King, Queen, Knave

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 01/25/2020 - 05:10

It is believed that the title of VN’s novel Korol’, dama, valet (“King, Queen, Knave,” 1928) suggests a game of cards and refers back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its “characters without thickness.” But nobody seems to have noticed that in Les regrets, rêveries couleur du temps (“Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time”), the penultimate story in Les Plaisirs et les Jours (“Pleasures and Days,” 1896), Marcel Proust speaks of novels and playing cards and mentions dames, rois ou valets (queens, kings or knaves) who were the still guests at her wildest parties:


Cartes, romans, pour avoir tenu si souvent dans sa main, être restés si longtemps sur sa table; dames, rois ou valets, qui furent les immobiles convives de ses fêtes les plus folles; héros de romans et héroïnes qui songiez auprès de son lit sous les feux croisés de sa lampe et de ses yeux votre songe silencieux et plein de voix pourtant, vous n’avez pu laisser évaporer tout le parfum dont l’air de sa chambre, le tissu de ses robes, le toucher de ses mains ou de ses genoux vous imprégna. (chapter VIII “Reliques”)


Cards, novels, you were so often in her hands, or remained for so long on her table; queens, kings or knaves, who were the still guests at her wildest parties; heroes of novels and heroines who, at her bedside, caught in the cross-beam of her lamp and her eyes, dreamt your silent dream, a dream that was nonetheless filled with voices: you cannot have simply let it evaporate – all the perfume with which the air of her bedroom, the fabric of her dresses and the touch of her hands or her knees imbued you.


In his Foreword to the English translation (1967) of Korol’, dama, valet VN compares a shell-shaped cigarette-case (left behind by a businessman) to the famous pastry in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and mentions “those three court cards, all hearts.”

'The colour of time' is a phrase appearing in Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Ch. 16) where V. had a rendezvous with Nina - if I'm remembering correctly. Gerard de Vries in his wonderful annotations (Silent Love) notes the allusion to Nabokov's lecture on Proust "the violet tint that runs through the whole book, the very colour of time" but not to the phrase appearing in Proust himself. Wow!

Have to read Les Plaisirs et les Jours now!

Since reading your post, I've waffled a few times, but I'm leaning towards skepticism, and thought I should bring up the counter-arguments.


If the mention of Proust (and the scallop-shaped cigarette case) in the introduction would otherwise be considered evidence for his being the source of the title, shouldn't it instead be evidence against the claim, considering that Nabokov brings this up as an example of a passage that has been "struck out" of KQKn?


On the other hand, how would we deal with multiple possible sources if we were to find a similar reference to face cards in, say, Joyce or Flaubert, or any of the other authors mentioned in the same foreword? It's not unlikely, especially if we're ready to tolerate differences in word order and singular/plural.


Sorry to be negative, I welcome strong counter-counter-arguments.





This post was rather superficial and is not worth defending. Anyway, Dreyer, Martha and Franz are not one-dimension characters and have little in common with the cards in Alice (in this respect they are closer to Proust's characters).

Hope you'll like my new post on Proust and Baudelaire in Ada better!

I would like to bring the "superficial" argument back. The difference that VN brings up (Foreword) has been remarked upon before -- regarding the telephone (Dreyer) "that madame wanted her emerald earrings" from the Russian original, but here the allusion to Proust doesn't diminish or lead the reader down a blind alley in any way. I think N. inserts a disclaimer where they deviate too much from his artistic purpose (for better or for worse). Case in point will be the short story (or the would-be novel) Solus Rex where say if we think that the protagonist, 'a certain K.' refers to the namesake that Kafka often used in his fiction. It is tempting to conflate them -- but as VN points out: "A word about K. The translators had some difficulty about that designation because the Russian for “king,” korol, is abbreviated as “Kr” in the sense it is used here, which sense can be rendered only by “K” in English. To put it rather neatly, my “K” refers to a chessman, not to a Czech." Good enough for me.

But here 2-3 allusions (say Alice and Les Plaisirs) enrich rather than diminish the context. I don't think that N. would want a prospective reader to find out about Proust's phrase of three cards from his story and then deduce that it is a reference to that (and hence explain it away) - but to experience a retrospective chill (or confirmation) like I felt when paths fork and complement each other.


PS - Tbh, I'm more happy that the phrase "colour of time" has a specific source or has been used previously. That's why VN used it so familiarly (like a throwaway) in RLSK.

Also, on a personal note, when I'm doubtful or skeptical -- I try to think "what harm does this possibility does?" rather than "what good does it lead to?" or "so what". Although this kind of phrasing may be accused of being too lenient, I think as long as it does not subtracts or takes away value from VN's fiction and is courteous (economic?) in its formulation, why not? Again, as an example (it may be a familiar one), I think Brian Boyd had once commented upon a line from Canto One of Pale Fire as a possible reference to Wilbur's poem (1956?) "Digging for China":

"Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse/Finding your China right behind my house."

He didn't stress upon this - but it is a nice formulation, it doesn't violate the rules of the game and opens up a line of inquiry. At least I benefited from being aware of the poem, even if it did not affect my understanding of the poem (or that couplet) in a major way.