Vladimir Nabokov, “Pale Fire” (1962)


Nabokov was an aristocrat who enjoyed American motels and looked down on the literary fashions of his era.”

“infographic” from a website that helps college students cheat on homework

John Shade, a professor of English literature at a very thinly disguised Cornell University, and a poet in his spare time, composed a poem in Popean iambic pentameter titled “Pale Fire.” Unfortunately, he died before it could appear in print, but his colleague, Prof. Charles Kinbote, has eagerly volunteered to curate its publication. Pale Fire, the novel, is the published edition (or at least the corrected proofs) of “Pale Fire,” the poem — Kinbote’s foreword, followed by Shade’s poem itself, then Kinbote’s commentary, and finally an index.

Only a few pages into the commentary, however, it becomes clear that Kinbote is raving mad, unwilling and unable to stay in the real world for more than a few minutes. Very quickly, the content of Shade’s poem is crowded out by Kinbote’s delusional fantasy — the fairytale country of Zembla, and her debonair king, deposed in a Communist revolution and living in exile, after escaping his captors by means of various cinematic devices. Zembla has its own history, geography, culture, language and religion, laid out in laborious detail, going on for pages at a time before Kinbote remembers that he is making an academic study of Shade’s poem. But he will be back in Zembla soon enough.

It soon turns out that the king is pursued by a political assassin, one Jakob Gradus, who methodically, if not very competently, searches for him across the world. Inexorably Gradus descends on the rural American college town where the king is staying under an assumed name. Finally, when the king is out for a walk, the assassin intercepts and shoots at him — only to kill instead his innocent companion, John Shade. King Charles the Beloved is, of course, none other than Charles Kinbote, who absconds with Shade’s manuscript and types out his commentary in a motel somewhere in the northwestern United States.

Reality and fantasy have fancifully merged. Gradus never existed, but John Shade is dead all the same — his killer was a local vagrant who mistook him for a judge he disliked. Kinbote has, indeed, run off with Shade’s poem; he claims that Shade’s widow permitted him to publish it, but even if such a conversation happened, she was emotionally distraught at the time and certainly never imagined what the result would look like. In his own mind, however, Kinbote is scrupulously adhering to the demands of academic scholarship — to him, his Zemblan tale is not a stand-alone literary work (of fiction or nonfiction), and he certainly has no intention of stealing the credit for Shade’s poem. He sees his commentary as a work of literary criticism, without which the poem cannot be fully understood or appreciated, but only because the critic is (according to himself) helping to give a more complete picture of the poet’s world: “without my notes, Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem…has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide.” (21)

This all sounds ridiculous, and there is a lot of grotesque comedy in Pale Fire, but overall this is a deadly serious and extremely realistic novel. Perhaps a visual aid will make this clear through personification. In my mind, Kinbote speaks with the voice of television actor Marc Alaimo, best-known for his villainous role on a Star Trek series in the 1990s.

You will have to forgive me for going in this direction. But something like that will always inevitably happen in any discussion of American culture — and Pale Fire is, at least in part, a work of American literature. We all know that American culture erased the boundary between high and low, but at its best, this could have the unique effect of turning low into high, allowing the average man-on-the-street to experience thoughts and emotions far beyond his ability and interest, temporarily elevating him above the decadent European, for whom ethics had become an in-joke, something that can be mentioned only with a sneer. And Star Trek stood apart even in this cultural role — for decades, it served as the American moral conscience, making its bet on the ethical capacity of its viewers. One of the Star Trek series even featured an idealized European intellectual as the protagonist, an absolutely unique phenomenon in American culture.

But by now it is the late 1990s, the twilight of American ethics. Alaimo’s character, a highly ranked military commander from a hostile alien empire, is endowed with all the hallmarks of villainy that an American screenwriter can think of — rhetorical sophistication, self-reflection, rigorous education, and intellectual ability. The American captain opposing him is as unyielding as he is inarticulate. His chief virtue is his absolute loyalty both to his crew and his superiors; he is the quintessential tough soldier. At one point, they are both trapped on a barren planet. The duplicitous, vindictive foreigner hates the bold captain, but cannot make up his mind to kill him because, deep down, he requires validation from his enemy. As the conflict escalates verbally and physically, the viewer understands that the alien is insane, delusional. His madness is conveyed with a simple but brilliant image — other characters in the series appear from the shadows to taunt or flatter him, or to urge him to action; their actors are physically present on the set, but only Alaimo’s character responds to them, thus showing their unreality. In the final scene, as the crazed alien escapes, he is shown encircled by his visions. To him they are as real as flesh and blood.

I suddenly understood something about insanity from this theatrical invention. If you have ever had the misfortune of being in close contact with someone who was mentally unwell, most likely you realized immediately that something was very wrong — that your interlocutor was engaged, not with you, but with something that was not there. Perhaps this attitude did not take literal physical form, as it does with Alaimo’s alien, but in any case people like this are always in a permanent dialogue with their own phantoms, which drowns out any attempted communication with any real human being. As soon as you perceived that this was happening, you surely felt a sudden sense of danger. Even if nothing particularly bad had occurred, there is no way to know what the voices are going to say next.

Well, something is certainly very wrong with Charles Kinbote, from the first page of his foreword. He begins in a garrulous and upbeat tone, perhaps imitating the style of an enthusiastic book reviewer — “The short (166 lines) Canto One, with all those amusing birds and parhelia…Canto Two, your favorite, and that shocking tour de force, Canto Three” — but by the end of the third paragraph, still on the first page, his discussion of the minute details of John Shade’s creative process suddenly twists into a snarl: “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” (9) One can read the entire novel in Alaimo’s voice, which had exactly this ability to convulse in unexpected spasms of anger in the middle of genial verbosity or gentle admonition. (They should have gotten him for the audiobook.) Of course, Kinbote is not a killer, and there is no reason to believe that he has ever done anything violent. But he clearly has difficulty controlling his anger, especially when he feels that he has been slighted; one has to instinctively shrink back because one never knows exactly what will set off some long, hostile tirade. When he is not invited to Shade’s birthday party (Shade’s wife Sybil, whom Kinbote hates, fobs him off over the phone), he lurks in the darkness all evening, spying on Shade’s house: “From behind a drapery, from behind a box tree, through the golden veil of evening through the black lacery of night, I kept watching that lawn, that drive, that fanlight, those jewel-bright windows.” (124) The next day, he meets Sybil, or intentionally places himself where she would have to speak to him, and the following monologue ensues (emphasis in the original):

‘Speaking of novels,’ I said, ‘you remember we decided once, you, your husband and I, that Proust’s rough masterpiece was a huge, ghoulish fairy tale…a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more, impossibly rude hostesses, please let me speak, and even ruder guests, mechanical Dostoevskian rows and Tolstoian nuances of snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length, adorable seascapes, melting avenues, no, do not interrupt me, light and shade effects rivaling those of the greatest English poets, a flora of metaphors…but — and now let me finish sweetly — we were wrong, Sybil, we were wrong in denying our little beau ténébreux the capacity of evoking “human interest”: it is there…it is there. Please, dip or redip, spider, into this book [offering it], you will find a pretty marker in it bought in France. I want John to keep it. Au revoir, Sybil, I must go now. I think my telephone is ringing.’
I am a very sly Zemblan. Just in case, I had brought with me in my pocket the third and last volume of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition, Paris, 1954, of Proust’s work, wherein I had marked certain passages on pages 269-271. Mme. de Mortemart, having decided that Mme. de Valcourt would not be among the ‘elected’ at her soirée, intended to send her a note on the next day saying, ‘Dear Edith, I miss you, last night I did not expect you too much (Edith would wonder: how could she at all, since she did not invite me?) because I know you are not overfond of this sort of parties which, if anything, bore you.’
So much for John Shade’s last birthday.

(Pale Fire, 126)

Kinbote may be laughable in his certainty that his “sly,” overwrought insinuations will produce the intended effect or even be noticed (he may also have embellished this episode), but there is always a threatening, manic note even in his attempts at good cheer. His first meeting with Shade takes place in a dining room for faculty, where “I was invited to join him and four or five other eminent professors at his usual table… His laconic suggestion that I ‘try the pork’ amused me. I am a strict vegetarian, and I like to cook my own meals. Consuming something that had been handled by a fellow creature was, I explained to the rubicund convives, as repulsive to me as eating any creature, and that would include — lowering my voice — the pulpous pony-tailed girl student who served us and licked her pencil. Moreover, I had already finished the fruit brought with me in my briefcase, so I would content myself, I said, with a bottle of good college ale. My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease.” (15) Again, funny to read, but quite uncomfortable for the professors being stared at by a buzzed Kinbote for the duration of their lunch.

Like this, perhaps.

As the commentary continues (remember, all this time we are supposed to be studying a poem written by a completely different person), Kinbote reveals more of his resentment, isolation, and anger. His grudges seep into his fantasy world. A frequent target of his ire is a much younger colleague whom he calls “Gerald Emerald,” no doubt some private joke that no one else can understand. Once, when some of the faculty are having a bit of fun with Kinbote, playing along with his tales of Zembla and gasping with mock amazement at his uncanny resemblance to King Charles, Emerald brings an encyclopedia and pretends to look up the king’s portrait:

‘Well,’ said he, ‘here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome… Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform,’ continued Emerald. ‘Quite the fancy pansy, in fact.’
‘And you,’ I said quietly, ‘are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket.’
‘But what have I said?’ the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo’s Last Supper.
‘Now, now,’ said Shade. ‘I’m sure, Charles, our young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake.’
‘He could not, even if he had wished,’ I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

(Pale Fire, 205)

In parallel, over in “wild, misty, almost legendary Zembla,” Jakob Gradus is given the assignment to assassinate King Charles by a secret agent named Izumrudov (izumrud or изумруд being the Russian word for “emerald”), “a merry, perhaps overmerry, fellow, in a green velvet jacket. Nobody liked him, but he certainly had a keen mind.” This mission accomplished, “The gay green vision withdrew — to resume his whoring no doubt. How one hates such men!” (195) But the elaborate fantasy seems to bring Kinbote little satisfaction. Elsewhere, he ponders what he calls the “temptation” of suicide:

The more lucid and overwhelming one’s belief in Providence, the greater the temptation to get it over with, this business of life, but the greater too one’s fear of the terrible sin implicit in self-destruction… With this divine mist of utter dependence permeating one’s being, no wonder one is tempted, no wonder one weighs on one’s palm with a dreamy smile the compact firearm in its case of suede leather hardly bigger than a castlegate key or a boy’s seamed purse, no wonder one peers over the parapet into an inviting abyss.
I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols…and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one’s body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself and others…
[A page-long discussion of the “ideal drop” follows. -FL]
When the soul adores Him Who guides it through mortal life, when it distinguishes His sign at every turn of the trail, painted on the boulder and notched in the fir trunk, when every page in the book of one’s personal fate bears His watermark, how can one doubt that He will also preserve us through all eternity?
So what can stop one from effecting the transition? What can help us to resist the intolerable temptation? What can prevent us from yielding to the burning desire for merging in God?
We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins.

(Pale Fire, 168-171)

This horrific blasphemy is stated with the clarity that comes from deep conviction. Kinbote hates the world, hates living in it; even becoming King Charles does not keep him from writing, “On such sunny, sad mornings I always feel in my bones that there is a chance yet of my not being excluded from Heaven, and that salvation may be granted to me despite the frozen mud and horror in my heart.” (197) The world also has little use for him: “a week before Shade’s death, a certain ferocious lady at whose club I had refused to speak…said to me in the middle of a grocery store, ‘You are a remarkably disagreeable person. I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you,’ and, exasperated by my polite smile, she added: ‘What’s more, you are insane.’” (18-19) The self-appointed task of writing commentary on Shade’s poem is Kinbote’s last chance to accomplish something, not least in his own eyes.

Kinbote’s crazed quest makes a mockery of literary criticism, calling into question its very right to exist. From a purely formal point of view, Kinbote is scrupulously following the requirements of this literary category — the core of his manuscript indeed consists of Shade’s poem, unaltered, and the critic is entirely within his rights as long as he keeps to the foreword, commentary, and index. In fact, Kinbote tries surprisingly hard to maintain his integrity as a critic. Many times, he is tempted to insert Zembla into Shade’s text, but the worst that he ever does is to fabricate “drafts” of certain verses in the commentary. Early on, he presents a “disjoint, half-obliterated draft which I am not at all sure I have deciphered properly: ‘Ah, I must not forget to say something / that my friend told me of a certain king.’” (58) But his own attempt at fraud causes him pain, and a hundred pages later, he admits:

I wish to say something about an earlier note (to line 12). Conscience and scholarship have debated the question, and I now think that the two lines given in that note are distorted and tainted by wishful thinking. It is the only time [No, there are others. -FL] in the course of the writing of these difficult comments, that I have tarried, in my distress and disappointment, on the brink of falsification. I must ask the reader to ignore these two lines (which, I am afraid, do not even scan properly); I could strike them out before publication but that would mean reworking the entire note, or at least a considerable part of it, and I have no time for such stupidities.”

(Pale Fire, 175)

Again, one imagines Alaimo’s voice, whinging and snarling in self-justification. But if Kinbote is compelled to confess (here if not in the other instances), he must see this violation of professional ethics as a real moral problem — perhaps the only one that ever seriously troubles him. As strange as it is, the norms of literary culture are absolutely real to him.

But, of course, even strict obedience to these norms would not have helped the content of his commentary. Literary criticism is inherently parasitic. Charles Kinbote lives inside every critic, eager for any chance to force some bizarre and irrelevant world of his own onto the reader. (I, too, said that I would talk about Nabokov, but the end result may not have much to do with him at all!) The critic’s “Zembla” suffocates the work that supplied the ostensible subject for criticism — work that, regardless of its quality, at least had the decency to exist on its own, and without which no one would ever have asked for the critic’s opinion.

I am a weary and sad commentator today.
Parallel to the left-hand side of this card…the poet has written, on the eve of his death, a line (from Pope’s Second Epistle of the Essay on Man) that he may have intended to cite in a footnote:
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where
So this is all treacherous old Shade could say about Zembla — my Zembla? While shaving his stubble off? Strange, strange…

(Pale Fire, 207)

In Kinbote’s case, the critic’s shameless intrusion into other people’s art takes on a coarse physical character through his homosexuality, which is deliberately drawn as an outlandish, ostentatious caricature. Zembla is a fantasy not only of the mind — certain subcultures of the 1970s passed up a real opportunity by failing to mine King Charles’ idyllic youth for ideas around which to build their visual and musical concepts. Kinbote has exactly that vision of luxurious excess filtered through a seedy music-hall aesthetic (show business trying to imagine aristocratic depravity), and he naturally comes across as sympathetic to audiences that find that aesthetic appealing. For example, in 2016, a certain Edmund White, a writer primarily known for books about homosexual desire, described Pale Fire (in an essay for the Times Literary Supplement) as “the great gay comic novel,” which is “funny, and camp,” and whose protagonist has “many redeeming qualities including an endearing narcissism, a strong libido, a vivid imagination and a poetic sense – even if this last tends to the kitschy.” Any comments I could make on this would be superfluous, so I will simply leave it there to speak for itself. To give an example of what he means by “tends to the kitschy,” a previous Zemblan monarch from the 19th century built “a very private section of the picture gallery in the Palace, accessible only to the reigning monarch, but easily broken into through Bower P by an inquisitive pubescent, [which] contained the statues of Igor’s four hundred favorite catamites, in pink marble, with inset glass eyes and various touched up details, an outstanding exhibition of verisimilitude and bad art.” (Pale Fire, 233) Come to think of it, “verisimilitude and bad art” is an apt summary of many marginal subcultures.

jobriath“Well, here he is, that king.”

But, in the context of Kinbote’s literary endeavors, his erotic fantasies also personalize the way in which Western criticism reduced the entirety of literary culture and scholarship to crude physiology. The image of the academic charlatan, writing volumes about “transgression” (always sexual in nature) in the driest, most boring clerical language, laboriously finding phallic overtones and homosexual undertones in every page of every book ever written, is now a comic stereotype. It has become trite to criticize it, because everyone knows by now that this is just what these people do, and no one expects them to do anything else. Normal people don’t go into literary scholarship — there is nothing for them there. You can’t make it as a critic if you don’t enjoy the smell of soiled laundry. Literature, and really every art form, has been deliberately turned into a dirty, voyeuristic business, from which one averts one’s eyes because merely looking at it is distasteful.

Part of “Pale Fire,” the poem, deals with Shade’s daughter Hazel, who died young, in an accident that she may have brought about intentionally. Kinbote, of course, finds plenty to write about here, and even takes a break from Zembla for a short while in order to write a play script of an imagined dialogue between Hazel and her parents, consisting mainly of TV clichés. For example, Hazel is given the line, “Why must you spoil everything? Why must you always spoil everything? Why can’t you leave people alone? Don’t touch me!” (148) addressed, of course, to Sybil. In other words, the critic barges, not only into an author’s work, but also into his personal life. The most unfounded, uninformed speculation is given a scholarly veneer and foisted upon the reading public, without even the slightest self-reflection, the faintest inkling that there may be something not quite right about this.

Nabokov’s novels have a way of provoking life into imitating art. Pale Fire itself has inspired some of the most lunatic gibberish that ever was passed off as scholarship. Wikipedia tells the tale of how “‘Shadeans’ maintain that John Shade wrote not only the poem, but the commentary as well, having invented his own death and the character of Kinbote as a literary device…’Kinboteans,’ a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade.” Apparently, one Brian Boyd has crafted an entire academic career out of writing about Pale Fire. He began by promoting the “Shadean” theory, but then “retracted” it in a public address, reported by the Observer in a comically effusive manner:

Something rare and beautiful happened the other evening at the Nabokov celebration at Town Hall…the beautiful moment — actually, for those Nabokov aficionados who caught its significance, a stunning, world-altering moment — was a remark toward the close of the program by Mr. Boyd, the author of the monumental two-volume literary biography of Nabokov… He was speaking of ‘the exhilarating discoveries’ one makes in rereading Pale Fire, ‘as we gradually detect a dozen concealed patterns…each pattern with its far-reaching implications that have nothing to do with what I wrongly proposed in the biography — that Shade invents Kinbote.’
Wait a minute here! Stop the presses! This was the rare and beautiful moment: A scholar has had the courage and humility to admit he was wrong.”

“Nabokov’s Pale Ghost: A Scholar Retracts”
April 26th, 1999

Boyd went on to offer a new and improved interpretation, namely, that Hazel’s ghost subliminally influenced Kinbote, causing him to imagine Zembla, which he then presented to Shade to make him write the poem, which in turn contained a subliminal warning from Hazel about Shade’s impending death. Well, you can’t make this stuff up. During the latest International Conference of Zemblan Studies in Onhava, all the attendees were hotly debating the keynote address given by Prof. Boyd, who presented his latest findings, which conclusively prove that the Zemblan royal palace is made of gumdrops, and not marmalade as had been conjectured in several of Prof. Boyd’s previous monographs, all published by Princeton University Press.

But Pale Fire is not only a satire of literary criticism. Satire, in general, is a low genre — it does not require much talent to laugh at others. Nabokov included a much more personal element. In an interview with the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, he said, “For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he Professor Kinbote. He is Professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman.” Writing in The New Republic that same year, Mary McCarthy fleshed this out a bit more: “Kinbote is mad. He is a harmless refugee pedant named Botkin who teaches in the Russian department and who fancies himself to be the exiled king of Zembla. This delusion, which he supposes to be his secret, is known to [Shade], who pities him, and to the campus at large, which does not — the insensate woman in the grocery store was expressing the general opinion.” I should first say that this is never made explicit in the text, and the supporting evidence is circumstantial at best:

  • No one named Botkin ever appears in person, but this name is mentioned in Kinbote’s index with the description “American scholar of Russian descent.” (231) Botkin’s first initial is V., and King Charles’ full name is “Charles Vseslav Xavier.”
  • At one point, Kinbote describes “the Head of the bloated Russian department…a regular martinet in regard to his underlings,” with the otherwise inexplicable aside, “happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque ‘perfectionist’!” (120)
  • Many of Kinbote’s inventions, such as “Izumrudov,” indicate that he knows Russian, and there is one moment when he lapses into incoherent raving, repeating the names of languages in pairs — “English and Zemblan, English and Russian, English and Lettish, English and Estonian,” (180) etc. — with Russian mentioned especially often.
  • At one social occasion, Kinbote overhears the following remark by Shade: “That is the wrong word… One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention.” (182)

Perhaps it would not inhibit one’s appreciation of the novel to simply ignore these details. But even if “Charles Kinbote” does not have to be a fictitious persona invented by Botkin, the mere possibility already turns the novel back on its author. Nabokov himself hated and ridiculed the notion that one might “understand” an author from his work. In a 1948 lecture, he said, “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth,” and in his foreword to the English translation of The Gift, he told readers not to “identify the designer with the design.”

But, whether or not Nabokov wants to admit it, Botkin is a bitter parody of himself and his own preoccupations. Nabokov was also a very productive translator and commentator; his translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is excellent, but comes with translator’s notes with overt Kinbotean inclinations. In these notes, one can find literary judgments such as “The whole interplay between Grushnitski and the Captain of Dragoons is extremely unconvincing,” or the following explanation of a literary reference by Lermontov: “The allusion is to La Femme de Trente Ans…a vulgar novelette, ending in ridiculous melodrama, by the overrated French writer, Balzac.” In a certain sense, this is even worse than the commentary by Kinbote/Botkin, because a critic has more latitude than a translator — coming from the latter, this tone is simply unprofessional.

But even if we put that aside, a general feeling of absolute pointlessness hangs over Nabokov’s literary criticism, however masterly it may be. His crowning achievement in this category was a line-by-line commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, adding up to over 1000 pages. A great deal of meticulous research went into this work, and anyone who reads it will undoubtedly acquire an immense volume of cultural knowledge. The problem is that, unfortunately, no one will read it, aside from a few specialists who are paid to do so. From the beginning, there was never any audience for this enterprise. Pushkin’s poem, which a certain none-too-bright Russian critic from the 19th century called “an encyclopedia of Russian life,” indeed has central significance for Russian culture, but there is not a single native English speaker living on earth today whose frame of reference is even remotely compatible with the way of life described in Onegin. To any such person, the everyday life and outlook of Pushkin’s provincial landed gentry is fundamentally alien, along with Pushkin’s sympathy and gentle irony. I don’t know what, say, a French reader might think of the poem, if there were a suitable translation, but the English-speaking world in particular simply has no use for it, no words with which it might be made to say something that matters to them. Perhaps the reverse situation is also possible, and there are literary works in English which cannot be made meaningful in other languages. I find it hard to imagine that any native Russian speaker would ever be interested in Nabokov’s Lolita (correcting for its scandalous reputation), so full is it of purely American motels and suburban lawns. It is only natural that Nabokov also self-translated it, equally pointlessly.

nabokovA grimacing mask from the commedia dell’arte.

By 1962, when Pale Fire appeared, Nabokov had become a comic figure. No one questioned his talent or his erudition; he commanded great respect and even reverence in literary circles; and yet, for the rest of his life he would be chiefly known as the author of a sordid novel about a pedophile, especially to people who hadn’t read it. His witticisms in interviews, his carefully cultivated image as an aesthete, an arbiter of literary elegance, just as easily made him seem like a hectoring bore. After Pale Fire, he retreated into his own personal Zembla, relying more and more on puns and self-references. From a 2013 article by yet another Kinbotean critic: “Nothing in Nabokov is ever wasted, yet much can be missed… For instance, how many will have noticed that a scientist named Sig Leymanski, with his ‘anagram-looking name,’ featured in a science fiction story contained within Ada, or Ardor…is de-scrambled as Kingsley Amis?” Indeed, how could any reader possibly live without this crucial information, which references such a relevant and important cultural figure?

So, yes, from Nabokov to Botkin is but a short distance, a matter of changing the angle of the light. Surely he knew it. Botkin personifies the overwhelming futility of Nabokov’s life. And, just as Pale Fire spawned dozens of deranged Kinbotes, it did not take long for a real Botkin to materialize.

Nabokov made a big show of disdain for those people who had the insolence to remain alive in the Soviet Union (lacking the good manners to take the hint and just die already), but his novels were always in high demand there. In Russia, his name naturally had the aura of high-class sophistication that he always craved; he was seen as a link to the classical Russian literary tradition. From 1991 on, all of his Russian novels, and some of his English ones, saw multiple Russian editions, and Russian media have interviewed many leading Nabokov experts around the world, often in connection with various Nabokov-related anniversaries (e.g., 2018 marked 60 years since the publication of Lolita). Reading some of these, one might notice a single, consistently odd voice.

barabtarloKing Gennady the Beloved.

Gennady Barabtarlo emigrated from the USSR in 1979, and made a name for himself in Nabokov studies, eventually becoming a confidant of Nabokov’s family. He also had extensive literary interests, and continued to work in Russian, translating a few of Nabokov’s English novels. For these reasons, he appeared in many of the aforementioned interviews.

Barabtarlo’s remarks have a strident, accusatory tone. In the 2018 interview with Lenta.ru, he wrote, “At present, there exists no Russian language that could convey the language of Nabokov. After the October coup, the Russian language is no longer a continuation of the pre-Revolutionary Russian language. It is a different language, imposed externally on one hand…on the other [emerging] from prisons, from the Jewish Pale of Settlement and from Odessa, etc. [Barabtarlo himself was of Jewish heritage. -FL] The current condition of the Russian language is even worse — it is a jargon consisting of stereotypes, criminal cant, and poorly digested borrowed American terms. The intelligentsia makes no effort to restore the true Russian language…and there is no way to translate Nabokov into any other.” Even the American press noticed his quirks — Michael Idov, writing in the Jewish Book Club in 2009, observed that “[Barabtarlo] gave his inter­views Nabokov-style, by demand­ing ques­tions in advance and prepar­ing florid, allit­er­a­tive replies… Mutu­al friends report­ed his ris­ing use of archa­ic Russ­ian — equiv­a­lents of ‘thine’ or ​’giveth.’ It all cul­mi­nat­ed in a recent Q&A with Chast­ny Korrespondent, which Barab­tar­lo insist­ed on con­duct­ing entire­ly in pre-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary grammar.” Indeed, Barabtarlo’s written replies feature elements of pre-Revolutionary orthography, such as adding ‘ъ’ to words that end in consonants or using ‘ѣ’ instead of ‘е’ in certain places. In the interview with Private Correspondent to which Idov refers, Barabtarlo proclaimed, “What could help the general rebirth, not only of literature, but of Russian civilization in general, would be an absolute and massive recoil from everything that the Soviet order had created, as one recoils in disgust from contamination or disease, and this applies first and foremost to speech in all its forms, including writing.”

This is all well and good, but from the tone you would expect the person saying all this to be a great moral authority, “Buddha and Schopenhauer” (Rozanov’s gibe at Tolstoy) with a dash of Solzhenitsyn. In fact it came from a professor at the University of Missouri (ranked #124 in the United States by US News as of 2021), whose father was deputy manager of haberdashery and perfumes at the Soviet Ministry of Commerce. And in the Lenta interview, the old spelling is used selectively for a single phrase, although the editor made a point of printing Barabtarlo’s answers as written. In the Private Correspondent interview, he explained this as, “I preserve only two or three characteristics of Russian spelling as taught in school, which are given in every edition as ‘peculiarities of the translator’s spelling,’ and these peculiarities are simply markers, road signs or crosses, reminders of the catastrophe that had once happened here.” (I don’t suppose “here” refers to Columbia, MO.) But by picking and choosing which rules he wanted to “preserve,” Barabtarlo was creating his own orthography, and what that really means is: O Zembla, Zembla, O my Zembla, what have the Extremists done to you? Whither your soft hollows, my Zembla, your glittering peaks, mysterious passes and picturesque slopes? Oh my sweet Boscobel! And the tender and terrible memories, and the shame, and the glory, and the maddening intimations, and the star that no party member can ever reach. O Zembla, my distant northern land!

I cannot comment on the quality of Barabtarlo’s scholarly output, but then again, Charles Kinbote was also a man of letters. “Spacetime itself is decay,” (Pale Fire, 127) he wrote, and the trajectory of Nabokov’s career is none other than a spectacular demonstration of decay. In his final monologue, Kinbote blusters, further blurring the line between himself and his creator, “I shall continue to exist… I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art… Oh, I may do many things!” (229) but as soon as the novel is finished, emptiness begins to close in, one can no longer hide from the realization that there is nothing left. Perhaps there will one day be a rebirth of “Russian civilization,” or, if you prefer, of civilization, without qualifiers — and, undoubtedly, there will be a place for Nabokov then, but that will not be the material, flesh-and-blood Nabokov, whose aesthetic preferences, literary opinions and Kinbotean followers are all dust already.

onhavaKing Charles’ loyal subjects
still keep the image of Zembla in their hearts.

But we seem to have succumbed to the usual pitfall of focusing all of our attention on Kinbote. As the moralizing introduction in my edition of Pale Fire puts it, “The only sane, indeed, the only decent, person around…turns out to be the man we have forgotten about for so long, the man who wrote the poem whose central event we did not want to remember: sweet awkward old John Shade, with his old-fashioned family values.” (xii-xiii) Perhaps it is time to mend our ways. If Nabokov went to the trouble of writing 999 lines in rhyming couplets, the poem merits serious attention.

“Pale Fire” opens with a beautiful image, which by itself could have been an outstanding short poem:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff — and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 1-4)

These four lines impart the human perception of death as something unreal, a mere misunderstanding. At the instant of death, the mind soars, but only in a “reflected” world; one’s broken physical remains cannot possibly be all that is left, one feels that there is still so much more than one could do, even as one’s conscience fades. In parallel, the quatrain also evokes the reflected existence achieved through art: the author is long gone, but his thought lives on, flies on, sometimes with much more vigor than it ever had when he was alive.

Unfortunately, everything that Shade had to say, he said in that opening. In the rest, he reviews his life, in which the central experience was the loss of his daughter, and tries to find some sort of meaning in those events. As it turns out, Hazel’s death was the only thing that ever happened to him. This quiet college town was all that he ever saw, venturing outside only for sabbaticals and family vacations. In the anesthetic routine of academic work, there is nothing that could have brought him any insight or comprehension. In fact, while Hazel was alive, routine made it easier to ignore her; he remembers how “she’d be reading in her bedroom, next / To my fluorescent lair, and you [Sybil. -FL] would be / In your own study, twice removed from me,” (lines 364-366) and, in response to her questions, he would “roar / The answer from my desk through the closed door.” (line 374) In his defense, it appears that it was not easy to get along with Hazel:

She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force
Of character — as when she spent three nights
Investigating certain sounds and lights
In an old barn. She twisted words: pot, top,
Spider, redips. And ‘powder’ was ‘red wop.’
She called you a didactic katydid.
She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,
It was a sign of pain. She’d criticize
Ferociously our projects, and with eyes
Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed
Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head
With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,
Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 344-356)

But, be that as it may, Shade’s “old-fashioned family values” proved to be completely ineffectual. Like his daughter, he was withdrawn and uncommunicative, and in a certain sense barely noticed her life — in “Pale Fire,” her entire existence blinks by in a handful of disconnected fragments of memories, with half the poem still remaining. He had sent her, alone, to visit France, hoping that a change of scene might help her, but this could just as easily have doubled as a way to take a vacation from her. Considering her personality, it is only to be expected that she “returned in tears, with new defeats / New miseries.” (lines 337-338)

With Hazel dead, Shade is free to focus on himself again. The next major section of the poem describes his experience visiting an organization that he jokingly calls the “Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter,” rendered phonetically as “Iph” in the poem. Anyone who has read The Soul After Death, as we have, will recognize in this a sanitized form of occultism, presented in a way that would be palatable to middlebrow introverts who don’t want to inconvenience themselves too much. Shade’s time at Iph happened back when Hazel was still a child, so grief was not the reason for his visit; in fact, it is utterly incomprehensible why he, a reputable professor, would have agreed to lecture at such a place. There is not the slightest hint of spiritual struggle in these verses, not the least attempt to understand exactly what he wants from this group or why he believes (if he does) that they might give it to him. Shade is repelled by religion, but never once tries to formulate to himself exactly why it disappoints him, or to revisit his teenage reaction of, “Theolatry I found / Degrading, and its premises, unsound.” (lines 99-100) As is typical of such cases, it does not occur to him to apply the same critical standard to the “Institute,” although he has enough common sense to quickly see the comic side of it, which leads to a bit of fun:

While snubbing gods, including the big G,
Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles for life’s eclipse) —
How not to panic when you’re made a ghost:
Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,
Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,
Or let a person circulate through you.
How to keep sane in spiral types of space.
Precautions to be taken in the case
Of freak reincarnation: what to do
On suddenly discovering that you
Are now a young and vulnerable toad
Plump in the middle of a busy road
Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,
Or a book mite in a revived divine.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 549-566)

Shade walks away relatively unharmed: “That tasteless venture helped me in a way. / I learnt what to ignore in my survey / Of death’s abyss.” (lines 645-647) But it takes him around 150 lines to get there. His own daughter is described in fewer. He even recounts the night of her death by cutting to his conversation with Sybil while watching television.

The poet then survives a heart attack, ponders near-death experiences, and finally arrives at a conclusion. Whatever we might say about it, this is it — the final result of all his thinking, the product of a lifetime:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 806-815)

In other words, Shade has discovered…absolutely nothing. There may be an overarching design in the universe, or there may not be. Things happen for no reason, but who knows, maybe that is already reason enough. Mere “coincidence” actually constitutes a “web of sense,” but what the content of the latter may be, none can say. It “suffices” to nebulously imagine “some kind of link.” Such a worldview will never demand anything of Shade. Behind his objection to religion is the simple fear that it might ask him to change himself in some way.

And he doesn’t; his spiritual search ends there, but there are still 165 lines to go (Kinbote helpfully counts them for us in the foreword). Shade spends them literally sitting in the bathtub, ruminating over very minor irritants:

Now I shall speak of evil as none has
Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,
Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 923-930)

He shares much of this list with Nabokov, but that only goes to show that there was something vulgar about the latter’s famous snobbery. Around this point, one might notice that Shade’s verse has become rather more pedestrian. The tipping point is “Some kind of link-and-bobolink” in line 812. There is an ungainly disparity between the gravity of the subject matter (remember, this is the culmination of all of Shade’s thinking and reflection) and this silly pun. Shade has given up — he has stopped caring because it is too difficult to do otherwise, but consoles himself with the excuse that this is actually the big answer, and if not, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. “Pale Fire” ends in comfortable self-satisfaction, the certainty that Shade has done all he could, that everything is fine and nothing will ever disturb his quiet life:

I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
I’m reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that the day will probably be fine;
So this alarm clock let me set myself,
Yawn, and put back Shade’s ‘Poems’ on their shelf.

(“Pale Fire,” lines 970-984)

Ironically, as it turned out, this was written a few hours before his death — so, if being “reasonably sure” of waking up tomorrow didn’t amount to much in the end, perhaps neither did any of his other certainties, nor his understanding of existence.

waxwingLine 1000.

When Kinbote finally gets his hands on the poem, literally stepping over Shade’s body to do so, he erupts in frustration:

I read faster and faster. I sped through [the poem], snarling, as a furious young heir through an old deceiver’s testament. Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale? Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing on him…was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! Instead of the wild glorious romance — what did I have? An autobiographical, eminently Appalachian, rather old-fashioned narrative in a neo-Popian prosodic style — beautifully written of course — Shade could not write otherwise than beautifully — but void of my magic, of that special rich streak of magical madness which I was sure would run through it and make it transcend its time.”

(Pale Fire, 226)

At least we can put all the “Shadean” and “Kinbotean” theories to rest. There is no way that either character could have written the other’s part — their frames of reference are completely different. Even putting Kinbote’s madness and narcissism aside, he would never have spent so much time and effort to craft such a small world, with such poverty of experience and imagery. His own life also lacks these things, but he prefers to make up for it by fabricating them. Furthermore, as strange as it may sound, he does not want to scrutinize every minute emotion that he experiences — on the contrary, life should be a grand outward spectacle, a theatrical production with rebels, assassins, secret societies, thrilling escapes and beautiful scenery. Shade, on the other hand, would not have gone to the trouble of inventing Kinbote simply because he is not interested in looking at the world through anyone else’s eyes. He does not want any extra color in his life.

But the final, greatest irony of Pale Fire is that, in his ultimate evaluation of Shade’s poem, Kinbote…is right. “Pale Fire” would have been better if it had contained just a little bit of poetic fancy, any at all. Shade wanted to make art out of his life, but no art was to be found in it; in the end, he had nothing to say, and only framed that nothing in good verse. Kinbote’s mad commentary has no stand-alone merit, yet gives the poem a desperate edge that would otherwise be missing from it. Without it, Shade would again have “sold three hundred copies in one year” (line 673) with reticently positive reviews from other detached academics, which he himself had begun to find uninspiring. In the end, Kinbote was his one faithful reader, hanging on to the author’s every word (if for the wrong reasons), relying on the author to assuage his own suffering — the reader that Shade deserved.

Pale Fire closes with Kinbote’s index. By now, he has exhausted himself: “Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord’s benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.” (229) There is no room for Zembla to exist once the commentary is complete. The index is the last and only time when Kinbote can fully enjoy his own finished creation. Virtually all of its entries pertain to Zembla only; many contain new embellishments that, perhaps, Kinbote has just now thought of and now hurries to add:

“Kobaltana, a once fashionable mountain resort near the ruins of some old barracks now a cold and desolate spot of difficult access and no importance [Apparently, this is where the Crown Jewels of Zembla are hidden. -FL] but still remembered in military families and forest castles, not in the text.”

(Pale Fire, 235)

The entry for “Kinbote, Charles, Dr.” (separate from the one for “Charles II”) is twice as long as the one for “Shade, John Francis” and most of the latter actually consists of references to Kinbote. Shade’s wife is vindictively written off as, “Shade, Sybil, S’s wife, passim.” (238) Hazel, on the other hand, “deserves great respect, having preferred the beauty of death to the ugliness of life[.]” (237) The final entry reads, simply, “Zembla, a distant northern land.” (239) Unlike all of the other entries, it simply ends, without any reference to a line number in “Pale Fire.” The reason appears to be that Kinbote died at that moment — in a 1967 interview, published in the Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Nabokov mentioned “the day on which Kinbote committed suicide (and he certainly did after putting the last touches to his edition of the poem)[.]” Whatever you think of that, there was certainly nowhere for him to go.

To be sure, Kinbote has thoroughly vandalized Shade’s work, but the author also imposes on the reader by subjecting him to what may after all be a very disappointing, mediocre inner world. On the other hand, the grateful reader can sometimes rescue the author, by finding value in the work that may not have been there. The author and the reader talk past each other, and cannot meaningfully communicate, yet still become inextricably linked. And perhaps we should not be too harsh on the critic — he may be a pathetic caricature of the author, but the author himself is a similarly crude and feeble imitation of the creative power of God.

(Continuation: part 2.)

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