Avoid Vocatives

“She realized how difficult it was in  these circumstances to reason logically, to develop simple, smooth, elegant plans, when everything within her was screaming and raging.” –Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave

above the penumbra

For all the outrage that Nabokov yields in his novels with his frank and off kilter expressions of passion and lust, one can almost see the tips of his fingertips delightedly tap tap tapping the keyboard (or, as it turns out- dictating to his wife) as he wickedly sets out his visions of warped sexuality slapping against the banality of life: if nothing else, his books are very funny, his delight- infectious.

“He was a bachelor with a beautiful marble wife, a passionate hobbyist without anything to collect, an explorer not knowing on what mountain to die, a voracious reader of unmemorable books, a happy and healthy failure.” 

Between Dreyer’s abortive half-hearted attempts to bed Martha, his icy wife, and her affair with the nephew Franz, there lays a story, set in Berlin, of three people floating in and out of emotionally dead lives. “You no longer exist, Franz Bubendorf.”  Martha and Dreyer both veer wildly from  the shallow euphoric pride of the bourgeoisie to dissatisfaction and preoccupying schemes of advancement, while Franz is exposed as a man with no core – that the above line is delivered by a naked man holding a fan, is…perfect. Franz of course barely notices. Franz! Bitte!

“You’ve always been thoughtless, Kurt, and in the long run you’ll always be what you’ve been, the perfectly happy egoist. Oh I have studied you carefully.”
“So have I,” he said.

Oh yes, we do love to make studies of ourselves. Socrates may have been a bit off on his declaration that the unexamined life is not worth living. At the very least he needed some sort of qualifier. As the reams of self-help book shelves will attest, we examine the hell out of our lives. It seems to me that the obsessively examined life is a pretty strange existence. Quality – not quantity, maybe that’s the trick.

Franz enters the lives of Martha and Kurt Dreyer blind. Literally. In a hilarious section he loses his eyeglasses on his way to the first meeting, and then he is of course blinded by a passionate attraction to Martha whose, “Love helped Franz to mature.”  A mature lover perhaps, but poor Franz, he cannot gracefully extricate himself from the events that are planned and plotted obsessively by Martha. The (at long last) sexually satisfied Martha can not see that Franz disappears, if he ever was at all, into himself.

“Thus he mused, vaguely and crudely, unaware that his thoughts were spinning along from the push given them by Martha.”

But, are we not our own personal revolving series of King, Queen and Knave? Some of us get stuck, a worn out record – the needle jumps, king, king, king for a bit, or knave, knave knave, but we just play out our song, round and round.  How ridiculous it all is. The genius of Nabokov is his ability to pull the rug out from under our own pretensions-  the “spectables” of our “respectacles” are an illusion. And we might as well laugh as not.

“Oh, keep nodding…keep playing the fool…it does not matter now.”

*title from line in book in which Franz advises himself.

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11 responses to “Avoid Vocatives

  1. It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it full of amazing things. That mannequin. That poor dog.

    I have to object on one point – Nabokov never typed. His wife did all of the typing.

  2. Fascinating!
    When I wrote it I wasn’t at all sure whether or not he typed, hand wrote in ink or crayon for that matter- I only wanted to simplify my vision and rhythm. I wish I had known! The image of HER finger tips delighting him…better, no?

    Oh poor Tom!

  3. Tom, the dog. Not Tom the Amateur Reader.

  4. Oh yes, I’m a lot better off than Tom the dog.

    bibliographing did a nice little series on this novel last year, beginning here. If you’re interested, hadn’t seen it, etc.

  5. Glad to hear it. Thanks for the link, always interested.

  6. I cannot agree with nicole’s devotion to Dreyer, “sweetheart?” I guess if by sweetheart she means selfishly, and stupidly mirthful. And I did not find Franz so disgusting, I rather think the idea of the mannequin was kind of gross – Dreyer is disgusting in a particularly MALE way. And although Dreyer may be clueless, so is Franz. That Franz is also powerless makes him more sympathetic to me. Although in the end Tom is REALLY the only sympathetic character in the story. Poor Tom.

    I appreciate her musings on the repulsion factor in Nabokov’s works, however.
    Regarding Ada, one of my all time favorite books, I also did not hate Lucette. My God I pitied her. How ridiculous she must have felt and really was in the face of Van and Ada’s true love and devotion to one another. Very sad. That was an amazing book.

  7. Ha! Nicole & I and someone else had a whole argument about that somewhere, the “sweetheart” thing. We’ve had some disagreements about sympathy in Ada too!

    I agree that Franz is not necessarily disgusting – his key characteristic is his over-developed sense of disgust.

    Rich, rich books.

    • They are. Truly.

      I would say the most fascinating character was Martha. While she is very unlikable, her plight is…interesting. Some may call her frigid, and while she is a cold soul, she is certainly not frigid- medically speaking. Clearly, as she was the one to “educate” Franz, the woman was far from sexually frigid. She simply did not find her husband sexually attractive, and because the marital pressure was there…well, her feelings soon turned to revulsion. If she wasn’t such a avarice-tic, greedy little twit she might very well have been a heroine.

      Nabokov understood humans in all their ludicrous complexity and embarrassing simplicity.
      Rich, is the right word.

      I have only read: Lolita; Ada: Or Ardor; and King, Queen, Knave. Any further reading suggestions are most welcome. From one amateur to another….

  8. Good points about Martha. She really is the center of the book.

    I love to give VN recommendations, especially to someone who had good luck with Ada. I do not think there is a bad novel among them, although some are awfully minor.

    Among the Russians, Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift are usually thought of as the best. The charming Pnin and of course Pale Fire for the American novels. The memoir Speak, Memory is as good as his best novels.

  9. hmm, now I will have to leave it up to the library gods as to which to read first…thank you!

  10. Pingback: Not So Muted Mirth | so very very

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