Vladimir Nabokov commits stillicide

Published on: Author: Ernest Metzger Leave a comment
Ernest Metzger

My colleagues here enjoy a good book and I’ve read several they’ve recommended. My tastes aren’t special, but since my field is Roman law, any literary reference to Justinian or the Tarpeian Rock or whatever always gets my attention. When I read I always keep a pencil close by to mark anything relevant. I’m not often very lucky, and I expect the pencil to outlive me, but Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) surprised me by putting a Roman praedial servitude, of all things, in a prominent role. The novel is so wonderful, and the Roman law so craftily used, that I thought it deserved a few words. No spoilers.

Pale Fire is an academic novel — the best I’ve ever seen. It begins with a long poem by an American poet of middling ability, followed by the commentary of an insane professor. Near the opening the poet is looking out of his window:

Whatever in my field of vision dwelt—
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte
Stilettos of a frozen stillicide—
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side

‘Stillicide’ means ‘falling drops of water’, and to a Roman (or Scots) lawyer it also means the right of the dominant estate to expel rainwater onto the servient estate. It must be something like natural rainwater; you can’t turn the hose on your neighbour’s dog and cry servitude. As Iulius Paulus says: ‘The source of the stillicide must be natural and perpetual.’ Full details are in Douglas Cusine and Roddy Paisley’s excellent Servitudes and Rights of Way (1998), 201–202.

N. is clearly having fun with ‘stillicide’: it sounds like ‘parricide’, ‘suicide’ etc., and in fact the novel includes a suicide-by-ice. So ‘Stilettos of a frozen stillicide’ is appropriate, and very good.

Now I’m guessing that the merely curious stopped reading at ‘Iulius Paulus says’, so for the intrepid here’s the etymology: the similarity of ‘stillicide’ to e.g. ‘suicide’ is an accident of vowel gradation. The -cide in suicide is from caed– (‘cut’), while the -cide in stillicide is from cad– (‘fall’). So technically, if you push your mother over, that’s matricide. But always check first you’re doing the right one.

Why did N. decide to take a walk on the stillicide? [Gratuitous pun, inserted so Prof Roddy Paisley can’t use it for an article. Sorry Roddy.] The answer is that the icicle (we infer) is hanging from the house of his neighbour, Judge Hugh Warren Goldsworth who, we are told, is an ‘authority on Roman Law’. So far so good. But why, aside from the support it gives to ‘stillicide’, did N. include this detail?

This is where N. reveals a little of what the world thinks of authorities on Roman Law: Judge Goldsworth is a ‘Medusa-locked hag’ who alphabetises everything and keeps a meticulous album of people he’s imprisoned or condemned to death. Unfair! We are, on the whole, a gentle people. Another thing this ‘authority on Roman Law’ does is leave imperious notes around the house for his tenant, dictating how the tenant must behave to avoid damaging property. The tenant himself describes this ‘atmosphere of damnum infectum‘. This last phrase looks like a throwaway by N.; damnum infectum is a kind of insurance against damage threatened by one person’s property to another’s. Not at all apposite to a careless tenant.

But very apposite to an icicle hanging from the eaves of a judge’s house. This is just the kind of threat damnum infectum is designed for: Viscount Stair even closes the loop and recommends treating your neighbour’s stillicide as damnum infectum (II.7.7). And the whole thing works beautifully in the novel, because as events gradually unfold … drip drip drip … and the hunter and hunted come closer together … drip drip drip … the judge’s house becomes the scene of the final, unhappy, damnum.

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