NABOKV-L post 0015723, Thu, 29 Nov 2007 14:00:03 -0500

THOUGHTS on Canto One
From Jim Twiggs:

In my opinion, a careful look at lines 161-163 may
help to answer some of the recent questions about
Canto One. Here are the lines:

"But like some little lad forced by a wench
With his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench,
I was corrupted, terrified, allured,"

I have always thought, going back to my first reading
of the novel, that these lines ought to jar us in much
the way we're jarred by the sudden appearance of the
amusement park in Kinbote's Foreword. Because of what
they suggest about Shade's life and character, I
consider them the most important lines in the poem,
perhaps in the entire book. And yet the major critics,
at least the ones I've read--from Field and Stegner
and right up to Boyd--have passed over the lines in
silence. When I searched the List archives, using
"abject thirst" as my key phrase, I found, from a few
years ago, a flurry of speculation by members of the
Pynchon List and, from our side, some interesting
comments by Carolyn Kunin--Carolyn being one of those
who have, rightly in my view, insisted that Shade and
his narrative are a good deal more complicated than
most readers want to admit. After that flurry, unless
I've overlooked something, came another long silence.
For what it's worth, here's a possible take on the
lines and on their significance. I claim no
originality for any particular point, but perhaps I've
put things together in a way that's worth thinking

At line 161, the breathtaking swerve into the third
person indicates (so I'm suggesting) not that Shade is
using a farfetched, deeply puzzling and inappropriate
simile; it indicates, rather, that the experience he
describes--HIS experience--remains so painful that,
even in his sixties, he can't face it head on. The
switch back to the first person for line 163-- "I was
corrupted, terrified, allured" --reveals the awesome
and hence lasting trauma of his being sexually abused
by his Aunt Maud.

If we're willing to go this far, then we might want to
revisit lines 102-104:

"How fully I felt nature glued to me
And how my childish palate loved the taste
Half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste!"

Any grown man with a lick of worldly experience ought
to be struck, on a first reading, by the strong sexual
connotations of the words "honey," "fish," and
"taste." Then he might decide that what's being talked
about here is merely the liquid glue that children use
for pasting items in scrapbooks. But then, when he
reaches lines 161-162, he may once again want to
reconsider. If he does, the image that comes to
mind--Aunt Maud's pudenda plastered to a small boy's
face--might seem as funny, in a very Nabokovian way,
as it is appalling. Nabokov, with his strong interest
in both sex and vernacular language, would know
exactly what he was writing here.

The thoughtful reader may also be inclined to see a
sexual meaning in the canto's penultimate stanza,
which could easily pass for a poetic rendition of an
intense orgasm.

In giving us an account, partly explicit and partly
veiled, of Shade's upbringing and early sexual
experiences, Nabokov is laying the ground for the
poet's interest in the afterlife. What Shade initially
wants to escape from is the "cage" of his own
misshapen body, his own miserable self, the domination
of his aunt, and his separation from other children
and the beautiful world outside. The bicycle track
represents both freedom and the endless going around
in circles of the figure 8. And whereas the waxwing
hits the window from the outside,
Shade--psychologically speaking--hits it from within.
Hence his identification with the bird and the bit of
ashen fluff. His use of the word "cage" ought to
remind us of the ape described by Nabokov in his
afterword to LOLITA. Shade's poem, you might say, is a
drawing of the bars of his cage.

When he speaks of fits and the daily momentary swoon,
he is speaking of orgasms during sex with his aunt. In
addition to its literal sense, "feigned remoteness"
strongly suggests the the ordeal. It's also pertinent that Shade's early
orgasms were experienced as death--a common enough
connection in any case but all the more so because
they happened while, head buried in the darkness
between her legs, he was submitting to his aunt’s

Relief comes when Maud, perhaps aware of the harm
she's doing, stops molesting Shade--who, good boy that
he is and having no other support than his aunt, keeps
his mouth shut when they visit the doctor. The term
"growing pains" is a euphemism for the onset of
puberty, when boys, even normal boys leading normal
lives, become obsessed with sex. The usual
cures--exercise and cold water--are put into effect.
As a result, Shade learns to swim--another wonderfully
comic touch, in my opinion.

But although the abuse stops, it has corrupted him to
the point that he lives his life in shame and (I would
add) self-loathing.

All of this affects, as it is bound to do, his
relations with the three main females in his life. The
two he has been dependent on--Maud and Sybil--he
treats, and talks about, with exaggerated respect and
a blind eye to their faults. Poor Hazel he often
describes with clinical accuracy amounting to cruelty.
This is because, of all the many reflections and
doublings in the book, the resemblance between Shade
and his daughter is far and away the most important.
She is his mirror image, his pale imitation. Because
he loathes himself, he loathes her as well.

Another bit of evidence for the sexual interpretation
can be found in Kinbote's hilarious note to line 162:

"Line 162: With his pure tongue, etc.

"This is a singularly roundabout way of describing a
country girl's shy kiss; but the whole passage is very

I hope it isn't only good old boys like me--I was
catching on to jokes about country girls around the
same age that Shade was slaking his aunt's thirst--who
have noted that Kinbote's demented account contains
within itself a blunt description of what is going on
in the poem. You have only to jump over a few letters,
starting with the "r" in "country" and ending with the
"y" in "shy," to see plainly what I mean. A writer as
careful as Nabokov would have been aware of the joke
he was planting here.

I hope that those who object to my interpretation will
not only explain, in some other way, the barrage of
sexual and sexual-seeming imagery in Canto One but
will also somehow account for the extreme state of
mind that leads Shade to speak of his boyhood
corruption, terror, and allurement, not to mention the
lingering wonder and shame.

At the very least, the intensity of Shade's childhood
experiences should alert us to the possibility that
the seeming peacefulness of his adult life--the
stability that Boyd speaks of--is bought at a high
price in self-deception and repressed feeling.

Jim Twiggs

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