A Swiss Governess

My Library of America edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s shorter works which contains the author’s memoir, Speak, Memory, is rather untidy-looking these days — scraps of paper serving as bookmarks curl forth irregularly from the mass of thin pages. I come across particularly well-written passages and think “I want to show this to someone!”

Here’s yet another example. The wealthy Nabokov family, soon to be exiled to Paris due to the exigencies of the Russian Revolution, had hired a new governess:

A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in December 1905 when I was six and my brother five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial mustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of crackling.


In our childhood we know a lot about hands since they live and hover at the level of our stature; Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots. Before her time no stranger had ever stroked my face. Mademoiselle, as soon as she came, had taken me completely aback by patting my cheek in sign of spontaneous affection. All her mannerisms come back to me when I think of her hands. Her trick of peeling rather than sharpening a pencil, the point held towards her stupendous and sterile bosom swathed in green wool. The way she had of inserting her little finger into her ear and vibrating it very rapidly. The ritual observed every time she gave me a fresh copybook. Always panting a little, her mouth slightly open and emitting in quick succession a series of asthmatic puffs, she would open the copybook to make a margin in it; that is, she would sharply imprint a vertical line with her thumbnail, fold in the edge of the page, press, release, smooth it out with the heel of her hand, after which the book would be briskly twisted around and placed before me ready for use. A new pen followed; she would moisten the glistening nib with susurrous lips before dipping it into the baptismal ink font. Then, delighting in every limb of every limpid letter (especially so because the preceding copybook had ended in utter sloppiness), with exquisite care I would inscribe the word Dictée while Mademoiselle hunted through her collection of spelling tests for a good, hard passage.

It really doesn’t matter how much of the material in these passages is composed of actual memories and how much was added later. The character description is just wonderful — V.N. has vividly brought back to life an anonymous woman of the early twentieth century.




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2 responses to “A Swiss Governess

  1. Joan

    Great passage, and not just because of the detailed and unflattering physiognomic description. To me, it’s amazing how despite her unfortunate appearance N. manages to convey her love of learning, her love of the boy, and his unspoken affection for her.

    I also loved the personification of the chair, “which out of sheer fright bursts into a salvo of crackling. “

    Geesh! Think of the emotional pain of heavy people, now required on many airplanes to buy two seats. Some are even publicly humiliated and not allowed to fly. To be always wondering if the next chair they are forced to sit in will not only burst into a salvo of crackling, but burst altogether must be terrible. And still they soldier on, and somehow triumph. I’m not that familiar with teachers’ and authors’ physical appearances but In the entertainment world, look at Momma Cass, and American Idol contestant Reuben Stoddard. Not to mention Orson Welles .

  2. Pingback: ecchymotic | Sesquiotica

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