Stevenson and the semicolon
It was Barry Menikoff who first studied Stevenson’s interest in the semicolon (in his ground-breaking 1984 edition of The Beach of Falesá, pp. 43-46). He remarked on how his use of the semicolon creates uncertainty and ambiguity; how the semicolon juxtaposes and accumulates but does not promise a causal link (especially true when followed by “and”); and how it can also “set up contrast within a sentence”. He also reveals a tendency of compositors to change these semicolons to commas.
Following on from this, in my edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (EUP, 2002), I remarked on how
RLS typically places a semicolon before a conjunction, perhaps to render problematic the link between the two parts of the sentence. Early examples of this are: “No doubt the feat was easy to Mr. Utterson; for he was undemonstrative at the best” […], “And then there is a chimney which is generally smoking; so somebody must live there” […]. The conjunction following the semicolon is frequently “and“: there are no fewer than 203 examples of this in the text. Nabokov seems to have noticed this, as in his teaching copy of the book he rings both semicolon and following “and” in three examples in the first two chapters.
I had studied Nabokov’s teaching copy of the book in the New York Public Library (Berg Collection, Nabokov 00-21) and in my edition I noted the most significant annotations that I found there. One annotation, however, I did not record—not because I found it insignificant, but because I couldn’t make head or tail of it. The first occurrence of a ringed semicolon followed by ‘and’ is accompanied by a marginal comment:
What on earth could that mean?
It comes in the last sentence of an early paragraph:
An inkling of a solution
Nabokov’s lectures on literature that he gave at Wellesley College and Cornell University in the 1940s and 50s. were reconstructed from notes and typescripts by Fredson Bowers and published in 1980. I had consulted it for the chapter on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but hadn’t read the rest. Now I find that
1. The lecture on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary starts with “I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon.” He sees this as “peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style”, used at the end of “an enumeration of actions or states or objects […] to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail” (Bowers p. 171).
2. The artistic use of the semicolon was also a feature of Nabokov’s own style. Rereading his father’s work on The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire (1912), he says he was struck at the similarity of the style to his own, including
my father’s predilection for the semicolon (often preceding a conjunction — something one does find in the language of his university tutors: “that scholarly pause,” an echo of unhurried English logic — but at the same time related to Montaigne whom he regarded so highly); and I doubt that the development of these traits under my frequently willful pen was a conscious act. (‘Father’s Butterflies‘, Atlantic Monthly 285.4 (2000)
(‘Doubt’ here seems to be used with the French sense of ‘suspect’.) Here’s a typically Nabokovian reference to outdoors sex from Lolita
Now we know that Nabokov was interested in the stylistic effect of the semicolon followed by the word and, his ringing of this sequence in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more understandable. But what does that enigmatic annotation mean? Well, you tell me. Could it be “the word and evokes a mysterious second author” (is that possible?).
But perhaps I copied the note wrongly, leaving out a semicolon, or—a hypothesis that I prefer—perhaps Nabokov’s “and” stands anyway for “semicolon followed by ‘and'”; in this case, the annotation could mean “I wonder who is the originator of this stylistic feature?”, or “Did he get this from Flaubert?” Any ideas?