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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) SAVELY SENDEROVICH (Ithaca) Dickens in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading: A Figure of Concealment1 For Elena M. Schwarz In Chapter 13 of Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus C, a prisoner in the fortress, sentenced to death by decapitation and awaiting execution, has just finished a letter to his wife Martha (Marfin'ka), when his jailer Rodion enters his cell. Cincinnatus: "This letter. This letter. This letter I should ask you to . . . Here is the address ..." "'You'd do better to learn to knit like everybody else,' grumbled Rodion, 'so you could knit me a cache-knee. Writer indeed!'" (143) Should we understand the connection between writing and knitting here just as an opposition signifying the difference between the worlds of Cincinnatus and his jailer, that is, between the lofty and the quotidian? Or as a version of the ancient topos of writing as weaving? Why does Rodion choose this particular word "cache-knee"? We need to keep in mind that the book was written in Russian, and although Nabokov himself edited his son's translation into English, not every play of words can be effectively conveyed in another language, even if it is done by a great writer in both languages. Let us take a closer look at this word "cache-knee." Of course it is a distortion of French cachenez. Then what is the purpose of choosing this word instead of the English "scarf" or "muffler"? If it was coined in order to play against a concomitant folk re-etymologization, then what is the purpose of that? Why the distortion only in the second part of the word "cache-knee"? "Knee" from "knit" is a legitimate wordplay, but wouldn't it be more natural , if Rodion distorted the whole thing into, say, "catch-knee"? But no, Nabokov chooses to retain the first part of the word, more difficult for an unsophisticated anglophone, and to twist only the second part. 1. I wrote this paper as a Lady Davis Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Oct.-Dec. 1995. My gratitude goes to the Lady Davis Trust for that wonderful and productive time. 14 Nabokov Studies In the original Russian the wordplay is simple and natural. "Scarf in Russian is sharf, diminutive of which is sharfik, and Rodion deforms this into farshik (283)—as one would expect given the folk tradition, with the effect of a funny re-etymologization, funny because it evokes a very remote meaning: farshik is a diminutive of farsh, "filling," ground meat intended for hamburgers or as filling for pies, or as in Yiddish gefiltefish. In comparison with the Russian original, the English translation is somewhat forced. Couldn't Nabokov do any better? Why did he do what he did? In investigating this, I must start from afar, for I would like to demonstrate that the detail in question is a key to a conceptual plane of high importance in Nabokov. By the way, on page one of Invitation to a Beheading , we read: "Rodion, the jailer, took a long time to unlock the door of Cincinnatus's cell—it was the wrong key—and there was the usual fuss" (12). It is Rodion, the jailer, who with his "cache-knee" remark is also offering us the correct key. However he carries a whole bunch of them, of which all but one are wrong; and it will take some time to sort them all out. There is one aspect of Nabokov which has hardly drawn any attention from critics. Many things—some very fine and some very crude—have been said about Nabokov the philosopher's reading the "book of life." I would argue, though, that Nabokov was concerned not only with reading the book of life, but also with what poets and aestheticians of the nineteenth century called expression, die Äußerung, bringing out the innermost of one's psyche, reaching the normally inaccessible recesses of the inner being in the process of poetic utterance uniquely suitable for this purpose.2 This innermost often was in Romantic texts designated as the ineffable, which of course is only a figure of speech—those uttering this word also tried to achieve...


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