A Sponge-Bag Containing A Small Furious Devil

Nabokov, the Marx Brothers,and the art of literary slapstick
by Claire Harlan Orsi
Film still from Lolita (1962), showing James Mason as Humbert Humbert facing off with Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty. Image courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

A Sponge-Bag Containing A Small Furious Devil

Claire Harlan Orsi
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Hats and Cream Pies

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair, the protagonist, Hermann, ambling up a wooded hill, finds a man he believes to be his perfect physical double. Hermann and his double, Felix, stare at each other. Hermann raises his right arm, but Felix doesn’t move. Hermann closes his left eye, but finds Felix waiting with both eyes open. Hermann sticks out his tongue, but Felix just looks confused. A few pages later, Felix catches on: when Hermann withdraws a handkerchief from his pocket, Felix withdraws one, too.

The encounter recalls the famous mirror scene from the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. Harpo—playing a spy disguised as Groucho—crashes into a mirror at the mansion where Groucho is spending the night, shattering it. Groucho comes downstairs in his nightcap and gown to investigate the disturbance, only to find a “reflection” of himself—nightcap and gown, bushy mustache and all—on the other side of the shattered glass. Groucho is suspicious; he peers into the non-mirror and begins to “test” it. In his efforts to convince Groucho nothing is awry, Harpo echoes Groucho’s every action. When Groucho nods, Harpo nods. When Groucho does the Charleston, Harpo follows suit.

Nabokov loved the Marx Brothers. In a 1970 interview, he spoke of his love for classic American comedy. Brushing aside his interlocutor’s suggestion that he might have been influenced by avant-garde German cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, Nabokov instead cited his affection for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. “In Europe I went to the corner cinema about once in a fortnight,” he said, “and the only kind of picture I liked, and still like, was and is comedy of the Laurel and Hardy type.”

What, then, is this “type”? The artists Nabokov mentions in the interview share an exuberant joy in comedic chaos, a love of puns and language play (verbal and visual), a propensity to bend the limits of what everyone else takes as reality, and, most of all, a commitment to slapstick, which includes all of the above. The term slapstick derives from a Renaissance theater practice in which actors simulated beating one another using paddles that made a slapping noise when clapped together.

If its denotation is a bit vague—the Dictionary of Film Terms defines slapstick as “comedy derived from broad, aggressive action, with an emphasis often placed on acts of harmless violence,” while in Merriam-Webster it’s “comedy stressing farce and horseplay”—its connotation is relatively stable. Slapstick’s associations with the body and violence, its childlike or preverbal quality, and its lowbrow, vaudevillian roots give the practice an undignified reputation as irredeemably crude. Slipping on a cream pie is hardly considered the stuff of morally serious literature. And yet various slapstick moments from Nabokov’s novels spring easily to mind. The tendency of the title character in Ada to fall out of trees. Professor Pnin’s habit of tripping up the stairs. How, in Laughter in the Dark, the adulterer’s button tangles in the adulteress’s lace shirt just as the cuckolded protagonist is about to catch them.

Of all the classic American slapstick comedy that Nabokov prized, the Marx Brothers’ movies most potently share his skewed sense of reality. More than Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers echo Nabokov’s distaste for the bourgeoisie. More than Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin, the brothers’ movies engender in viewers the disorientation of watching chaos intrude onto the surface of the mundane—Humbert Humbert driving on the wrong side of the road after killing Quilty. Most important, however, the Upper East Side vaudevillians and the linguistically dexterous emigré embody a particularly revelatory kind of slapstick, one designed both to remind us of our mortality and to help us experience the lavish excess that is life’s essential joy.

The Death of Dignity

Nabokov loved the United States, but his attitude toward it was perpetually that of the bemused foreigner. Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd quotes the author recounting an anecdote from a time soon after he emigrated:

Still, you have to learn to live here. I went up to a self-serve machine, to drink a cup of cold chocolate, put in a nickel, turned the handle, and watched the chocolate pour straight onto the floor. With my absentmindedness, I had forgotten to put a glass under the tap…

The bemused and resigned slapstick victim is a recurring figure in the most successful versions of the comedic form. Take the chauffeur gag in Duck Soup. Harpo, as Groucho’s chauffeur, arrives in a double-car contraption; he sits behind the wheel in one car and Groucho gets into the other. But when Harpo drives off, Groucho’s part of the car detaches, leaving him sitting in the road. This occurs several times throughout the film, and it only gets funnier. “This is the only way to travel,” Groucho says with wry resignation.

Slapstick is about resigning one’s need for control to the exigencies of forces greater than oneself, whether a broken car or a chocolate-milk machine. In this way, slapstick is a humbling agent—and what greater humbling is there to forces outside one’s control than one’s own mortality? One reason slapstick is so compelling to Nabokov, and so useful for literary fiction, is its inextricable ties to death. Just look at Lolita’s own lavishly slapstick death scene.

Having discovered Quilty as his rival, finding him after an epic search, and finally getting around to shooting him after a long, melodramatic prologue, Humbert fires the gun into the back of Quilty’s rocking chair, causing a confused Quilty, with “a rapid heave of his rump,” to escape into the music room, whereupon he proceeds to pound out a series of “hysterical, plangent chords” on the piano. Humbert shoots him again, then bounces down the hall after his fleeing, bleeding victim, continuing all the while to shoot him as Quilty’s face twitches “in an absurd clownish manner.” Several bullets later, including one to the head, Humbert has still not succeeded in killing Quilty, who is still trying to talk Humbert out of killing him. At one point, thinking his work is finally done, Humbert removes himself downstairs to find a party beginning among Quilty’s bacchanalian hangers-on, who (somewhat inexplicably) congratulate Humbert on a job well done, until Quilty appears again at the head of the stairs, pauses for one bloody moment longer among the living, then dies for good.

The Marx Brothers never shot anyone, but Quilty’s gory, dissonant death scene seems a natural heightening of their manic antics. Quilty’s pause mid-death to play the piano recalls Harpo’s propensity for ill-timed musical interludes—not just the soporific harp intermezzos MGM forced into the later movies, but also scenes such as the one in Duck Soup in which Harpo stops to pluck out a tune on the strings of a piano during a supposedly silent break-in. Quilty’s wounded limp recalls Groucho’s trademark low-slung creep. And the blood bubble that emanates from the dying man’s mouth is reminiscent of the chocolate-flavored smoke rings Harpo blows.

“Slapstick marks the death of you as a person of dignity and honor,” writes Alan Dale in his book Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies, and it is telling that Nabokov so often subjects his villains—Humbert, Quilty, Hermann—to slapstick forms of punishment. If the Fall is Christianity’s central trope, then slapstick—as Dale points out—with its banana peels and stairs, is both a version of divine (or authorial) punishment and a reminder of how close we are to the ground.

It’s not only Nabokov’s villains that get this reminder. In Speak, Memory, his memoiristic meditation, Nabokov recounts how his father, a local baron, used to leave the lunch table when he noticed a group of peasants approaching the house. The peasants would want something—“a plea for his mediation in some local feud… some special subsidy… permission to harvest some bit of our land,” and the family knows all too well what will happen when he agrees. Young Vladimir is nervously instructed to continue eating. The family waits, listening to the muted hum of voices outside. Suddenly, there he is: Vladimir’s father in his “wind-rippled white summer suit,” suspended for a long instant in midair, his “handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky” outside the windowpane. The peasants are tossing him up and catching him in a traditional rite of gratitude. This is the crucial tension that slapstick brings to the surface. Inside: the assembled family, the facade of control. Outside: chaos, in the form of a levitating father, and the reminder of death—for, as little Vladimir’s governess promises, “Un jour ils vont le laisser tomber” (“One day they will let him fall”).


The Unnecessary Thigh

Slapstick works against the authority of the utilitarian novel in which human action can be explained rationally and excess has been scoured out by the rigors of craftsmanship. Slapstick is about exuberant interruptions in narrative journeys, about what happens along the way. On his way from point A to point B, a man slips on a banana peel. The banana peel is a matter of excess, irrelevant to the journey itself, but in inserting itself within the progression, it becomes a focal point. And what is life but a series of plan-wrecking interruptions?

Nabokov wrote that he was “always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.” Nabokov hated symbols, and he hated Freud, because he found a direct correspondence between object and meaning tiring and ultimately untrue. Rather than trudge through the fiction writer’s chore of showing how it is that a certain character got to be the way he is now, Nabokov would rather place an amnesiac albino in bed with an unsuspecting couple who wake bewildered, never to see the man again (as he does in Lolita).

In this way, literary slapstick offers a much-needed antidote to the teleological weight of form, where the structure of the story progresses toward a predefined purpose. The “small furious devil” is everything along the way.

In the Marx Brothers’ movies, one of the forms this devil takes is Harpo’s thigh. Several of the brothers’ films feature the sight gag: A straight man—typically Margaret Dumont or Edgar Kennedy, but Chico occasionally plays this role, too—attempts to hold a conversation with Harpo. At a certain point in the conversation, Harpo raises his leg and offers the straight man his thigh to hold. A second later, the straight man realizes he’s holding Harpo’s thigh. Exasperated, he drops the leg and tries to resume the conversation, only to find himself holding the thigh again a few minutes later.

Harpo’s thigh gag resonates with Nabokov’s findings from decades of studying butterflies. Nabokov points out that butterflies with wings designed to camouflage as a leaf have also developed markings that resemble those made by munching insects. Natural selection, in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation.The butterfly markings are beside the point, if the point is their own survival. Yet the excessive markings point to a need beyond mere survival: a need for a certain over-the-top lavishness, for fun mixed with something a little darker. If, as Nabokov says, “the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant,” then levitating fathers, overflowing chocolate machines, failed doubles, and unwanted thighs can bring us one letter closer to knowing the universe. 

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