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The most magnificent pencil, ever

Tuesday, 20 March, 2012

Published in 1972, Transparent Things is a short novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It tells the story of Hugh Person, a young American editor, who makes four trips to a small village in Switzerland. His third trip involves murder and madness. At one point, in the drawer of the desk in his hotel room, Person finds…

pencils …a very plain, round, technically faceless old pencil of cheap pine, dyed a dingy lilac. It had been mislaid ten years ago by a carpenter who had not finished examining, let alone fixing, the old desk, having gone away for a tool that he never found. Now comes the act of attention.

In his shop, and long before that at the village school, the pencil has been worn own to two-thirds of its original length. The bare wood of its tapered end has darkened to a plumbeous plum, thus merging in tint with the blunt tip of graphite whose blind gloss alone distinguishes it from the wood. A knife and brass sharpener have thoroughly worked upon it and if it were necessary we could trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on one side and tan on the other when fresh, but now reduced to atoms of dust whose wide, wide dispersal is panic catching its breath…”

What can one say? This is prose elevated to the high plain of music. Nabokov, by the way, was very fond of pencils. In Pnin, there’s the following passage: “With the help of the janitor he screwed on to the side of the desk a pencil-sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga, ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning etheral void as we all must.”

But a pencil is never just a pencil for Nabokov. The very act of sharpening it evokes the Grim Reaper.


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