NABOKV-L post 0024010, Tue, 23 Apr 2013 17:28:41 -0400

Pencils, in honor of Transparent Things
I found Transparent Things to be a haunting book--- literally. I lost my copy just as I had just finished the epiphinal chapter about a humble wooden pencil (Of course VN wrote all his books with just such an instrument.) The pencil and Hugh haunted me for years until I latched on to another copy.
Coincidentaly, this morning I opened my email to discover that someone had sent me these photos of one of the humbler things through which "the past shines" in Transparent Thing, thereby continuing the haunting. At the end of the photographs I quote what Nabokov wrote about the pencil. When I reread this section, I found it every bit as thrilling as when I first read it. BTW VN died on my birthday which gives me mixed feelings. Enjoy the photos and the quote at the end.

Chapter 3. In his
search for a commode to store his belongings Hugh Person, a tidy man, noticed
that the middle drawer of an old desk relegated to a dark corner of the room,
and supporting there a bulbless and shadeless lamp resembling the carcass of a
broken umbrella, had not been reinserted properly by the lodger or servant
(actually neither) who had been the last to check if it was empty (nobody
had). My good Hugh tried to woggle it
in; at first it refused to budge; then, in response to the antagony of a chance
rug (which could not help profiting from the cumulative energy of serveral
jogs) it shot out and spilled a pencil.
This he briefly considered before putting it back.

It was not a
hexagonal beauty of Virginia juniper or African cedar, with the maker’s name
imprinted in silver foil, but a very plain, round, technically faceless old
pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac.
It had been mislaid ten years ago by a carpetnter who had not finished
examining, let alone fixing, the old desk, having gone away for a tool that he
never found. Now comes the act of

In his shop, and
long before that at the village school, the pencil has been worn down to
two-thirds of its original length. The
bare wood of its tapered end has darkened to plumbeous plum thus merging in
tint with the blunt tip of graphite whose blind gloss alone distinguishes it
from the wood. A knife and a brass
sharpener have thoroughly worked upon it and if it were necessary we could
trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on one side and tan on
the other when fresh, but now reduced to atoms of dust whose wide, wide
dispersal is panic catching its breath but one should be above it, one gets
used to it fairly soon (there are worse terrors). On the whole it whittled sweetly, being of an
old-fashioned make. Going back a number
of seasons (not as far, though, as Shakespeare’s birth year when pencil lead
was discovered) and then picking up the thing’s story again in the “now”direction,
we see graphite, ground very fine, being mixed with moist clay by young girls
and old men. This mass, this pressed
caviar, is placed in a metal cylinder which has a blue eye, a sapphire with a
hole drilled in it, and through this the caviar is forced. It issues in one continuous appetizing rodlet
(watch for our little friend!), which looks as if it retained the shape of an
earthworm’s digestive tract (but watch, watch, do not be deflected!). It is now
being cut into the lengths required for these particular pencils (we glimpse
the cutter, old Elias Borrowdale, and are about to mouse up his forearm on a
side trip of inspection but we stop, stop and recoil, in our haste to identify
the individual segment). See it baked,
see it boiled in fat (here a shot of the fleecy fat-giver being butchered, a
shot of the butcher, a shot of the shepherd, a shot of the sheptherd’s father,
a Mexican) and fitted into the wood.

Now let us not lose
our precious bit of lead while we prepare the wood. Here’s the tree! This particular pine! It is cut down. Only the trunk is used, stripped of its
bark. We hear the whine of a newly

invented power saw, we see logs being dried and planed. Here’s the board that will yield the
integument of the pencil in the shallow drawer (still not closed). We recognize its presence in the log as we
recognize the log in the tree and the tree in the forest and the forest in the
world that Jack built. We recognize that
presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but nameless, and as
impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never seen smiling eyes.

Thus the entire
little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to this humble
implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered
briefly by Hugh Person still somehow eludes us! But he won’t, on no.

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