‘King, Queen, Knave’, by Vladimir Nabokov

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December 4, 2013 by Me and My Monkeys

King, Queen, Knave

Omnipotence and clandestine authorial intrusion are a dirty, dangerous mix, but Nabokov handles his weapons with dexterity and charm in King, Queen, Knave.

His wizardry starts from the first paragraph, when a few sentences enable inanimate objects – iron pillars, platforms and luggage handcarts – to walk and glide. Nabokov is signalling that he is prepared to use language and style to deceive and mislead.

For the most part, protagonists Franz, Martha and Uncle Dreyer are painted with the hazy brushstrokes of an impressionist. Seamless perspective shifts create a world of collective consciousness in which the author alone knows “absolutely everything”. With this power, Nabokov drip-feeds elements of character and plot so as to tickle our fancy, undermine our assumptions and toy with our empathy.

While the cast (including the doppelgänger trio of ‘automannequins’) are primarily stylistic playthings, they still keep us page-turning with love-triangular emotions and motivations, not all of which are borrowed from Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. We feel the flow and ebb of Franz’s sexual yearning, the mariticidal madness of Martha and, after a long wait, the ‘demanding’ melancholy of Dreyer.

King, Queen, Knave was Nabokov’s second novel, published in 1928 but translated into English forty years later, undoubtedly grateful for the additional tinkerings of an older, wiser lepidopterist. We in the fast-food West should be very glad that he recaptured this butterfly.

Recommended? Yes, for slow readers and lovers of style.

Out of 10? 10

My monkeys suggest:

  • “Such magicians should be made emperors”.
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