Friday, December 16, 2011

Not the Reading List: King, Queen, Knave

King, Queen, Knave
Vladimir Nabokov (as V. Sirin), 1928.
Translated and Revised 1968.

King, Queen, Knave is not on the Reading List. I bought it because it is by Nabokov, and because it has an awesomely lurid cover. It’s interesting to think that, almost within my lifetime, Nabokov was not just an important literary figure, not just a bestselling author, but a bestselling author who had enough commercial power that they would try to sell his books in tawdry paperback form. There must have been a fair number of disappointed buyers, I’ll tell you what.

It’s a book with an interesting background.  During his twenties, waiting for the Russian Revolution to run its course so he could head home, Nabokov tutored in various languages, taught tennis and boxing, worked on his butterfly collection, composed chess puzzles, and published a couple of novels in the Russian √©migr√© press; this was his second book. It didn't make much of a splash, until the runaway success of Lolita made the Nabokov brand name capable of pushing serious book sales. At this point, he had his son make a literal translation of King, Queen, Knave into English, and from that raw material made substantial revisions to his forty-year old text and tale. What I read, then, is kind of an interesting mashup of younger Nabokov and older Nabokov, with some level of input from Nabokov Junior. Cool.

The story, and of course I am about to issue spoilers, is a very simple contrivance about a country boy who comes to Berlin to seek a job in his uncle’s commercial empire, but whoops, falls under the spell of his sexy sexy aunt. This premise is very simple – there are really only three characters in the book – and the complications that ensue are fairly simple complications, if you follow me. Ultimately, though, Nabokov has a few surprises and ironies up his sleeve to reward the part of your brain that follows the plot.

The Usual Triangle?  In a Nabokov Novel?  Hardly.

But this is not a book that’s “about” the plot. It’s really a book about narrative technique (although if that makes it sound deadly tedious you could just say that it’s the kind of story where it’s not so much what he said, it’s the way that he said it). Specifically, Nabokov’s gambit here is to radically destabilize the point-of-view. None of the three characters is a POV character – or rather, they all are. This is not especially unusual in and of itself – lots of books switch POV from chapter to chapter – but in King, Queen, Knave, the POV slithers around from paragraph to paragraph. Nor is there always much in the way of signposting, and occasionally we realize with a start that the perspective has shifted without us noticing, and we have moved from, say, the uncle’s to the nephew’s conception of the situation.

Nabokov has fun using this unstable perspective to enrich the simple complexities of his story. Since each of the characters has secrets from the others, and since none of the three are particularly self-aware personalities, his subtle sliding around from mind to mind lets him exploit their disparities of information for dramatic and comic (albeit dry-as-dust comic) effect. We readers, meanwhile, have the satisfaction that always comes when we have access to lots of information and get to watch the poor benighted characters stumble about in their relative blindness. As I will say about a very different piece of fiction next week: it’s called “dramatic irony,” and in King, Queen, Knave it is turned up to 11.

Now, what (older) Nabokov himself found most interesting about KQK when he exhumed it for revision is that (younger) Nabokov used the technique of interior monologue at a time when he had not read, and didn’t yet know much about, Ulysses. Nabokov – (older) Nabokov – had a bit of an axe to grind on the subject of interior monologue, feeling that Joyce had been given more credit for pioneering the technique than he deserved. Specifically, he felt that interior monologue was plainly on display in Tolstoy, particularly in Anna Karenina. Therefore, finding his younger self crafting interior monologues at a time when he was presumably under the influence of the Russian masters, but not so much the English-language modernists, is a nice homegrown piece of evidence to support his theory.

Me, I’m more hung up on this shifting-perspectives thing, and I think it’s interesting too that KQK was written only a few years after the heyday of Cubism. Because, see, it’s not just that point of view shifts among the characters.  A given paragraph might also find us in a mode of neutral observation, or in the care of a conventionally omniscient narrator, or addressed by an unconventionally omniscient narrator who is able to make reference to the characters’ futures, or the provenance or destiny of ordinary items encountered by the characters. Some second-person narration is occasionally thrown in for good measure.

Cubist painters tried to show us things in a new way by breaking down the visual field – rendering objects or people from multiple angles (or through a sequence of time) simultaneously. Essentially, their idea was to fracture the concept of point of view. Nabokov’s fractured point of view is metaphorical rather than literal, but there’s something of the same effect: we have the sensation of looking at the characters from multiple angles all at the same time, and although our usual conventions of representation are being tampered with, there are new ways of looking at things to be discovered as well.

You may be wondering if I enjoyed the book. Yeah, it was pretty good. I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads. It’s not a book that many would read compulsively – I could put it down! – but it entertained me, especially in the final third. But more to the point, it also made me think in new ways about words and stories, and I liked that. Since so much of conscious life is built out of words and stories, it seems to me that thinking about how they work is always a good sort of experience to be chasing after.

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