The Novel-Waltz
(On the Structure of King, Queen, Knave)

by Nora Buhks
translated from the French by Jeff Edmunds

Vladimir Nabokov's second novel, King, Queen, Knave (1928), unlike his first novel Mashen'ka (1926), which appears at first glance to be "the traditional work of a young author,"1 is ostensibly experimental.2 Its experimental nature is emphasized by the recourse to a perfectly banal subject which Nabokov treats in an adapted version, in a minor mode, of the bourgeois novel, whence the idea amongst commentators that it is a parody, of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary3 in particular. Such an interpretation of the parodic process seems to me inexact because it excludes from the field of analysis all the complexity of the text's artistic structure. Parody no doubt, but which is realized not at the level of the subject directly offered to the reader, but at a deep level which affects the novel's entire structure.

The musical model

King, Queen, Knave should, I believe, be considered the original continuation of an attempt, already realized in Russian literature by Bely with his Four Symphonies, to construct an epic tale according to the principle of musical counterpoint. In creating a form hitherto unknown in literature, Bely had defined new structural possibilities for prose that were subsequently exploited by the writers of the 1920s.4 In the same fashion, Nabokov chooses for his novel the musical model of a dance, the waltz, which he transposes into the literary work at the level of the schema of the composition and the semantic structure.

In daily life, and in comparison to it, dance appears linked to diversion, to play, and to artifice. It is a movement which is effected by means of a series of figures chosen in advance, appearing in a repetitive order. This movement is subject to an acoustic signal (musical accompaniment) which governs its time and tempo. As is well-known, the music of each dance possesses a rhythmic figure suited to it and to which corresponds a choreographic figure. This subordination of movement (dance) to sound (music), its choreographic limits, gives to dance an aspect of automatism which, again in comparison to daily life, causes it to be perceived as artificial. Moreover dance, functioning as diversion, bears obvious analogies, from the psychological and artistic points of view, with play, and it is as rules of the game that the rules of dance are perceived by the participants.

In pairs dancing, and in particular the waltz, the playful situation is borne of the formation of the pairs. The pair of dancers reproduces, in a playful mode, the formation of pairs in daily life.

The waltz as dance is characterized by a rotation upon itself (cf. German waltzen, Latin volvere) and by a rotation of the couples, the trajectory of this circular movement, apparently chaotic, being in fact subject to a repetitive and rigorous order. The scheme of composition of the waltz seems borne of a double rotation: internal (with vertigo, represented choreographically and experienced by the dancers) and external (with the circles the dancers describe), but the external rotation serves only to represent the external circle of the internal movement which continues to widen and whose center is situated in each of the participants; thus the circles of the waltz are determined by the position of each dancer, by his or her point of view. One may conclude from this that vertigo constitutes a figure which is an organizing principle for the waltz. The semantic content of vertigo is ecstasy--exstasis--or passage, the qualitative leap. On the figure of ecstasy in literature and art one might refer to the famous study by Sergey Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, which gives a detailed analysis of it.5 This property of ecstasy is projected onto the entire structure of the waltz, which becomes ecstatic structure.

The process of play

In the history of dance the waltz is distinguished by its wide diffusion and its unflagging popularity, which have no equal but for the diffusion and popularity, in literature, of the subject dealt with by Nabokov in his novel. The Germanic and urban nature of the waltz is inscribed in the work at both the geographic and social levels: the action occurs in an urban and bourgeois milieu, in Berlin; the city, moreover, is never named, but designated by the term "capital", the reader having to guess the country by means of a certain number of characteristic details.6 Such a deliberate refusal to name the city/place of action can be explained by the fact that the spatial coordinates of the novel have no importance whatsoever, and, in fact, this is indeed so. On the other hand the systematic accumulation of traits permitting the identification allows one to assume a process of dissimulation, of literary play and camouflage of meaning, the artistic equivalent of the playful, diverting nature of dance. In fact, this process realizes one condition of the "functioning" of metaphor, the invitation to decipherment.7 The playful process (let us designate it conventionally thus) in a very broad sense is characteristic of Nabokov's manner. But it would be entirely erroneous to make of it a rule in and of itself, for each time the author puts it into practice as a function of specific motives that allow him to model completely different novelistic structures, comparison of which is problematic.

In King, Queen, Knave the playful process becomes one of the dominant processes for the construction of the novel's structure, of the novel's universe, which is ostensibly offered to the reader as playing at life, at a certain level, and as playing at a novel, at another level. The examples of this "game of life" in the novel are legion. Thus it is constantly emphasized that Dreyer plays at life, which basically for him is only a pleasant diversion;8 another example: the invention of the moving mannequins, playful imitation of creative nature;9 or the multiple variations of Dreyer's murder in the imaginations or conversations of the lovers,10 and, finally, the novel's entire subject itself, presented to the reader; characters included; like the play of a mad old man who takes himself for the wizard Menetekelfares:11

...on [starik--N.B.] otlichno znal, chto ves' mir--sobstvennyi ego fokus, i chto vse eti liudi--Frants, podruga Frantsa, shumnyi gospodin s sobakoi i dazhe ego zhe, faresova, zhena, tikhaia starushka v nakolke (a dlia posviashchennykh--myzhchina, pozhiloi ego sozhitel', uchitel' matematiki, umershii sem let tomu),--vse tol'ko igra ego voobrazheniia, sila vnusheniia, lovkost' ruk. [p. 218]

[He knew perfectly well that the entire world was but a trick of his, and that all those people--Franz, Franz's lady friend, the noisy gentleman with the dog, and even his own, Pharsin's, wife, a quiet little old lady in a lace cap (and for those in the know--the man, an elderly roommate, a teacher of mathematics who died seven years ago),--all were due only to the play of his imagination, the power of his suggestion, the dexterity of his hands.]

The arguments in favor of the second panel of the diptych--the "game of the novel"--will have to be furnished by the conclusions of the present article aimed at demonstrating that King, Queen, Knave is not only a literary work written in the form of the waltz and whose subject became a circular movement of couples, but also that the work is equally an original literary dance, played and presented to the reader in the form, familiar to him, of the novel.

The "game of the novel" begins with the title, often interpreted wrongly by the critics as "the eternal triangle"12 and which in reality is an allusion to the waltz' 3/4 time, which is immutably maintained from the beginning to the end of the work.13 The allusion aims equally at the artistic technique of the novel, the playful process (playing cards).14

It is interesting to note that ten years later Nabokov would write a play whose title entails once again a playful allusion to the waltz: Izobretenie val'sa,15 but here the principle of literary camouflage will consist of the negation of the evolution: Val's will designate not the name of the dance but quite simply the hero's surname.16

King, Queen, Knave realizes the playful process through an ensemble of thematic allusions forming an autonomous motif, the motif of dance for example. It appears for the first time after Franz's first visit to the Dreyers. Martha, full of enmity toward her husband, thinks of him with irritation (and her thought is formulated like a verdict, a 'given' in the matter which is definitive and irrevocable, the ability to dance having been proclaimed an obligatory thing):

On tantsuet plokho. On vsegda budet tantsevat' plokho. On ne liubit tantsevat'.

[He dances badly. He will always dance badly. He doesn't like to dance.]

Stylistically this thought is expressed by a triple repetition which, in its turn, makes reference to the time signature of the dance from which Dreyer, according to Martha, is excluded.

The theme of dance appears abruptly, without preliminary justification, as one of Martha's fads, and is situated marginally, parallel with the line of the plot. Whence an analogy between the functions of the characters in the plot and in the dance. Martha, for example, has an active role with Franz in the dance as well as in the plot.

As the plot develops, the dance motif gains speed:

Kogda-zhe, pod naporom ee ladoni, on nauchilsia kruzhit'sia, kogda, nakonets, ego shagi stali otvechat' ee shagam, kogda v zerkale ona mimokhodom zametila ne krivoi urok, a garmonicheskii tanets, togda ona uskorila razmakh, dala voliu neterpelivomu volneniiu i surovo poradovalas' ego poslushlivoi bystrote. [P. 148]

[And when, under the pressure of her palm, he learned how to spin, when, finally, his steps had fallen in with hers, when in the mirror she noticed in passing not a clumsy lesson, but a harmonious dance, then she increased the pace, gave free rein to impatient emotion and fiercely rejoiced in his obedient speed.]

The theme attains its peak in one of the final scenes of the novel, at the restaurant where Martha, still possessed by her passion, dances, the only one of the trio, a last dance, Franz, who no longer loves her, and Dreyer, whom she no longer loves, remaining motionless, their rotation stopped. Carried away by the acceleration of the rhythm, Martha becomes delirious, the beginning of her illness and then her death. Thus do the three characters exit the circular movement.17 The dance motif unfolds in the novel according to an ecstatic schema: the scenes succeed one another following the principal of the tempo's acceleration until the theme culminates in a qualitative leap.

Music constitutes another theme in the novel. It is always accompaniment, a direct allusion to the dance-like character which defines the scenes described. As a general rule, it is a couple that takes part. For example, the scene of the amorous rendezvous of Martha and Franz. He touches her "skorimi, kak by muzykal'nymi prikosnoveniiami" [with rapid, musical touches] (102). The meeting of Dreyer with a former lady friend, Erika:

Odnovremenno govorila i ona, tak chto etot razgovor trudno zapisat'. Nadobno bylo by notnoi bumagi, dva muzykal'nykh kliucha. [p. 169]

[She was talking at the same time, so that this dialog is hard to record. Music paper would be necessary, two clefs.]

The musical theme includes the entire universe of sounds: buzzing, crunching, ringing, etc., which the characters perceive on the same plane as music. For example, during Franz's visit to Martha's house

Togda-to nachinalas' muzyka. [...] Vsegda bylo to zhe samoe : zhuzhzhan'e kalitki, [...] syroe dykhanie gazona, khrust' graviia, zvonok, uletaiushchii v dom v pogoniu za gornichnoi, [...]--i vdrug--zhizn', nezhnyi grom muzyki iz truby radio... [p. 81].

[And then the music began. ... It was always the same: the buzzing of the wicket, ... the damp exhalation of the lawn, the gravel's crunch, the bell, flying off into the house in quest of the maid, ... -- and suddenly--life, the delicate thunder from the radio's loudspeaker.]

This passage full of noises and sounds is constructed in the form of a musical overture, but it concludes on a final chord which is a prosaic concretization of the theme, conferring on the whole a satiric significance.

The universe of play is also evoked by the problem-riddles whose resolutions, desperately sought by the main characters, are given later in the text. The model being parodied here is most likely the publication of all sorts of puzzles, riddles, crosswords, etc., in the popular press, the answer being supplied in the following issue. It is, for example, in the form of an actual riddle that the means of killing a detested husband are evoked. The variants of the answer are perfected and rejected one after the other by the characters:

Slova "pulia" is "iad" stali zvuchat' stol' zhe prosto, kak "piliulia" ili "iablochnyi muss." Sposoby umershchvleniia mozhno bylo tak zhe spokoino razbirat', kak retsepty v povarskoi knige. [P. 158]

[The words "bullet" and "poison" began to sound as plain as "pill" or "apple mousse." The means of killing could be as calmly considered as recipes in a cookbook.]

The solution is found in an unexpected way (a realization of the playful effect of the riddle):

Odno slovo "voda" vse razreshilo. V kliuche k slozhneishei zadache nas porazhaet, prezhde vsego, imenno ego prostota, ego garmonicheskaia ochevidnost', kotoraia otkryvaetsia nam lish' posle neskladnykh, iskusstvennykh popytok. Po etoi prostote Marta i uznala razgadku. Voda. Iasnost'. Schast'e. [P. 205. Note the triple repetition.]

[The single word "water" had resolved everything. What surprises us foremost in the key to the most complicated problem is precisely its simplicity, its harmonious obviousness, which reveals itself to us only after awkward, artificial attempts. In this simplicity Martha recognized the solution. Water. Clarity. Happiness.]

Nevertheless it can happen that the keyword is not exhibited as response: it only appears in the text, and it is for the reader to uncover its merit as solution to the enigma, a new form of play that is directly offered to him. Here is an example: on several occasions Franz has a dream:

Tak, v odnom iz ego snovidenii, Draier medlenno zavodil gramofon, i Frants znal, chto seichas gramofon garknet slovo, kotoroe vse ob"iasnit', i posle kotorogo zhit' nevozmozhno. [p. 196]

[Thus, in one of his dreams, Dreyer was slowly winding a phonograph, and Franz knew that presently the phonograph would bark the word that explained everything and after which living would become impossible.]

But the song continues and:

...Frants vdrug zamechal, chto tut obman, chto ego khitro naduvaiut, chto v pesenke skryto imenno to slovo, kotoroe slyshat' nel'zia,--i on s krikom prosypalsia... [P. 196]

[...Franz would suddenly realize that this was a ruse, that he was being cleverly fooled, that within the song was concealed the very word that must not be heard,--and he would wake up screaming.]

In the restaurant scene cited above, the situation is repeated, but this time it is Dreyer who is listening to the song, Dreyer who, by virtue of the conventions previously defined, holds the answer, and it is he who will accentuate the keyword in the text:

Dreier otbival pal'tsem takt ... i slushal sil'nyi golos pevitsy, naniatoi direktsiei. Pevitsa, nebol'shogo rosta, plotnaia, neveselaia, nadryvaias', orala, pripliasyvala: "Montevideo, Montevideo, puskai ne edet v tot krai moi Leo ..." ... i s toskoi Draier vspominal, chto eto "Montevideo" on slyshal i vchera, i tret'ego dnia ...

[Dreyer marked time with his finger ... and listened to the strong voice of the singer hired by the management. The singer, of short stature, thickset, joyless, overstrained herself, bawled, hopped: "Montevideo, Montevideo, don't go to that land, my Leo..." ... and with ennui Dreyer recalled that this "Montevideo" he had heard yesterday, and the day before...]

The relationship is evident between the repetitive nature of the dream-enigma and that of the word-answer, which is highlighted to the point of absurdity. This keyword turns out to be the name of the capital of a fabulously distant land, a name in the interior of which is found, interwoven, in accordance with the principle of verbal play, another word, the very name of the hotel where Franz passed his first night in the capital, Video (p. 3). The semantics of the image are identical in the two cases. The word 'capital' denotes a remote location that annihilates provincial dreams of happiness.18 From this play on words is borne the parallel between the adventure of a young provincial in the capital (which is to say in fact the novel's entire content) and a vulgar refrain: another realization of the principle of banality inherent in the novel's subject.

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Translator's note: Nabokov's English version of KDV is the least faithful of his translations of his early Russian novels. Consequently, many of the passages cited by Buhks in support of her argument (given only in Russian in the original article) have no literal counterpart in King, Queen, Knave. Thus, in creating English translations of these passages, I have striven for strict literality rather than follow the text of the English version of the novel. In those cases that Buhks cites secondary references in Russian I have included references to English editions when they exist.

1. I. Levin, "Zametki o Mashen'ke V.V. Nabokova," Russian Literature, XVIII, 1985, p. 25.

2. "Vtoroi roman Sirina [...] byla veshch' ves'ma zamechatel'naia i svoeobraznaia, ni na chto drugoe ni v togdashnei, ni v prezhnei russkoi literature ne pokhozhaia" [Sirin's second novel ... was a highly remarkable and original work, unlike anything in either contemporary or older Russian literature]. Gleb Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii (Paris, YMCA-Press, 1965), p. 279.

3. This idea is encountered very frequently in the critical literature. See for example the following two works, written twenty years apart: Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 155; Laurie Clancy, The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 279.

4. L. Szilard ("Ornamental'nost'/ornamentalizm," Russian Literature, XIX, 1986, pp. 65-78) analyzes precisely this issue.

5. Sergei Eisenstein, Izbrannye proizvedeniia v shesti tomakh, (Moskva, 1964) p. 37-250. Translated into English by Herbert Marshall as Nonindifferent Nature (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

6. "Stolitsa... V samom nazvanii etoi neznakomkoi eshche stolitsy, -- v uvesistom grokhote pervogo sloga i v legkom zvone vtorogo, -- bylo dlia nego chto-to volnuiushchee...; znamenityi prospekt, obsazhennyi ispolinskimi drevnimi lipami ...; pyshno vyroslikh iz nazvaniia prospekta." [Metropolis... In the very name of that still unfamiliar metropolis, in the weighty rumble of the first syllable and in the light ring of the second there was something exciting to him; the famous avenue, lined with gigantic ancient lindens; ... luxuriantly grown out of the avenue's name.] (Vladimir Nabokov, Korol', dama, valet, Berlin: Slovo, 1928, which will be the edition referenced here), p. 16. In his article on "Germany in Nabokov's Work," Dieter E. Zimmer notes "Berlin's name is not cited in King, Queen, Knave ... but the buses, yellow double-decker monsters (one white on a blue background), the olive green taxis, banded by stripes of black and white squares, and other details are indisputably those of Berlin." (L'Arc, 99: Nabokov; Paris, 1985, p. 70).

7. On this topic see: I. M. Lotman, Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta (Moscow, 1970). Available in English as The Structure of the Artistic Text, Ronald Vroon, trans. (Ann Arbor: Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Michigan, 1977).

8. It seems to Dreyer that "Mir, kak sobaka, stoit -- sluzhit, chtoby tol'ko poigrali s nim" [The world stands like a dog pleading to be played with] (p. 172).

9. "Taina [...] dvizheniia [manekenov -- N.B.] lezhala v gibkosti veshchestva, kotorym izobretatel' zamenil zhivye muskuly, zhivuiu plot'" [The secret of [their] motion lay in the flexibility of the material with which the inventor had replaced live muscles, live flesh] (p. 187).

10. Thus, for example, the murder scene in the forest is played out by the characters in two variants. I'll cite the second here: "Drugoi sposob takoi : ona poedet vdvoem s Draierom za-gorod. Vdvoem poidut guliat'. Predvaritel'no ona i Frants vyberut mesto poglushe ('V lesu', -- skazal Frants -- i predstavil sebe sosnovuiu temnuiu chashchu). On budet zhdat' za derevom s revol'verom na-gotove. Kogda s tem budet uzhe pokoncheno, on ei prostrelit ruku" [Another way was thus: she would go to the country alone with Dreyer. The two of them would go for a walk. She and Franz would have chosen beforehand a lonely spot ("In the woods," said Franz, and pictured to himself a dark pine thicket). He would be waiting behind a tree with the revolver ready. When everything had already been completed, he would shoot her through the hand] (p. 175).

11. Mene, Tekel, Peres "Numbered, Weighed, Divided": the three words deciphered by Daniel prophesying to Balthazar his misfortunes (Book of Daniel, V, 26, 27, 28).

12. This is the interpretation offered by L. Clancy (op. cit., p. 14).

13. Its realization is given by the stylistic figure of triple repetition, very widespread in the novel, for example: "Vse stalo kak-to srazu legko, iasno, otchetlivo. Ona s udovol'stviem vyrugala Fridu za to, chto pes nasledil na kovre; ona s'ela kuchu melkikh sandvichei za chaem; ona delovito pozvonila v kassu kinematografa, chtoby ostavili ei dva bileta na prem'eru..." [Everthing suddenly became somehow light, clear, distinct] (p. 56). For Frants the second-class car was "kak riumka gustogo belogo kiuraso, kak trekhminutnaia poezdka v taksomotore, kak tot ogromnyi pomplimus, pokhozhii na zheltyi cherep, kotoryi on kak-to kupil po doroge v shkolu" [like a tumbler of thick white curacao, like a three-minute ride in a taxi, like the enormous grapefruit, similar to a yellow skull, that he had somehow bought on the way to school] (p. 9). The ball "zaprygal, pazmnozhilsia, razsypalsia" [jumped, multiplied, scattered] (p. 79). Frants "rvanulsia, zasuetilsia -- I, nakonets, nashel" [dashed, bustled about, and, finally, found] (p. 79). "Vialyi, dolgoviazyi, perezrelyi shkol'nik" [listless, lanky, overripe schoolboy] (p. 7).

14. Andrew Field alludes in his book to this playful aspect of the title (playing cards), but wrongly attributes its origin to the work of K. Andersen written in 1868 and bearing the same title.

15. Vladimir Nabokov, "Izobretenie val'sa," Russkie zapiski, 1938.

16. This fact indicates a certain interest on Nabokov's part in the semantics of the waltz, which allows one to decode the title of his novel Priglashenie na kazn' (Invitation to a Beheading) as maintaining a certain relationship with Weber's celebrated waltz, Aufforderung zum Tanz (Invitation to the Dance).

17. Cf. "Edinstvennyi vykhod.. -- Nuzhno vypast' iz igry" [The only way out... One must drop out of the game]. (Vladimir Nabokov, Zashchita Luzhina, Ann Arbor, 1979, p. 264)

18. Cf. in the text: "Takoi predstavilas' Frantsu stolitsa, -- prizrachno-okrashennoi, rasplyvchatoi, slovno bezkostnoi, nichut' ne pokhozhei na ego grubuiu provintsial'nuiu mechtu" [Thus did the capital present itself to Franz--fantasmally colored, diffuse, as if boneless, in no way like his coarse provincial daydream] (p. 27).

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