Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027129, Fri, 29 Jul 2016 22:10:29 -0300

[Queries] Tension film: Staring fish and amusement parks in PF
and TT. Engine Power stereotypes - correction

The frail experience with "immediate reality" ( the Now ) in "Transparent
Things" is associated with miracle-workers, such as those who can walk on
water, like insects and spiders. The rupture of the watery film that
precedes a plunge into the history of an object ( here it's a pencil) will
soon be presented and related to the mystery of the still living character
named Hugh Person ( "the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and
felled pine to this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in
a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person
still somehow eludes us! But he won't, oh no.")* The narrator explains:

Chapter One, Transparent Things: A thin veneer of immediate reality is
spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in
the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film.
Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer
walking on water but descending upright among staring fish. More in a

The image of keeping oneself on a tender film at the surface of life to live
it more fully ( that's my interpretation of TT's author's words) led me
today to another analogy that mentions the surface and the depths of a body
of water. In "Pale Fire" the plunge into its transparent depths however will
serve the artist who he needs to explore the composition of a poem more
fully or develop a critical apparatus. As we read in Charles Kinbote's
Foreword to the poem:

Foreword, Pale Fire: "Actually, it [Shade's poem] turns out to be
beautifully accurate when you once make the plunge and compel yourself to
open your eyes in the limpid depths under its confused surface. It contains
not one gappy line, not one doubtful reading. [ ] As mentioned, I think,
in my last note to the poem, the depth charge of Shade’s death blasted such
secrets and caused so many dead fish to float up, that I was forced to leave
New Wye soon after my last interview with the jailed killer."

After I stopped to investigate the two water depth/surface quotes more
closely, my impression of their having special points in common almost
disappeared. I must have sunk "among staring fish," since any sort of
analysis (about the history of an object, be it a pencil or a poem) seems to
disrupt one's relation to the "now." When we take the plunge, like
Kinbote's, in search of what lies under the surface of a text, many
experiences are lost inspite of the exciting new discoveries in its "limpid

"When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very
act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of
that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to
stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the
past shines!" (returning to "Transparent Things"). Would V. Nabokov himself
be advising his readers about the various ways one should reread a novel,
considering that a more superficial (but not inattentive) reading may reveal
intuitions and experiences that disappear when further readings invite them
to examine their external relationships, its structure ( Berman's "lettre"),
or the author's verbal sleights of hand? Both levels are important, though
and I suppose that breaking through the tension film of a novelistic surface
is not a definitive disaster. We can rise again and float anew... I wonder,
though, what were the secrets and "dead fish" that forced Kinbote to his
reclusion in Cedarn.

While searching through the text I noticed Kinbote's justifiable impatience
with the noises from an amusement park which emerges at specific moments of
his writing the foreword or commentary. I remember having read that part of
the latter was drafted before he retreated into his Cedarn cave but, until
now, I felt no need to situate the first writings in contrast to the later
ones, those that refer more immediately to the "now" ( the "transparent
time") of a disturbing music. Actually, all the four selected lines were set
down in Cedarn, although n.4 suggests a different count of time (as it
antecedes the other three sentences but is offered in one of his notes to
the poem instead of the foreword).

1."A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of
completed lines at midnight [ ] he preserved the date of actual creation
rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement
park right in front of my present lodgings."

2. "The calendar says I had known him only for a few months but there exist
friendships which develop their own inner duration, their own eons of
transparent time, independent of rotating, malicious music."

3. "Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that
there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000)
which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the
symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and
ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred
verses each, and damn that music. Knowing Shade’s combinational turn of mind
and subtle sense of harmonic balance, I cannot imagine that he intended to
deform the faces of his crystal by meddling with its predictable growth."

4. "This describes rather well the "chance inn," a log cabin, with a tiled
bathroom, where I am trying to coordinate these notes. At first I was
greatly bothered by the blare of diabolical radio music from what I thought
was some kind of amusement park across the road — it turned out to be
camping tourists — and I was thinking of moving to another place, when they
forestalled me." (note to lines 609-614)

I got the feeling that, as in TT, the author is indicating the two levels of
attention a good-reading demands and he is also developping his ideas about
"transparent things" versus "transparent time."

BTW: I also felt curious about a stereotyped repetition (stemming from VN!)
when he mentions motor engines. The word "powerful" appears twelve times in
PF. In six of them he is describing his car (there's another one, related to
the King's powerful motorboat). He seems to be excessively aware of the
relation between engine power and speed of locomotion, as we also find it in
his note about the forces that propelled the verbal advance of Gradus (the
assassin employs cars, trains, escalators and airplanes but he is felt as if
he were maintaining a "sustained glide over sea and land" thanks to the
sensuous form endowed to him by inexorable fate - through CK's or J.Shade's
moving pencils).

"On one of my first mornings there [NW], as I was preparing to leave for
college in the powerful red car I had just acquired, I noticed that Mr. and
Mrs. Shade, neither of whom I had yet met socially (I was to learn later
that they assumed I wished to be left alone), were having trouble with their
old Packard in the slippery driveway where it emitted whines of agony but
could not extricate one tortured rear wheel out of a concave inferno of ice.
John Shade busied himself clumsily with a bucket from which, with the
gestures of a sower, he distributed handfuls of brown sand over the blue
glaze. He wore snowboots, his vicuña collar was up, his abundant gray hair
looked berimed in the sun. I knew he had been ill a few months before, and
thinking to offer my neighbors a ride to the campus in my powerful machine,
I hurried out toward them."

" I offered to take him home in my powerful Kramler."

"At about four in the morning, with the sun enflaming the tree crests and
Mt. Falk, a pink cone, the King stopped his powerful car at one of the gates
of the palace."

"That jinxy streak had started on the eve when I had been kind enough to
offer a young friend — a candidate for my third ping-pong table who after a
sensational series of traffic violations had been deprived of his driving
license — to take him, in my powerful Kramler, all the way to his parents’
estate, a little matter of two hundred miles."

"Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the
man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a
few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a

"It was this medley of metallic melodies which surrounded me on that
fateful, much too luminous evening of July 21 when upon roaring home from
the library in my powerful car I at once went to see what my dear neighbor
was doing.[ ]"

"A powerful motorboat had been prepared in a coastal cave near Blawick (Blue
Cove) in western Zembla."

Here, beside the powerful cars we find another type of "engine" in CK's note
to lines 131-32:

"Although Gradus availed himself of all varieties of locomotion — rented
cars, local trains, escalators, airplanes — somehow the eye of the mind sees
him, and the muscles of the mind feel him, as always streaking across the
sky with black traveling bag in one hand and loosely folded umbrella in the
other, in a sustained glide high over sea and land. The force propelling him
is the magic action of Shade’s poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of
verse, the powerful iambic motor. Never before has the inexorable advance of
fate received such a sensuous form (for other images of that transcendental
tramp’s approach see note to line 17).

What about electricity? That's how the "muscles of the mind" work, no?

Jansy Mello


* - "It was not a hexagonal beauty of Virginia juniper or African cedar,
with the maker's name imprinted in silver foil, but a very plain, round,
technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac. It had
been mislaid ten years ago by a carpenter who had not finished examining,
let alone fixing, the old desk, having gone away for a tool that he never
found. Now comes the act of attention.

In his shop, and long before that at the village school, the pencil has been
worn down to two-thirds of its original length. The bare wood of its tapered
end has darkened to plumbeous plum, thus merging in tint with the blunt tip
of graphite whose blind gloss alone distinguishes it from the wood. A knife
and a brass sharpener have thoroughly worked upon it and if it were
necessary we could trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on
one side and tan on the other when fresh, but now reduced to atoms of dust
whose wide, wide dispersal is panic catching its breath but one should be
above it, one gets used to it fairly soon (there are worse terrors). On the
whole, it whittled sweetly, being of an old-fashioned make. Going back a
number of seasons (not as far, though, as Shakespeare's birth year when
pencil lead was discovered) and then picking up the thing's story again in
the "now" direction, we see graphite, ground very fine, being mixed with
moist clay by young girls and old men. This mass, this pressed caviar, is
placed in a metal cylinder which has a blue eye, a sapphire with a hole
drilled in it, and through this the caviar is forced. It issues in one
continuous appetizing rodlet (watch for our little friend!), which looks as
if it retained the shape of an earthworm's digestive tract (but watch,
watch, do not be deflected!). It is now being cut into the lengths required
for these particular pencils (we glimpse the cutter, old Elias Borrowdale,
and are about to mouse up his forearm on a side trip of inspection but we
stop, stop and recoil, in our haste to identify the individual segment). See
it baked, see it boiled in fat (here a shot of the fleecy fat-giver being
butchered, a shot of the butcher, a shot of the shepherd, a shot of the
shepherd's father, a Mexican) and fitted into the wood.

Now let us not lose our precious bit of lead while we prepare the wood.
Here's the tree! This particular pine! It Is cut down. Only the trunk is
used, stripped of its bark. We hear the whine of a newly invented power saw,
we see logs being dried and planed. Here's the board that will yield the
integument of the pencil in the shallow drawer (still not closed). We
recognize its presence in the log as we recognized the log in the tree and
the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built. We
recognize that presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but
nameless, and as impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never
seen smiling eyes.

Thus the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to
this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle.
Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person still
somehow eludes us! But he won't, oh no. "

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