Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

The train stands still. The world is moving. Objects shatter into points of light, reflections are observant, shadows follow us like menacing dogs. All the visual qualities of things, and these predominate, are hard and impersonal. Everything’s a mirror or an image in a mirror; depth is space upon a surface where every visual relationship is retained, though subtly inverted. A Nabokov novel is sliding by us, through our still attention, and the objects which it holds up to us are flat and disconnected: cathedral, shop sign, top hat, fish, a barber’s copper basin. The people, head to foot, are faces (knees, toes, elbows: these are also faces); faces done in glossy printers’ colors and stamped out on the covers of a million magazines, the copies of each kind the same, yet when found in different combinations, they are strangely altered (if left in the seat of a train or taken to a room, scissored up for scrapbooks, read in bed, or stacked in dusty attics to be saved), and they possess, in every place they occupy, an additional significance, as cards are changed in fresh hands, so that the two of spades on one occasion fills a flush, while on another proves to be superfluous, or as the White Queen’s puissant Knave is rendered impotent, slid to a new square. Cards and chessmen, characters and words: all are hollow powers. Ruled by rules which confine their moves, they form a world of crisp, complex, abstract, and often elegant, though finally trivial, relations.

King, Queen, Knave is Nabokov’s second Russian novel, but it’s his twelfth in English, and if Gleb Struve’s translation1 of a passage from the Russian edition is accurate, and a standard sample, then the text has been revised, and improved, line by line. The work seems early only in the clarity of its intentions. Nabokov’s esthetic was already formed, and this book’s written to its program. The author’s manipulations are quite obvious, even blatant, for we’re supposed to see his clever hands holding the crossed sticks, managing the strings. Smoothed (one can’t be sure how much), youthful gaucheries perhaps removed, mistakes erased: its date is now much later than it was. Each verb and noun, as though in search of something sweet, fly to their modifications, and this is because the modifications manifest the master: reveal him, praise him—glorify. The result is sometimes fussily decorative, like insistent blossoms on a length of chintz.

The man was leafing through the magazine, and the combination of his face with its enticing cover was intolerably grotesque. The ruddy egg woman sat next to the monster, her sleepy shoulder touching him. The youth’s rucksack rubbed against his slick sticker-mottled black valise. And worst of all, the old ladies ignoring their foul neighbor munched their sandwiches and sucked on fuzzy sections of orange, wrapping the peels in scraps of paper and popping them daintily under the seat. But when the man put down his magazine and, without taking off his gloves, himself began eating a bun with cheese, glancing around provokingly, Franz could stand it no longer. He rose quickly, he lifted like a martyr his pale face, shook loose and pulled down his humble suitcase, collected his raincoat and hat and, banging his suitcase awkwardly against the doorjamb, fled into the corridor.

It’s Franz (our poltroon, knave, the dull point of this triangle) whom the images are passing. He’s riding third class, as befits his station; but how ugly everyone around him is (that bun-eating man has no nose), and so Franz stumbles with his bag to second class and selects a compartment occupied by our story’s King and Queen. Socially, they are travelling beneath them because the Queen is stingy. Thus upper and lower meet, like teeth, in the mouth’s moist middle. Pnin begins, too, on a train. Pnin, too, worries that he’s lost his wallet. Pnin, too, like Grandmaster Luzhin, like so many others, lives in a muddle. Pnin’s train is taking him the wrong way, and he has no little man to help him like Sebastian Knight does.2 Here, it’s Franz, the climber, who is going wrong. King, Queen, Knave: each stares out the windows, waiting—as we’re waiting—to be played. Deep in the game they stand in their squares until their master moves them. The world surrounding strangely shifts. It has inexplicable ways. What can the players be up to?

NABOKOV has taken this plot, we’re told,3 from a tale by Andersen, but it is also Madame Bovary, slightly rearranged; it is the story of the shepherd, Gyges, whose Aladdin-like ring renders him, at will, invisible, enabling him to seduce a queen and contrive her husband’s death to seize the crown. Franz does not know this middle-aged and tawny moustached man’s his uncle who, obscurely petitioned by the youth’s own worried mother, has promised Franz a job in town. Uncle? Would this weak Franz, within a web of high connections such a low relation, play so poor a prank upon Freud’s Hamlet as to wish his uncle dead and he, himself, instead, the kingly penis in the queen’s bed? Think not on’t.


In Nabokov’s sardonic version, the traditional romance is burlesqued. Franz sleeps with his lady, all right, though he’s a boobie in the boudoir to begin with, that is, until she seizes his initiative; and the pair plot the death of their king, too, quite according to custom (shall it be by shooting, strangling, stabbing? no? by means of a subtle poison? no—and they research the matter thoroughly, consulting encyclopaedias and other catalogues of magic; but the cards say death by water finally, although events play in, not from, their hands). At the seaside, on vacation, rowing on the ocean, the lovers plan to empty husband from the boat, and because he cannot swim, Nature, it’s presumed, will hold him under. Husband, however, rowing manfully, reveals a business deal he’s to close in the city that’s likely to net him a tidy. Why murder a man at a moment so financially inopportune? Postponement proves comically fatal. The Queen, never sturdy (and anyway a value lower than the King), overwetted by the outgoing, is finessed by pneumonia from the game. The Knave (still another count inferior) is released from a slavery that’s been sweet but also terrifying to him (the worm in the apple’s no innocent either), and as the cover closes, we hear him laughing a little too merrily.

Back aboard the train, Uncle Dreyer hasn’t bought Martha any strawberries (there is a reason, but never mind it), and his wife is annoyed with him. He also insists on reading poetry, and this annoys her too, because only a magazine is appropriate for journeying. (Dreyer is really reading these poems now because reference will be made to them later, though not by me.) Martha yawns, and Franz

…glimpsed the smell of her tense tongue in the red penumbra of her mouth and the flash of her teeth before her hand shot up to her mouth to stop her soul from escaping.

Yes. You’re right. To Franz this yawn resembles “somehow those luscious lascivious autumn strawberries for which his hometown was famous.” But you’re wrong if you think that Martha fears her soul is trying to escape, or that Franz is of that opinion. She has no soul, though, if she had, a yawn is what it would flee through. This carriage has another passenger. Franz shall eat of these strawberries, taste this mouth often, the deity shall see to that, for all these details trolley through the book as this train does, making countless local stops:

Presently the bed stirred into motion. It glided off on its journey creaking discreetly as does a sleeping car when the express pulls out of a dreamy station.

All the characters are invisible to one another. The world for Dreyer is a dog he plays with: here, Franz, fetch the ball. It never occurs to him that doggie’s sleeping with his wife. And when he gives the young man a job in his store, he puts him in sporting goods where chewy balls for dogs are sold, and other rubber implements. Only occasionally does Franz see how much mistress Martha resembles a toad; and Franz means nothing to her, certainly; he’s just a symbol of those dissatisfactions which she’s decided suit her situation: in her life adultery is overdue.

WE MUST REMEMBER that mirrors reflect us quite indifferently: they accept anything, and if these characters are followed by puddles, polished steel, and shadowing walls, the characters themselves are mirrors. They contain images, they do not see. Two pure mirrors, facing one another, draw a blank. Furthermore, the mirror someone sees his shape in, which doubles him for observation, performs a task no different than the mind does in reflection, since in Nabokov reflection is a metaphor for thought—his own. These figures wait like mirrors, too; their movement is illusory; they blur if they’re flawed or cracked or improperly silvered. Franz smashes his glasses and the world becomes a painting by Monet. (How many of Nabokov’s kings, queens, or knaves have broken or mislaid their glasses; how many are myopic, or are led by madness, strokes, or fevers, into a world of dreams?4 Freed of natural color and the world’s unshapely forms and corners, the language rises; within the stream of the eye, Nabokov is always lyrical and moving.)


His characters are his clowns. They blunder comically about. Clubbed by coincidence, they trip when most passionate. With rouge on their pates and wigs on their features, their fundaments honk and trousers tear. Brought eagerly, naïvely, near, beauty in a boutonnière pees on their faces. Like the other clowns, how we laugh at that. Pieces in the play, they live, unaware, in the world of Descartes’ evil demon, that relentless deceiver whose deceptions do not qualify, but constitute, his nature. For Descartes, perhaps, the demon was merely a philosophical fear, an academic danger and a happy thought, but not for Nabokov’s creatures or his readers; for if it’s not we who remain in our squares to be moved, it’s ourselves the moves are made against: we are the other player. Most of Nabokov’s novels (King, Queen, Knave is no exception) are attacks upon their readers, though not like Genet’s and much modern theater; not like Baudelaire’s, who called his lecteur a hypocrite, because he also called him his double, his frère. Yet what can this mighty magician do, this godlike contriver, when forced to perform for his life like a servant, but pick the pockets of the yokels whom he entertains? No brother, then. Opponent to be beaten.

Carl Proffer’s Keys to Lolita is an explanation, move by move, of one of the great man’s greater games. Here he’s discussing the use of poor Annabel Lee (for only too obvious reasons):

If Lolita-Annabel is Humbert’s girl “as Vee was Poe’s”, it seems reasonable for the reader to expect Lolita’s death…. The trail of deception goes something like this: At first we are led, by allusion, to suspect Lolita will be his victim…. Then when Charlotte Haze enters the picture…it seems certain Humbert will murder her…. Then Humbert smilingly dismisses the possibility…. In spite of this slap in the face, the reader still has to keep Charlotte in mind as a…

I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the sequence of the other plays, though reading this book and Dembo’s collection is a little like cheating at crosswords. Certainly these essays wear airs of solution, as spies do suspicion. Readers of KQKn won’t be entirely fooled. They know all threats of death by drowning are a joke. While unwrapping the Poe allusions, Proffer wonders “Is this just another cryptogrammatic paper chase…?” He decides not, because of the deceptions they practice on us. That is, they function. Yet might not the clues in a paper chase do the same? In any case, ” ‘Annabel Lee’ is a very serious and beautiful poem. So,” he adds, “is Lolita.”

THE FUNNY, the comical, side-splitting Nabokovian thing is that Nabokov’s novels are frequently formless, or when form presides it’s mechanical, lacking instinct, desire, feeling, life (nostalgia is the honest bloodstream of his books, their skin his witty and wonderful eye); and when the form is so ruthlessly imposed from the outside, seldom allowed to grow from within, rather bearing its bones on its hide as some insects do, then not the end, but beginning and middle as well, are directed deus ex machina. We perceive this at once when the critics, clothed in butcher’s aprons, carving come, for they clearly regard their discussions of construction as interpretations, and as they go about their operations, we hear not a squeak from the beast. What our author possesses in plenty is technique. Pale Fire, Lolita, and Sebastian Knight, are built of devices: these bones make the meat. (That deal of Dreyer’s which saves him from a final tipping-out, concerns the sale, for display windows, of moving mannikins he’s had made. It figures, but it doesn’t add.)

Even the characters on occasion, as if they’d begun to doubt like Descartes, employ—to manage their world and to murder like Hermann does in Despair—precisely the demon’s deceptive wiles and much of his disdain and malice…in self-defense. These elaborate shapes fail to function as form, as a mollusk might cleverly exude a shell in Gothic style it didn’t use but sold, instead, in shops. Not only do the novels seem cold (though Pnin is not, and The Defense is a loving exception to everything; every move is emotional, even the last one, when Luzhin flies like a Pegasus from life to death and board to board), there is a striking contrast between their rich contrivance and the thin interest they have for the entirely engaged mind. Even a sentence which fails the demands of the body, which calls upon only the deductive faculty, which does not fuse the total self in a single act of sense and thought and feeling, is artistically incomplete, for when the great dancer leaps, he leaves nothing of himself behind, he leaps with, and into, all he is, and never merely climbs the air with his feet. Nabokov’s novels often, especially as described by Proffer and by Dembo’s dozen, seem like those Renaissance designs of flying machines—dreams enclosed in finely drawn lines—which are intended to intrigue, to dazzle, but not to fly.

Form makes a body of a book, puts all its parts in a system of internal relations so severe, uncompromising, and complete, that changes in them anywhere alter everything; it also unties the work from its author and the world, establishing, with them, only external relations, and never borrowing its being from things outside itself. A still umbilicaled book is no more formed than a foetus.

Close to conclusion, at that resort by the sea where the drowning’s planned, Nabokov puts his name to KQKn:

The foreign girl in the blue dress danced with a remarkably handsome man in an old-fashioned dinner jacket. Franz had long since noticed this couple; they had appeared to him in fleeting glimpses, like a recurrent dream image or a subtle leitmotiv—now at the beach, now in a café, now on the promenade. Sometimes the man carried a butterfly net. The girl had a delicately painted mouth and tender gray-blue eyes, and her fiancé or husband, slender, elegantly balding, contemptuous of everything on earth but her, was looking at her with pride….

King, Queen, Knave is supposed to be a game of cards, but the purpose of the playing was and is, both at the first and now, to hold the mirror up to Nabokov. One puzzle of Nabokov’s long imperial career is why he’s never signed his books with a large and simple N. It was good enough for Napoleon; and after all, Nabokov’s novels are empires, and more than that, they’re his.

This Issue

June 6, 1968