King, Queen, Knave


Upon opening Vladimir Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave (translated from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author), I was immediately struck by the degree to which certain passages reminded me of Proust. I consider Nabokov to be one of my favorite authors, and yet somehow this had never occurred to me. Maybe, I thought, the similarity is particularly pronounced in this novel, which I had never read before? But while this may be, I quickly realized that, previous to King, Queen, Knave, my most recent reading of any Nabokov actually happened before my discovery of In Search of Lost Time. Since I first read Proust the summer before returning to college and taking up French, this means that it's been a full decade since I read anything by this so-called favorite of mine. How does this happen? If nothing else, it makes me feel a bit silly for going around adding Nabokov to those "favorite author" lists on social media sites, when in reality I haven't read him in ten years.

In any case, the good news is that my appreciation of Nabokov's craft has only increased in the interim. Not only that, but now seems more or less the perfect time in my reading life to pick up this particular title: on the one hand, David and I are revisiting In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower via audiobook in preparation for our trip to Normandy in May, and on the other hand, the details of Madame Bovary are still clear in my mind thanks to Frances's excellent readalong of last October. Indeed, King, Queen, Knave is a more-or-less explicit re-working of Flaubert's novel, complete with playful intertextual nods: the trio of main characters, for example, goes to see a variety show that features selections from Lucia di Lammermoor, the same tragic Romantic opera that causes Emma Bovary to swoon. (This same variety show includes a mélange of other selections so delightfully and hideously heterogeneous that I can't help but think of Charles Bovary's hat.)

It must be said that King, Queen, Knave is not a novel for readers who need to sympathize with their characters. Despite the sordidness of Flaubert's protagonists, Nabokov's goal in re-shaping this story seems to have been to depict a world and a cast of characters even more banal and unsavory. The earnest Léon is transformed into Franz, a profoundly squeamish provincial whose dreams of the big city consist of making enough money to hire a prostitute now and then. Instead of loyal but clueless Charles, we get the abrasively jovial Kurt Dreyer, Berlin businessman and Franz's uncle, whose casual infidelities, ebullient athleticism and bizarre investment decisions distract him from the emotional lives of everyone around him. And in the place of Emma herself is Martha Dreyer, Kurt's disdainful wife and Franz's aunt, who considers an extramarital affair to be her social duty as a proper bourgeois Berliner, much like buying the right kind of furniture or knowing the latest dance steps. Whereas Emma Bovary expects high romance to result from taking a lover, Martha's satisfaction on seducing her nephew is more akin to checking off a box on a to-do list; this is true to such an extent, in fact, that she feels puzzled and irritated with herself when she shows signs of actual infatuation with Franz. Soon enough, Franz and Martha come to view Dreyer as an obstacle in the path of their rapidly-waning passion, and embark on a series of radically incompetent plots to do him in.

If not in the characters, then, whence the enjoyment here? Well, for me it came in passages like this one:

Yet if she must survive something had to be done. Dreyer was spreading out monstrously before her, like a conflagration in a cinema picture. Human life, like fire, was dangerous and difficult to extinguish; but, as in the case of fire, there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted, natural method of quenching a man's fierce life. Enormous, tawny-haired, tanned from tennis; wearing bright yellow pajamas, redly yawning; radiating heat and health, and making the various grunting noises that a man who cannot control his gross physicality makes when waking up and stretching, Dreyer filled the whole bedroom, the whole house, the whole world.

This passage does so much work, and makes it seem so effortless. It's a portrait both of Dreyer, exaggerated and distorted through the lens of Martha's suffocating impatience yet still accurately evocative, and of Martha's disordered thinking as she becomes obsessed with the idea of her husband's death. It's plainly beautiful: I particularly love "quenching a man's fierce life," and the final image of Dreyer's movie-monster proportions in Martha's eyes. So too, the passage extends the novel's themes of disgust and the physical: Martha flees from Dreyer's "gross physicality" into the arms of Franz—who is equally squeamish if unfortunately also equally disgusting to the reader—only to end up inspiring disgust in her nephew as well. To top it all off, the entire passage is also a playful joke on Martha herself: despite having lighted upon the metaphor of murder as quenching a fire, and insisting that "there must be, there simply must be, some universally accepted method" of ending a life, it takes her an additional hundred-plus pages to arrive at the obvious epiphany that, like a fire, her husband could be drowned in water.

In addition to the exuberant beauty of his language, think it's Nabokov's lightness, his playfulness, which really got me on board with King, Queen, Knave. In contrast to Flaubert, one gets the sense the Nabokov takes neither himself nor his characters quite so seriously—and, by extension, that he does not envision the Marthas and Franzes of the world to be the only available alternatives to the author's own enlightened bohemianism, or any such nonsense. All three protagonists are horrible people, but I never got the feeling from this book that most people are horrible, or that the author is horrible, or that he thinks I am horrible. (Of course, if I hadn't had Madame Bovary to compare it to, maybe I would have felt differently.) The world outside the Franz/Dreyer/Martha trio, in other words, is not the hyper-realistic (read: suffocatingly banal) portrait of provincial life offered us by Flaubert, but is on the contrary brimming with strangeness and originality. Consider, for example, Franz's landlord, the great illusionist with the perpetually absent wife, who has convinced himself that his tenants are all figments of his own imagination; or the inventor financed by Dreyer, who is working on robotic, flesh-covered mannequins capable of walking around by themselves. I'm not sure whether these characters are supposed to represent artistic freedom or sinister madness (or both!), but they do give the impression of a more diverse realm of possibilities than does the world of Flaubert's Rouen.

And even if Nabokov does poke ample fun at his cast of bourgeois Berliners, the three protagonists are never cardboard buffoons, never anything less than people: his psychological portraits are insightful and eerily familiar, despite the reader's understandable desire to admit nothing whatsoever in common with the minds depicted. I was particularly in awe of the author's ability to combine, often in the same paragraph, several moods that seem mutually opposed. In this passage, for example, he begins with a Proustian reflection on dreams and psychological associations, transitions to an example of the phenomenon discussed, which rings true despite the silliness of his characters and their ridiculous behavior; and ends with a typically Nabokovian display of lingual virtuosity:

As happens in dreams, when a perfectly harmless object inspires us with fear and thereafter is frightening every time we dream of it (and even in real life retains disquieting overtones), so Dreyer's presence became for Franz a refined torture, an implacable menace. [ ... H]e could not help cringing when, with a banging of doors in a dramatic draft, Martha and Dreyer entered simultaneously from two different rooms as if on a too harshly lit stage. Then he snapped to attention and in this attitude felt himself ascending through the ceiling, through the roof, into the black-brown sky, while, in reality, drained and empty, he was shaking hands with Martha, with Dreyer. He dropped back on his feet out of that dark nonexistence, from those unknown and rather silly heights, to land firmly in the middle of the room (safe, safe!) when hearty Dreyer described a circle with his index finger and jabbed him in the navel; Franz mimicked a gasp and giggled; and as usual Martha was coldly radiant. His fear did not pass but only subsided temporarily: one incautious glance, one eloquent smile, and all would be revealed, and a disaster beyond imagination would shatter his career. Thereafter whenever he entered this house, he imagined that the disaster had happened—that Martha had been found out, or had confessed everything in a fit of insanity or religious self-immolation to her husband; and the drawing room chandelier invariably met him with a sinister refulgence.

"Invariably met him with a sinister refulgence"! Delicious. In the end, it was this sensual vitality of language that enabled me to leave King, Queen, Knave feeling exhilarated rather than depressed or disgusted, and kept me enthusiastic about digging into the more cerebral aspects of the novel.


A big thanks to Nicole at bibliographing for giving me the impetus to get back on the Nabokov train. See her posts on King, Queen, Knave here, here, here, and here. Hey lady, any ideas on when you're reading The Luzhin Defense?


  • Funnily enough, I was considering picking it up today (and still may). I finished a re-read of The Good Soldier last night and am in the mood for something else I can be assured is really first-rate.

    I love how you've both brought out the comparison t Madame Bovary and also how different the characters are from their counterparts, and how different Nabokov's whole tone is from Flaubert's. This, especially: "Whereas Emma Bovary expects high romance to result from taking a lover, Martha's satisfaction on seducing her nephew is more akin to checking off a box on a to-do list; this is true to such an extent, in fact, that she feels puzzled and irritated with herself when she shows signs of actual infatuation with Franz." Of course, Martha does still get her most harebrained ideas from books—all that time spent looking up poisons!

    Anyway, loved this post all around, and glad we both got back into VN. I too had spent years not really reading him despite always counting him a favorite. So are you with me for the next round?

    • YES, I'm absolutely on board for the next round—I was loving VN so much halfway through King, Queen, Knave that I ran out & bought The Luzhin Defense immediately. Can start it any time! (Though I may be a bit slow finishing since I'm trying to get in 30 pages of Beauvoir every day...)

      And yeah, it's hilarious & satisfying how Nabokov works parallel circumstances from Flaubert into this novel while tinkering with the motivation and tone, like the poisons from books example you cite, or Martha's eventual fate. I also liked how the sitting-on-the-roof-contemplating-suicide scene was transferred from Emma to Franz, and how it managed to fit so organically with his emotional arc.

  • I've read Lolita and Pale Fire, but both years ago, and I feel I need to read more Nabokov! Any suggestions on where to start? He wrote far too much. ;)

    • Eva, my favorite of those of his I've read is Ada, or Ardour - that said, I'll have a much better idea what to recommend once I've revisited all his stuff with Nicole. I haven't read anywhere close to all of it, either! (I imagine that your background in Russian would be a help with a lot of his stuff, though. Lots of language jokes/references.)

      • Yay! Four years of liberal arts education redeems itself; I will be able to laugh at Nabokov's jokes. ;) I'll look forward to yoru future Nabokov posts and put Ada on hold at the library.

  • Eva, Ada is my favorite too, followed by Pale Fire and then, probably, Lolita. But if you wanted to go with something a bit shorter, I also loved Invitation to a Beheading. It's a bit earlier than what you've read, and originally written in Russian, and wonderful if you have a taste for the absurd. I'm really looking forward to re-reading it, in case you couldn't tell!

  • Now, I have read all of it. Y'all aren't really recommending Ada as VN #3? Although for Eva, that's a two-hour book, so why not.

    Eva - Pnin and Speak, Memory.

    Of course the author is not horrible. Nor is his wife. They appear at the end of the book in order to torment Franz.

    H. Bloom sort of belittles Nabokov as failed Proust, which is absurd but has a point. VN's first couple of novels are in part influence-purging exercises. The Defense should be a bit more independent. Or so I remember it.

    • Ah, I noticed that bothersome beachside couple but didn't quite put it together. Very clever, Vladimir...

      Re: Ada, whyever not? I think it was my own VN #2.5 after Lolita and some of the short stories, and here I am back for more, after only twelve years, haha! (Although to be fair, I read Pnin and Pale Fire after that.)

    • I'm not actually a fast reader; I just have far too much time on my hands. ;) AR, I think you made me more curious to try Ada next, but I promise I'll grab Pnin right after. Speak, Memory is his memoir, correct?

  • On the one hand, with two strong Ada enthusiasts here, I'm probably wrong. I'm thinking probabilistically, but based on this pool, two out of three readers will claim Ada as their favorite VN novel.

    On the other, I put Ada very much in the Advanced Nabokov Studies category. It's a bit like pointing someone to Finnegans Wake after she tells you how much she liked Dubliners.

    In reality, there is no correct order - there's almost never a correct order. And I'm on record about the joys of even minor Nabokov. Still - Ada is awfully demanding.

    • Well, Eva has read & enjoyed Pale Fire, so IMO in your Joyce analogy she'd have probably tackled Ulysses and made it through the Oxen of the Sun chapter at least. Still, I was embarrassingly young the last time I read Ada*—probably so much of it was over my head that I'm not realizing how demanding it actually is. I just hope that I'll still enjoy Van & Ada on a re-read.

      *Man, I was sixteen! Also: in love with an unsuitable person, traveling in Spain & painfully homesick for my American friends. I still think this was a pretty appropriate situation in which to be reading Nabokov.

  • I took the plunge last year and finally read Lolita. I loved it and hated it, it was like an itch that it was almost too horribly enjoyable to scratch. But by the end I had decided that it was certainly a masterpiece in my eyes. Since then, however, I have not read any more, despite good intentions (and ownership of a copy of Speak, Memory). This one does sound intriguing, simply because I really like Madame Bovary, and think what Flaubert does is clever. Or perhaps I've just taught that book so many times and defended Emma to so many outraged students that protective love for it has entered my soul. Whatever. I really do want to read more Nabokov, and am intrigued by the mention of Ada....

    • I love your descriptions of your Lolita reading process, Litlove. And if you have an ongoing and fond relationship with Madame Bovary (and if you prize literary cleverness), I would highly recommend King, Queen, Knave. There are undoubtedly many more parallels and tweakings of Flaubert that I didn't catch, that would reward the reader very familiar with Madame Bovary.

  • Characters "even more banal and unsavory" than Madame Bovary's, Emily? Sign me up! Love your enthusism here as well as that of the other Nabokov-loving commenters.

    • Yes! Hard to believe, but he somehow succeeds, and also keeps Flaubert's linguistic virtuosity. At the same time this book feels (at least to me) much lighter & less dire than Madame Bovary. It's great!

  • I've only read some of Nabokov's essays and I can see I am missing out. I have Lolita on my reading list for this year and I am looking forward to it. King, Queen, Knave sounds like it is kind of funny. Maybe not funny ha-ha but humorous nonetheless.

    • YES, it's totally funny! Funny ha-ha and funny uh-oh and funny odd. And he succeeds in also giving it some weight and getting you invested in these horrific characters, as well.

  • Nabokov is one of my favorite authors too, which means I should read more than ... um, three books! And those not recently! But still, he is definitely a favorite author. Pale Fire is just awesome. I'm looking forward to getting to his other stuff some ... decade :)

    • I'm really looking forward to re-reading Pale Fire. Having a lot more context for metafiction and technical experimentation can only help me get more out of it the second time. And I hear you on the time lapse - where DO the decades go??

  • Your distinction between Flaubert and Nabokov's perception and depiction of the world is fascinating. It seems to me that Flaubert's writing, in MB, is a grand sneer, a way of striking back at an unjust world; Nabokov toys with us effortlessly but it never seems contemptuous, intellectually elite perhaps.

    Of the half dozen Nabokov books I've read, Ada is square on the top of my favourites, closely followed by Speak, Memory. I had intended to read along with Nicole, but I've been rather distracted by Beauvoir and Sartre.

    • "A grand sneer": my impression exactly. I'm not saying Nabokov doesn't have his snobbish moments, but it doesn't strike me as his defining characteristic. His touch is lighter, at least.

      And funny you should mention Beauvoir, since my current reading of La force de l'age is interfering with my progress through The Luzhin Defense. Both are so excellent!

  • Now that I've looked up Ada in my library's catalogue, I understand AR's joke! ;) I think I'll get it and Pnin; if Ada feels like a bit of rough going I shall retreat.

    Also, Emily, I was 16 when I read and enjoyed Pale Fire! lol It was actually my first Nabokov novel, and I had so much fun with it, I'm not sure why I didn't bother reading more of him except for Lolita (which I've read twice I think).

  • Nicole, thanks for the suggestions!I definitely enjoy absurd fiction, so I'll have to give Invitation to a Beheading a try as well. :)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography