Vladimir Nabokov

The Thief and the Uncle joke

By MARYROSS, 23 August, 2022

Hello.  I am trying to remember where I read Nabokov's joke about the Thief and the Uncle. Goes something like this:


There's a thief in the house. A figure comes out from behind the curtain. The children scream, but it is not the thief, it's Uncle and they laugh. The thief gets caught – it is Uncle.

Thanks, Mary

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 10 months ago

It is from Laughter in the Dark (chapter 18):


Uncle alone in the house with the children said he'd dress up to amuse them. After a long wait, as he did not appear, they went down and saw a masked man putting the table silver into a bag. 'Oh, Uncle,' they cried in delight. 'Yes, isn't my make-up good?' said Uncle, taking his mask off. Thus goes the Hegelian syllogism of humour. Thesis: Uncle made himself up as a burglar (a laugh for the children); antithesis: it was a burglar (a laugh for the reader); synthesis: it still was Uncle (fooling the reader). This was the super-humor Rex liked to put into his work; and this, he claimed, was quite new.

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 10 months ago

In reply to by Alexey Sklyarenko

In Pale Fire Andronnikov and Niagarin (the two Soviet experts) are the burglars who break into Villa Disa and ransack a bureau, taking from a jewel box a number of valuable old medals. After a thorough perlustration of the loot that Andron and Niagarushka obtained from the Queen's rosewood writing desk (mostly bills, and treasured snapshots, and those silly medals) a letter from the King turns up giving his address.


According to Kinbote, the King saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace:


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups; worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir.

He saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace. She had come in male dress, as a Tirolese boy, a little knock-kneed but brave and lovely, and afterwards he drove her and her cousins (two guardsmen disguised as flower-girls) in his divine new convertible through the streets to see the tremendous birthday illumination, and the fackeltanz in the park, and the fireworks, and the pale upturned faces. He procrastinated for almost two years but was set upon by inhumanly eloquent advisers, and finally gave in. On the eve of his wedding he prayed most of the night locked up all alone in the cold vastness of the Onhava cathedral. Smug alderkings looked at him from the ruby-and-amethyst windows. Never had he so fervently asked God for guidance and strength (see further my note to lines 433-434). (note to Line 275)


July 5 is Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus's birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). The three main characters in PF, the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus are one and the same person whose "real" name is Botkin.


According to Kinbote, he suggested to Shade Solus Rex as the title of his poem. Rex is the villain in Laughter in the Dark.

The Hegelian syllogism of humour brings to mind a syllogism in Canto Two of Shade's poem ("other men die; but I am not another; therefore I'll not die") and Russian humorists mentioned by Shade in one of his conversations with Kinbote:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)

In Laughter in the Dark Rex tells Albinus (the art critic) that it is a pity he did not quote in his excellent biography of Sebastiano del Piombo the painter's sonnets:


"Fräulein Peters," said Albinus in a soothing tone, "this is the man who makes two continents--"
Margot started and swerved round.
"Oh, really, how do you do?"
Rex bowed and, turning to Albinus, remarked quietly:
"I happened to read on the boat your excellent biography of Sebastiano del Piombo. Pity, though, you didn't quote his sonnets."
"Oh, but they are very poor," answered Albinus.
"Exactly," said Rex. "That's what is so charming." (chapter 16)


In his Commentary to Shade's poem Kinbote quotes a sonnet that his uncle Conmal (the Zemblan translator of Shakespeare) composed directly in English:


English being Conmal's prerogative, his Shakspere remained invulnerable throughout the greater part of his long life. The venerable Duke was famed for the nobility of his work; few dared question its fidelity. Personally, I had never the heart to check it. One callous Academician who did, lost his seat in result and was severely reprimanded by Conmal in an extraordinary sonnet composed directly in colorful, if not quite correct, English, beginning:


I am not slave! Let be my critic slave.

I cannot be. And Shakespeare would not want thus.

Let drawing students copy the acanthus,

I work with Master on the architrave! (note to Line 962)


In classical architecture, an architrave is the lintel or beam that rests on the capitals of columns. It reminds one of a great painter in Laughter in the Dark moving backward to view better his finished fresco:


A great painter one day, high up on the scaffold, began moving backward to view better his finished fresco. The next receding step would have taken him over, and, as a warning cry might be fatal, his apprentice had the presence of mind to sling the contents of a pail at the masterpiece. Very funny! But how much funnier still, had the rapt master been left to walk back into nothing--with, incidentally, the spectators expecting the pail. The art of caricature, as Rex understood it, was thus based (apart from its synthetic, fooled-again nature) on the contrast between cruelty on one side and credulity on the other. And if, in real life, Rex looked on without stirring a finger while a blind beggar, his stick tapping happily, was about to sit down on a freshly painted bench, he was only deriving inspiration for his next little picture. (chapter 18)


In Canto Two of his poem Shade quotes Pope's Essay on Man and mentions the blind beggar:


I went upstairs and read a galley proof,

And heard the wind roll marbles on the roof.

"See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing"

Has unmistakably the vulgar ring

Of its preposterous age. Then came your call,

My tender mockingbird, up from the hall.

I was in time to overhear brief fame

And have a cup of tea with you: my name

Was mentioned twice, as usual just behind

(one oozy footstep) Frost.

                                         "Sure you don't mind?

I'll catch the Exton plane, because you know

If I don't come by midnight with the dough - " (ll. 417-428)


Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda, Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane.”