented violinist.” These are people who do not understand Luzhin (who did not, in fact, develop out of the chess), or his Defense.

So I think it is bleak. Though chess sours things between Luzhin and pretty much everybody, it’s never that sweet to begin with. The lack of sympathy between him and his parents is there from the beginning, and growing stronger with chess or without it. But I don’t vote for Ritalin, and I don’t think Nabokov does either. The doctors in the book can’t even diagnose Luzhin properly. Everyone blames chess, but the problem is him, his essence. Mrs. Luzhin can think up all the distractions she wants, but his need for order won’t disappear if he never plays another game, nor even if he does miraculously stop thinking about it. Bleakly, that’s just how it is, and Luzhin’s “sui-mate” was inevitable from his very first move, birth.

And what of the other question, Mrs. Luzhin’s connection to Mr. Luzhin, rather than the other Mrs. Luzhin? I certainly wouldn’t say she’s not connected with him. Her presence with Luzhin at the German resort is a very strong link. Mrs. Luzhin also notes her husband’s seeming lack of affection for his now-dead father, and encourages him throughout the novel to visit the man’s grave. There are no real specific connections I can see to his mother, on the other hand, except for their sex. So I agree, it is father and wife who are tied together.

Luzhin’s chess effects

It sounds perverse, but Nabokov’s introductions to the English translations of his Russian works have been almost more interesting than the books themselves. VN on VN is quite amusing. In the foreword to The Luzhin Defense, he explains that

[T]he chess effects I planted are distinguishable not only in these separate scenes; their concatenation can be found in the basic structure of this attractive novel. Thus toward the end of Chapter Four an unexpected move is made by me in a corner of the board, sixteen years elapse in the course of one paragraph, and Luzhin, suddenly promoted to seedy manhood and transferred to a German resort…

To call this a “chess effect” seems somewhat fanciful. Sure, it’s a move in the corner of the board; it’s also a simple unexpected jump in setting. But wait, it does do something more than that… First, the scene before Nabokov makes his move:

Luzhin, a sullen, strange child, learns to play chess, keeping it a secret from his parents and skipping school to play. He’s found out, and that summer at the family’s dacha Luzhin’s father plays chess with him for the first time. It’s clear the boy is a genius, and he begins to become a serious player, his picture appearing in a magazine, playing at club tournaments. In an argument with his parents over school, he runs away to his aunt’s house (where he first learned the game), only to fall ill and spend some significant period of time as an invalid. Upon his recovery, his father takes him to a German resort where they hope to avoid chess for a while.

And now, the jump. Luzhin is around 30, though he seems older. He has returned to the German resort (why?), and is sitting at a table speaking with what appears to be a woman, whose words we cannot read. The first time he was at the resort, he went from recovering from chess-induced illness to truly entering the international chess world for the first time. Now, he’s at the height of his fame, and just a few chapters away from a much more serious chess-related breakdown, which will again land him in hospital.

This time, instead of his parents keeping him away from the wicked game, it will be his fiancée and later wife—the woman he’s talking to after Nabokov surprises us with that move. She’s just falling for him, especially for that “wry smile—wry in the precise sense: his right cheek and the corner of his mouth went up slightly, exposing bad, tobacco-stained teeth; he had no other smile.” He looks older than his years, makes “old-mannish gesture[s],” and is stout, although “nothing in the little Luzhin had foreshadowed this lazy, unhealthy fleshiness.” Despite these problems, and his socially inept conversation, this young woman is quite smitten. Luzhin describes to her his first stay at the resort, when his mother left early, “insanely homesick for the Russian countryside.” Just as we’re seeing the adult Luzhin charm a woman who will now do all the mothering he needs and more, Nabokov’s move lets the narrator tell us about the conditions leading to his real mother’s suicide:

It was already some time since she had begun to experience a strange feeling of estrangement from her son, as if he had drifted away somewhere, and the one she loved was not this grown-up boy, not the chess prodigy that the newspapers were writing about, but that little warm, insupportable child who at the slightest provocation would throw himself flat on the floor, screaming and drumming his feet.

Luzhin’s wife does love the chess prodigy, especially the famous chess prodigy. But she must be allowed to mother, and that means he must be prevented from chess. And that means he’ll be screaming and drumming his feet, flat out on the floor—or the adult version thereof.

Getting on to Nabokov’s third novel

When does a master become a master? I don’t consider this the question behind my single-author-projects, not by a long shot, but of course it’s something you’re watching, noticing, waiting for. It makes me think of Salieri—is genius like this written on the face, and if so, from when? I mean, written on the page. Of the first novel. Or whatever.

With Melville, I put it differently. Amateur Reader did a wonderful examination, and the question seems clearly to be, “When did Melville become Melville?” But for Nabokov, well, he wasn’t very modest, and neither are his blurbs.

A lot of what we’ll come to think of as solid Nabokovian elements are there from the beginning, as I’ve noted in posts on his first two novels. Mary is all about memory and nostalgia; butterflies have already made an appearance; there is certainly plenty of (pre-revolutionary) Russia; and already with the sentences, the sentences (does it count in translation? somehow I think for VN it does). Ganin is, of course, not exactly like any of Nabokov’s other characters, but he won’t be unfamiliar. Neither will Franz. And now add in The Luzhin Defense, Nabokov’s third novel. Between the three we have, along with the aforementioned: the grotesque, disgust, obsessive-compulsive disorder, (semi-)incest, kitsch, the bourgeois, chess, Central European resort communities, alliteration gone mad, and this sort of Nabokovian surrealism that I don’t really know what to call (the landlord in KQK, for example). This probably sounds like a bizarre laundry list, but trust me.

But it doesn’t quite add up yet, not to what it will later on. I think mostly this is because they do seem on some level “influence-purging exercises.” You know it’s a warm-up. Another thing that detracts from them, for me, is their setting. The Berlin of the Dreyers is not as claustrophobic as that of the Russian emigrés, but it’s no roadtrip across America either. I believe this is partly related to the first problem; Berlin is simply too close to St. Petersburg. We need to get away.

But! Amateur Reader is right—The Luzhin Defense begins to feel like a turning point. Luzhin is the first really grand character, from morose child to sullen young man, obsessed, mad, and maladjusted. The chess theme is excellently handled, and Luzhin descends until

Tortuous and transparent chess images roamed about in the air, wherever you looked—and Luzhin, realizing that he had got stuck, that he had lost his way in one of the combinations he had so recently pondered, made a desperate attempt to free himself, to break out somewhere—even into nonexistence. “Let’s go, let’s go,” cried someone and disappeared with a bang. He remained alone. His vision became darker and darker and in relation to every vague object in the hall he stood in check.

Even these early works I feel like I have to really wrestle with, so I can hardly imagine how tough this project will become by the time I get to, say, The Gift. But I’ll give myself the rest of the week with The Luzhin Defense. Emily has read it too, after enjoying King, Queen, Knave so much.

An unexpected comparison

You may have been able to tell from the past two days that Dreyer was my favorite character from King, Queen, Knave. He’s really a sweetheart: gives his weirdo nephew a job, practically adopts him into his home in Berlin, hopes like a little puppy dog for a kiss from his beloved wife, and takes delight in sitting with a dictionary on his knee as he tries to read English books. And thinking about Dreyer this week as I decided to blog the novel some more, I started to think about some unexpected parallels between this one and a much later work from Nabokov—Ada, or Ardor.

Dreyer is concerned with one of the stranger threads of the novel, that of the cosmopolitan inventor and the animated mannequins. Dreyer owns a men’s department store, and he’s approached by European of ambiguous origin who believes he can make moving, walking, plastic mannequins. Dreyer jerks the guy around a bit (because of his whimsical nature, it mostly seems), but he’s very interested in the idea and very interested in making money. So here and there the European pops up again, Dreyer calls him back, Dreyer checks out his progress, etc. It’s not what you’d call science fiction, but then again it is: it’s about an inventor who can make dolls walk! (Sort of.)

It felt sort of “inserted” to me into this rather humdrum story of a love affair, and I don’t think it’s dissimilar from the long section in the middle of Ada on Anti-Terra and all the rest of Van’s theories. I can tell I need to re-read Ada because of how little I remember of the details, but I also know I never really understood the purpose of that aspect of the novel. And the same goes here in KQK.

Dreyer himself also reminds of me another character in Ada, little sister Lucette. As Martin Amis noted (via Anthony), “the vice Nabokov most frequently reviled was ‘cruelty,'” and Dreyer and Lucette are subjected to extremely similar cruelties. Van and Ada exclude her from their activities and consider her largely as an annoyance in the way of their affair; Franz and Martha of course do exactly the same. Lucette is a younger sibling while Dreyer is himself the cuckold, but since the Ada relationship is incestuous Lucette is more betrayed than your average younger sister with a crush on your boyfriend.

One big difference is that Lucette knows she is being treated cruelly. She fights against it for decades, makes herself miserable, and never finds happiness in this life. Dreyer, blind to his wife’s faithlessness, continues in cheerful ruddiness day after day.

Another difference: I hated Lucette. I think Brian Boyd has argued very persuasively that Nabokov ultimately condemns Ada and Van through Lucette, and I do feel some sympathy for her. But she is annoying, where Ada and Van are brilliant (if, to some, overly so). In KQK, instead, we have Dreyer the teddy bear vs. the extremely unsavory Franz and Martha. Maybe this difference is in fact about more than just my personal preference (or my first-child prejudice against younger siblings).

“[D]estiny is on our side. It could not have been otherwise.”

As I mentioned yesterday, Martha Dreyer’s great failure is her total inability to see her husband. Let’s say, to see him as a man. Let that mean what you will.

She never has seen him, not since they met. She paid more attention during their courtship to the monkey he presented her with than to Dreyer himself. One of the few things she can say about him—a phrase that just barely applies—at that time is that it was strange of him to choose Norway for their honeymoon.

Martha really hates to be strange. She’s some kind of “real middle-class German” in this respect; everything must be in order. This is even why she has an affair. Having an affair is much more socially acceptable than having sex with your husband—which Martha will do and say anything to avoid. Intimately too Martha cannot see Dreyer as a man, but only as an animal. Like Franz, she is disgusted by him.

After a while, Martha likes to get right down to it and openly pretend Dreyer doesn’t exist. She insists Franz participate with her, which even he is not totally into. He keeps mentioning his uncle but she maintains the charade:

“Oh, you are speaking of my late husband, oh, I see,” said Martha in a smoky voice. “No, my deceased was always a man of precision….”

“The deceased,” chuckled Franz, “the deceased.”

“Do you remember him well?” murmured Martha, rubbing her nose against his neck.

“Vaguely. And you?”

“The red fur on his belly and—”

In atrocious, disparaging and quite inaccurate terms she described the dead man’s private parts.

She’s a nice one, isn’t she? At this point in the novel, she and Franz are busy coming up with all kinds of machinations against poor Dreyer. They want him gone. But their badly mismatched, and mistaken, perceptions of Dreyer prevent their effectively plotting against him. For Franz,

Dreyer had divided in two. There was the dangerous irksome Dreyer who walked, spoke, tormented him, guffawed; and there was a second, purely schematic Drewyer, who had become detached from the first—a stylized playing card, a heraldic design—and it was this that had to be destroyed. Whatever method of annihilation was mentioned, it applied precisely to this schematic image. This Dreyer number two was very convenient to manipulate. He was two-dimensional and immobile. He resembled those photographs of close relatives cut out along the outline of the figure and reinforced with cardboard that people fond of cheap effects place on their desks. Franz was not conscious of the special substance and stylized appearance of this inanimate personage, and therefore did not pause to wonder why those sinister discussions were so easy and harmless. Actually Martha and he spoke of two different individuals: Martha’s subject was deafeningly loud, intolerably vigorous and vivacious; he threatened her with a priapus that had already once inflicted upon her an almost mortal wound, smoothed his obscene mustache with a little silver brush, snored at night with triumphant reverberations; while Franz’s man was lifeless and flat, and could be burned or taken apart, or simply thrown away like a torn photograph.

That detour about the cheap effects is so VN.

Also, I’m filing this away under Interesting Ideas About the Individual in the larger VN project. This is what happens when you don’t believe in the humanity of your fellow man—literally. What happens when you’ve seen your husband as a playing card for so long you really don’t believe he has a mind of his own anymore (if you ever did).

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.