Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.

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July 26, 2011


The shocking and gruesome news out of Port St. Lucie, Florida, last weekend threatened to be swallowed up in a week dominated by awful violence of a more staggering scale. But readers of the Times weren’t likely to have missed a story about a seventeen-year-old named Tyler Hadley who “was giving a party for 60 people at his home … when, according to police, he confessed to a friend that he had killed his parents.” Hadley showed his friend the master bedroom, where there was “a partly covered body sticking out from a heap of items on the floor.” Police in Port St. Lucie told the Times that the teen-ager had killed both parents with a hammer. (Hadley’s attorney has filed a plea of not guilty.)

vladimir-nabokov3.jpgAs strange as throwing a party after bludgeoning one’s parents might seem, this is perhaps not the first time such a thing has happened. A half century ago, Nabokov described a very similar crime, using it as an anecdote in a lecture on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (collected in his “Lectures on Literature”):

I don’t know if you read a couple of years ago in the papers about that teenage girl and boy who murdered the girl’s mother. It starts with a very Kafkaesque scene: the girl’s mother has come home and found her daughter and the boy in the bedroom, and the boy has hit the mother with a hammer—several times—and dragged her away. But the woman is still thrashing and groaning in the kitchen, and the boy says to his sweetheart, “Gimme the hammer. I think I’ll have to knock her again.” But the girl gives her mate a knife instead and he stabs the girl’s mother many, many times, to death—under the impression, probably, that this all is a comic strip: you hit a person, the person sees lots of stars and exclamation marks but revives by and by, in the next installment. Physical life however has no next installment, and soon boy and girl have to do something with dead mother. “Oh, plaster of paris, it will dissolve her completely!” Of course, it will—marvelous idea—place body in bathtub, cover with plaster, and that’s all. Meanwhile, with mother under the plaster (which does not work—wrong plaster, perhaps) boy and girl throw several beer parties. What fun! Lovely canned music, and lovely canned beer. “But you can’t go, fellas, to the bathroom. The bathroom is a mess.”

For Nabokov, the incident was illustrative of a certain ugly strain of human nature that Kafka was driving at. It was a way for him to show the undergraduates that the horror of the short story was realer and more familiar to them—and at the same time more strangely horrible—than it first appeared. “I’m trying to show you,” Nabokov told them, “that in so-called real life we find sometimes a great resemblance to the situation in Kafka’s fantastic story.” He was drawing their attention toward “the curious mentality of the morons in Kafka who enjoy their evening paper despite the fantastic horror in the middle of their apartment.”

It’s hard to know whether Nabokov was referring, as he claimed, to a real incident. The news story he refers to isn’t easy to find, but then, were it real, it presumably wouldn’t be. Certainly he was known to fabricate a newspaper story (as in “Pale Fire”’s playful headline “Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman’s Homer”), and certainly the outrageous comedy that marks his description of the murder is characteristic of his fiction.

In either case, the professors who model their lectures on Nabokov’s now have, tragically, a very real clipping to show their students.

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