The Choice of a Hand

In an interview with Alfred Appel Jr., collected in Strong Opinions, Nabokov talks about his affection for slapstick films. In particular, he recalls a scene from Laurel and Hardy‘s A Chump at Oxford:

There is a film in which they are at Oxford. In one scene the two of them are sitting on a park bench in a labyrinthine garden and the subsequent happenings conform to the labyrinth. A casual villain puts his hand through the back of the bench and Laurel, who is clasping his hands in an idiotic reverie, mistakes the stranger’s hand for one of his own hands, with all kinds of complications because his own hand is also there. He has to choose. The choice of a hand.

Here is a clip of that scene:

 

What strikes me about this scene, and Nabokov’s description of it, is how perfectly it dramatizes (in a screwball way) the problem of fate across the whole breadth of Nabokov’s work, but particularly in the novels in English. In all of these works, the characters struggle with the tension between fate and human agency. A particular point of anxiety is the troubling notion that what seems like one’s own doing may in fact be the work of some unseen author who is simply playing a game. We see this in John Shade’s revelation about “a game of worlds,” in Humbert Humbert’s interactions with McFate, in the ghostly influences of Transparent Things, and in Vadim’s sense that he is but a character in some greater author’s work (in LATH!). In the Laurel and Hardy clip, then, we see a third hand literally penetrating into the plane of the unsuspecting characters, manipulating them by making them think that the unseen agent’s hand is actually their own. Much like Nabokov’s characters, Laurel and Hardy become most unnerved when they realize the reality of the interaction but cannot locate the source.

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