Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fingers of M. Stambuloff

Michael Dirda's recommendation of James Lees-Milne having proved good recently, I decided last week to follow him once more, this time picking up Harold Nicolson’s odd little book of semi-fictionalized tales of friends and acquaintances, Some People (1929). It's a strange book, a bit too deeply involved in the ephemera of interwar upper-class English culture for me to be able to recommend it to too many people, but it had plenty of charms nonetheless.

One passage was so grotesquely entertaining that it's worth sharing despite its being much longer than what I’d usually quote here. It comes in “Miss Plimsoll,” a story about the woman who was Nicolson’s governess when his family lived in Sofia:
The hostility latent in our feelings towards each other would not, I think, have reached the surface had it not been for M. Stambuloff’s fingers. I am still glad that in this connection I behaved so badly: I suspect also that Miss Plimsoll, when she has a tea-party at Southsea, will to this day recount the incident with gusto. But at the time my action led to serious trouble. M. Stambuloff had been murdered in the street: they had attacked him with yataghans, striking him on the head: he had put his hands up to protect himself, with the result that his fingers were severed and fell upon the pavement. They were picked up by an admirer and given to his wife. After the funeral she put them in a large bottle of methylated spirits and placed the bottle in the window of her dining-room, so that passers-by could see. I was told of this by Zachary, the chasseur of the Legation, and I begged my father to take me to see them. He refused. On the following day I asked Miss Plimsoll to come for a walk. She was pleased at this and we started off briskly, talking about the British Navy. M. Stambuloff’s house was near the Club, and as we approached it we saw a little lot of loiterers gazing in at the dining-room window. I steered Miss Plimsoll in the same direction and we came to anchor in front of the window. It was a very large bottle, and the eight fingers floated dimly in it like little pickled cucumbers. Miss Plimsoll took so long to realise what they were that I was able to enjoy myself thoroughly. When at last she did identify the contents of the bottle she gave a little sharp scream like a shot hare, clutched me by the forearm, and dragged me violently away. She called a cab and drove back to the Legation: she began to sob a little on the way, and when she got home she burst into hysterics. I for my part was sent to bed.

The next morning I received a full-dress scolding. I was scolded by my father. I was even scolded by my mother. Miss Plimsoll called me into her bedroom and told me to sit down. She then explained to me that my action had not only been heartless but also disgusting. Things, she said, could never be quite the same for her again: all her life, she said, she would be haunted, yes haunted by those fingers. Did I realise how cruel I had been? I said I was very sorry, I would never, never do it again.

The guilt with which these upbraidings weighted my soul developed, in the weeks that followed, into panic fear. I also became haunted by the fingers of M. Stambuloff. . . . Night after night the fingers of M. Stambuloff would appear in my dreams, enormous, clustering--not in the least like cucumbers, having circles of bleeding flesh and shattered bone around their base.
Horrible, no? Nicolson's promise "never, never" to do it again is a bit hollow, even if meant: how often does a boy get the chance to introduce such a horror? And ultimately Miss Plimsoll shows herself, as expected, the bigger person: rather than leave the boy to stew, she sits up with him night after night until he can sleep.

Dirda says that Nabokov once claimed that he had been fighting against the influence of Some People all his life, "like a drug," and the grotesquerie of this passage, allied to the balanced, precise, assonant prose of the rest of the book, makes such influence easy to imagine.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

1 comment:

  1. I mean, when one is being attacked by yataghans what to do: block w/ bare hands of not block? A difficult choice.