I started 2013 by reading Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor, which is by some way his longest novel. I loved it, but it was also the most dense and impenetrable one I’ve read so far, dizzyingly stuffed with references that flew (like butterflies) far over my delighted head. I ended 2013 by reading King, Queen, Knave, a far slighter book, but one that shuffles its deck with a con artist’s speed.
Franz leaves his country town in Germany to work at his “uncle” Dreyer’s store in Berlin. On the train, he flees his sordid third-class compartment and unknowingly sits with his aunt Martha and uncle Dreyer, immediately becoming infatuated with Martha. Later, Franz and Martha begin an affair, and as their relationship deepens, they plot Dreyer’s death. (Dreyer never cottons on to the affair — or does he? — but lavishes attention and gifts on Martha and friendly, distant attention on his nephew.) This familiar intrigue is weirdly mirrored by Dreyer, who has made a major investment in lifelike mannequins: two men and a woman. These doppelgangers are never quite perfect enough to pass as human, and their downfall foreshadows that of the characters. There’s also Franz’s psychotic landlord, who believes everyone besides himself is his own creation (he believes he is the conjuror Menetek-El-Pharsin, obviously a play on the Hebrew phrase that means “the writing on the wall,” and we’re back to Nabokov himself again, the conjuror and creator of all things.) These doublings, along with the brief cameo appearance of Nabokov and his wife in the final chapters, add a bright note of what-in-the-hell to this marvelous book.
I mentioned that Ada, or Ardor barely let a sentence or a fraction of a sentence pass without a reference to the novelistic tradition — most of which I’m fairly sure I didn’t catch. King, Queen, Knave also brings us gleeful pages full of 19th-century literary tradition: Flaubert, Balzac, and Zola, to name just a few. Nabokov spends quite a bit of time playing with the nastier bits of Naturalism in this one. My personal favorite was his take on Thérèse Raquin. In King, Queen, Knave, Martha plots to kill her husband by pushing him out of a boat because he can’t swim, just as Laurent and Thérèse did to Camille in Zola’s novel. In Nabokov’s version, however, Dreyer is the large, cheerful, robust sort, and Franz is the weedy, squeamish fellow, and Martha gives up her plan because Dreyer is about to conclude an important business deal. Naturalism at its least imaginably natural!
If you remember other, nastier bits of Thérèse Raquin, however, like the scene in the morgue, then Nabokov has a squishy little smorgasbord for you also. Franz, as I said, is terribly squeamish. If I hadn’t been specifically instructed by the preface not to invoke Freud (“the Viennese delegation”) then I’d say he had oral issues. We know this about him already on page three:
The shudder that had passed between Franz’s shoulder blades now tapered to a strange sensation in his mouth. His tongue felt repulsively alive; his palate nastily moist. His memory opened up its gallery of waxworks, and he knew, he knew that there, at its far end somewhere a chamber of horrors awaited him. 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 its age, had laboriously picked up and put to its lips a filthy thing resembling a baby’s pacifier.
But good mouth-related things, too:
Martha helped him. While looking sideways out of the window she yawned: he glimpsed the swell of her tense tongue in the red penumbra of her mouth and the flash of her teeth before her hand shot up to stop her soul from escaping; whereupon she blinked, dispersing a tickling tear with the beat of her eyelashes. Franz was not one to resist a yawn, especially one that resembled somehow those luscious lascivious autumn strawberries for which his hometown was famous.
Franz’s fascination with Martha the goddess (“cool and distant”) slowly turns to horror at Martha the “old white toad.” The sex (as in Thérèse Raquin!) is porous, sweaty, and unpleasantly up-close, when indeed it can take place at all. By the end of the book, Franz himself is an automaton without will, his nausea all that is left of him.
Stylistically, this book is like a deck of cards that is — I was going to say shuffled and reshuffled, but instead I ought to say expertly played. The cards are the same — king, queen, knave — but they are different suits each time they’re played, with different meanings and different values. Similarly, certain words and phrases recur in this book (“cold, frigid, madonna-like”; “misty”; “amusing.”) Others recur in the same sentence: “It’s your own fault,” she repeated and automatically pulled at her pleated skirt, automatically noticing that the awkward young man with the glasses who had appeared in the door corner seemed to be fascinated by the sheer silk of her legs.” Pair of tens! I mentioned earlier that this is a slighter book than Ada, but I’ll back a slight book by Nabokov against almost any heavy-hitter you care to bring to the ring. (Block that metaphor!)
King, Queen, Knave was originally published in Russian in 1927. The version I read (in English, of course) is a translation Nabokov did in collaboration with his son Dmitri Nabokov in 1967. My understanding, both from the preface and from my minimal other reading, is that Nabokov made quite a few changes to the novel for the translation, so if you’ve read the Russian version, you might see something quite different than I see. I’d be interested in knowing what the differences really are. Either way, this was a wonderful book — one of the best I read this year. Beginning and ending the year with Nabokov, you can’t really go wrong.