“A weird place”: Nabokov and the topography of the foreign governess
Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory “Mademoiselle’s room, both in the country and in town, was a weird place to me […] it did not seem to belong to our pleasant, well-aired home” (SM, 84), and then leads his reader through the clutter of his governess’s paraphernalia. However, as this article will argue, the notion of the “weird place” denotes more than the physical space assigned to and inhabited by Nabokov’s Swiss governess. As a place of incongruence and not-belonging, the “weird place” unfolds a topography of the foreign governess, addressing her topos or place – her place in Nabokov’s oeuvre, in Russian upper class society, her place as a foreigner – as well as her ethos or dwelling in terms of what Jean-Louis Chrétien (2014: 257) calls “une dimension constitutive de l’existence.” Resonant of Mademoiselle O’s disoriented “Gde?” (“Where?”) that she utters, mispronounced as “giddy-eh” (Stories, 483) upon her arrival in Russia, the “weird place” inquires into the governess’s where in more fundamental terms: Where does she belong and where is she at home? Which place does she manage to inhabit and call ‘her own’?
Within the spectrum of Nabokov’s female characters, the members of the foreign Kinderpersonal1, to borrow an expression from his cousin Nicolas, seem to be of minor importance, standing in the shadow of and eclipsed by figures like Lolita, Ada, Sonja, Zina, and Mary. The governess’s role may be marginal among Nabokov’s female voices, but within his oeuvre she is by no means marginalized....
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