Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0019965, Mon, 3 May 2010 12:50:44 -0400

Re: THOUGHTS: Nihilistic shaving, irony in Canto 4 of Pale Fire
[Matt Roth responding to Gwynn, Lipon, et. al.]

RSG: A "Newport Frill" is an old-fashioned style of mustache; a mustache is
the wick of the mouth, right, being above it?

MR: Not exactly. VN seems to be referring to the "Newgate Frill," a style
of beard grown beneath the jawline, thus resembling a noose like the ones
used to execute prisoners at the Newgate prison in England. (Foreshadowing
his demise, methinks.) See Richard Wagner's Wikipedia page for a splendid
example. There is no mustache involved. As for "wick," Webster's 2nd defines
it thus: "A corner, esp. of the eye or mouth; an angle. Now Dial." The
origin is from Old Norse, vijka to turn. W2 says to also see weak, which
descends from a larger set of similar words with the meaning "soft, pliant,
yielding" and "turn, veer, recede." Since Shade here is talking about how
weak his skin is, wick is an excellent choice, since it not only points to a
particular part of his face but to that part's weakness, as well.

RSG: It's beautifully ironic that line 984 (which stretches out as one of
the visually longest lines in the poem) is only 9 syllables long, perhaps
ironically signaling (it is VN's irony!) the short time that Shade has

MR: I don't think 984 is only 9 syllables. I assume you are counting
"Poems" as one syllable. Yet line 960 (unless it too is 9 syllables) seems
to count "Poems" as two syllables. Since "poems" can legitimately be scanned
as either one or two syllables, shouldn't PF's very consistent 10-syllable
pattern lead us to read it as 2 syllables?

As for the shaving scene as a whole, I have always felt that it is the
weakest part of the poem, a real disappointment both because of the deflated
promise of the canto's opening lines and because it feels, as Gary pointed
out, utterly self-indulgent, an idee fixe. As a part of Shade's poem, it
fails. Yet there is method in it in terms of its importance to the novel as
a whole. There are at least two key images in the passage that contribute to
my belief that Shade and Kinbote are the same person. The first is that of
Shade imagining himself "like a king there, and like Marat bleed[ing]." Here
we have Shade picturing himself (the quasi-truth told in jest) both as a
king and as the victim of an assassin--the very building blocks of Kinbote's
identity. Indeed, this is the second time Shade has imagined himself a king
(see line 605). In both cases, VN eschews first-person singular (first using
"our," then "he") in order to foreground the dissociative nature of this
line of thought within Shade's psyche. In other words, Shade is outside
himself in these descriptions.

The other important image is that of Shade's thin skin.

The more I weigh the less secure my skin;
In places it's ridiculously thin;
Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick
And my grimace, invites the wicked nick.
Or this dewlap: some day I must set free
The Newport Frill inveterate in me.

Here we have Shade describing his skin, the boundary between inside and
outside, as nearly permeable. His "dewlap" is so vulnerable he is thinking
of growing out the beard that is already deep-seated inside him ("inveterate
in me"). In essence, then, he is ready to turn himself inside out. We should
see this turning (recall that "wick" means "to turn") as related to Shade's
muse, his "versipel," or turn-skin--a term usually used to designate a
werewolf. The versipel also appears to be inveterate in Shade, since it is
"with [him] everywhere, / in carrel and in car, and in my chair."* For more
on this, see the Roth/DeRewal article in the NOJ, but in short, the ancient
notion was that werewolves in their human form had hair that grew inward;
when they transformed into wolves, they simply turned themselves inside out.
Quoting from our essay:

Though Nabokov used the particular term verispel only in Pale
Fire, he has played with the idea of the turn-skin before. In a scene from
Despair that seems a deliberate counterpart to Shade’s shaving scene (in
which he gazes at himself in the mirror and considers growing a beard), we
find Hermann discoursing on the evils of mirrors and the luxury of his
newly-grown beard. Hermann complains that a flawed mirror can turn the gazer
into a “man-bull” with a neck which “draws out suddenly into a downward yawn
of flesh,” or, alternatively, it can reveal a man “torn in two” (21). In
Canto Four of “Pale Fire,” John Shade, peering into his shaving mirror,
observes that his almost permeable skin (perhaps befitting his versipellian
nature) is “less secure” than it once was, and “ridiculously thin.” He
continues, “Or this dewlap: some day I must set free / The Newport Frill
inveterate in me” (P895-900). Webster’s 2nd defines “dewlap” as both “the
pendulous fold of skin under the neck of animals of the ox tribe” and “a
flaccid fold of fat or flesh on the human throat.” Thus, when Shade
references his downward-yawning dewlap, he is essentially conjuring himself
as Hermann’s “man-bull.” Hermann refuses to look at mirrors for fear of
seeing himself transformed into a man-beast; John Shade looks into his
mirror and sees the “man-bull” already there. We must then wonder if he also
sees himself “torn in two.”
But the versipelimage, as it specifically refers to werewolves,
is even more explicitly evoked by another of Hermann’s observations, which
immediately follows his discourse on mirrors. While admiring his beard (much
as Kinbote admires the “rich tint and texture” of his own) Hermann boasts,
“I am disguised so perfectly, as to be invisible to my own self! Hair
comes sprouting out of every pore. There must have been a tremendous stock
of shag inside me. I hide in the natural jungle that has grown out of me.
There is nothing to fear. Silly superstition!” (21). This presents us with a
puzzle. What is the “silly superstition” to which Hermann here refers, and
why might it engender fear? The answer may be found in the image of a man
with “a tremendous stock of shag” growing inside him, a man who, in essence,
becomes hairy by turning himself inside out—in other words, a versipel.

I have mentioned before that I also think the shaving scene is related to
the story of Lycaon, King of Arcadia. See here:

In all, then, even though Shade's shaving doesn't make very engaging
poetry, it is crucial to the our understanding of Shade's metamorphosis.
When put together with all of the doubling images in the poem, Shade's
becoming a "fat fly," his sleepwalking, etc.--the shaving scene may be seen
to speak of evil and despair after all.

Matt Roth


* Aside: when I read those lines, I always hear "In Caroline [Carol and] in
Karl, and in my Charles."

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