Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0017104, Fri, 26 Sep 2008 12:55:34 -0400

More Newport Frill THOUGHTS
Steve Arons noted VN's mention of the "Newport Frill" in The Gift, though we
have not yet heard how that item appears in the original Russian. I will be
surprised if this is actually a literal translation, rather than something
VN changed when he did the English version.

In any case, after looking through the list archives, I realized that there
has never been a discussion here of the origin of the term. In Boyd's LoA
notes to PF, he tells us that VN was referring to the "Newgate frill," a
beard that traces the jaw line. It is named after Newgate prison, in London,
because the beard resembles a noose hung round the neck of one about to be
executed. In the context of Shade's fourth canto, we might then see this as
a foreshadowing of Shade's death; or we might see it as a further show of
Shade's feelings of guilt regarding Hazel's death. This latter
interpretation would seem to fit with his notion (said in jest, of course)
that the noose-like beard is "inveterate" in him; that noose (read: guilt)
comes from something deeply rooted in his nature.

A separate question is why VN chose Newport instead of Newgate. The
simplest explanation is that it was simply a mistake. He got the terms mixed
up in his mind. Yet knowing how precise VN was, in his memory and his
writing, we might be tempted to find some method in the change of terms. If
VN did substitute Newport intentionally, the most obvious reference would be
to Newport, Rhode Island--the well-known seaport on the south coast of that
tiny New England state. Newport is a resort town, known for its mansions and
jazz and folk festivals. I wondered once if a lot of folkies or jazz
musicians wore this kind of beard, but I see no evidence of that, and the
Newport Folk festival only originated in 1959. (The German composer Richard
Wagner, however, sported a grand example--see his wikipedia page). Another
possibility I have kicked around is that VN was subtly referring to Ansel
Bourne (see the archives), the Rhode Islander (he lived about 30 miles from
Newport) who suffered from strange fits and had a famous dissociative
episode at the age of 61. (Robert Ludlum, by the way, named his Bourne
character after Ansel Bourne.) Bourne, in the only photo I've ever seen of
him, wore his beard in a style that closely resembles the Newgate Fringe,
completely off the cheeks but creeping up onto the lower half of his chin a
bit. If this were VN's intended reference, then Ansel Bourne's condition
would be the thing deeply rooted within John Shade.

But again, none of this could be true if VN actually used the term Newport
Frill in the original Russian of The Gift. So that would be good to know.

Matt Roth

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