Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0016759, Thu, 17 Jul 2008 12:24:14 -0400

THOUGHTS: MR On Matt Roth's incest theory
Matt Roth responding.

LH: My idea is based on the passage about the travelog Sybil and John
are watching on TV (from line 429). It shows "the green, indigo and tawny
sea / Which we had visited in thirty-three / Nine months before her
birth". "The allusion is to Nice where the Shades spent the first half of
that year" Kinbote informs us in his note to line 433-434. Therefore, Nice

is the place where Hazel was conceived.
Now, if we go back to the poem, we are surprised to notice that the
Shades' "first long ramble" there, was NOT pervaded by "a sustained low hum

of harmony". Quite the contrary! Details such as the blue sail clashing
queerly with the sea (like a sour note, an aesthetic fault) the relentless

light (introducing an idea of cruelty, ruthlessness) the insufferably loud

gulls (cruelty, discordance again) the dark pigeon (maybe suggesting filth)

create a rather unpleasant atmosphere.
MR: Laurence, I think your analysis here is quite interesting. There does
seem to be something amiss at the time of Hazel's conception. I'm also
interested in your observation about Disa being in Nice. JF suggested that
Kinbote may have fabricated this detail only after reading the poem,
purposefully bringing his own story in line with Shade's. But Boyd makes a
good point in his book on PF (p.119) when he says of Kinbote: "If he had
adapted the Zemblan story to the poem, he would not now be able to make so
much of his disappointment at the disparity between them, and he would not
have needed to concoct his variants." That's not to say that JF's scenario
IN THIS CASE is impossible--just that it cannot be true more generally. So
it seems to me that the default position should be that Kinbote's story is
intact (in his own mind) even before he reads Shade's poem.

Now, getting back to your point about Disa. If I were looking for mirrored
events in the novel (I am, I am) I might point out that this Nice
convergence points us to BOTH Hazel and Sybil. As you say, it is the place
of Hazel's conception, but let's also remember that sometime in her late
teens (probably) John and Sybil "sent her, though, to a chateau in France"
(line 336). The verb phrase here ("we sent her") seems a bit harsh, no? It
feels to me not so different than the word Kinbote uses ("banished") to
describe Disa's removal to Nice. Now, when did Disa go to Nice? 1953. In
1953, Hazel Shade was nineteen years old. Given that most Americans graduate
high school at the age of eighteen, 1953 seems like a likely time for Hazel
to have spent a "gap year" in France. We can't be sure of this, but we
should recall that the description of Hazel's return is immediately followed
by a portrait of her as a college student. All in all, it seems at least
plausible, at most likely, that Hazel and Disa were both sent/banished to
France in the same year. If so, then this would seem to be another example
of Hazel doubling Sybil's role (if Sybil=Disa), as she has with the atalanta
and mockingbird.

Remember too that Disa is the Duchess of Great Payn and Mone. In Canto Two
we find Hazel in a similar state: smiling was "a sign of pain"; ..."sit on
her tumbled bed / Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head with
psoriatic fingernails, and moan" (351, 353-5). Also, in the index, we find
that Disa was "haunting my dreams, and haunted by dreams of me." This places
Disa alongside the girl in the black leotard who "haunts Lit. 202" and the
Toothwort White (Hazel) who "haunted the woods in May." What do these three
have in common?

LH: I read your previous posts about your "incest" theory and I take
advantage of your welcoming objections to criticize it. At first blush,
your idea seemed fairly attractive to me, because I think too that there is

something not absolutely all right about Hazel and her father. But when put

back in context, I'm afraid your theory collapses: this idea of a Shade-
Hazel incestuous relationship destroys the very coherence of the novel and

as far as I can see, doesn't add anything to its meaning.

MR: I have been contemplating this criticism for the last couple days
(Brian Boyd said something similar earlier this year) and I think I've begun
to formulate a few ideas. In some ways, this puts the cart before the horse,
since declaring what the incest theory would mean assumes there is an incest
narrative in the first place (and I've yet to convince anyone of that!).
Nevertheless, I'll make a stab at it.

I believe that, far from destroying the coherence of the novel, an incest
narrative in PF perfectly highlights several of the main threads that make
the novel so special.

1. In his article on incest in Ada, our list founder, DBJ, writes: "Any
literary work is the outgrowth of a complex interaction with other literary
works--particularly those that are closely related in setting and theme.
Given Ada's myriad of literary allusions and its references to stages
(generations) in the Evolution of the Novel (p. 96), it does not seem
untoward to see its theme of incest as a metaphor for intercourse among
kindred works of art. Ada is the consequence of a complex act of
pro-creation." It is easy to see how this can be applied to PF. Given his
work on Eugene Onegin, VN must have been keenly aware of the odd
relationship between a poem and a commentary. This relationship is,
metaphorically, incestuous. The original poem is the father that gives birth
to the commentary, its child. In this sense, the relationship is
unidirectional. But VN knew that the commentary, once written, in some sense
marries itself to the poem and together they make a new meaning. In this
sense, then, the commentary and the poem are like husband and wife. Put it
another way: in father-daughter incest, the daughter remains a derivative of
the father (while the reverse is not true) but also becomes his sexual equal
and may even combine with the father to create a new life. The same is true
with a poem and commentary.

2. BUT . . . in PF, Kinbote is Shade's kinbote--the price he must pay for
the death of his daughter. So instead of contributing a commentary that
derives from, and pays tribute to, the poem, Kinbote provides a commentary
that refuses to be subject to its father, the poem. And if there is still
some intercourse between poem and commentary, the power roles have been
reversed: "it is the commentator who has the last word" (29). Priscilla
Meyer, in the concluding chapter of her book on PF, argues that Kinbote's
kidnap of Shade's poem marks it as the analog to Lolita, the kidnapped and
(incestuously) violated step-daughter. If so, then the tables have really
been turned. And what is produced by this incestuous intercourse? A
moon-calf, a monstrosity, "the monstrous semblance of a novel."

3. We can likewise see how incest fits PF's design when we look at Shade's
poem. See, for instance, lines 963-970:

Gently the day has passed in a sustained
Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained
And a brown ament, and the noun I meant
To use but did not, dry on the cement.
Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.

Brian Boyd has already established that the Shagbark (with its phantom
swing) is specially associated with Hazel, and I have also argued that the
ament/catkin here must (like the nuts rolling on the roof in Canto Three) be
from that tree. This establishes Hazel's importance to this passage (and
also establishes her as a Princess Catskin figure--"the difference of a
sibilant") and helps us to see how she may be related to Shade's aesthetics.
Shade calls his favorite form of rhyme "Echo's fey child," for which he
expresses "sensual love." One meaning of "fey" is "deceased," but probably
Shade is using it in the sense of "strange, otherworldy, uncanny." Remember
that he has said that Hazel had "strange fears, strange fantasies, strange
force" (344). We have heard this phrase, "fey child," before. In Lolita, HH
says: "I should have understood that Lolita had already proved to be
something quite different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil
breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my
secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation
lethal" (AnL 124-5). Here, then, is the sexual context that prefigures
Shade's "sensual love." And how does Hazel relate to the consonne d'appui?
Simply, she is John Shade's rhyme: "She might have been you, me, or some
quaint blend: / Nature chose me . . ." (293-4). Hazel is John Shade's
consonne d'appui, and thus the object of his "sensual love." In a sense,
then, the father and daughter make a couplet, with the father being the
first line's rhyming word and the daughter being the closing rhyme. This
makes all the more poignant the fact that Shade's poem's final rhyme is left
open, unfinished, cut short like Hazel's life.

Okay, that's probably too much. But thanks again, Laurence, for spurring me
on to think about your comment and its implications.


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