Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020517, Wed, 11 Aug 2010 16:44:54 -0400

THOUGHTs on Botkin, Hodge, Rashomon
From B. Boyd's VNAY:
At the end of his 1962 diary, Nabokov drafted some phrases for
possible interviews:
'I wonder if any reader will notice the following details:
1) that the nasty commentator is not an ex-King and not even Dr.
Kinbote but Prof. Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman …'"

From Mary McCarthy's review, A Bolt From The Blue, The New Republic,
June 4, 1962

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 the poet, who pities him, and to the campus at
large, which does not - the insensate woman in the grocery store was
expressing the general opinion.
The paranoid political structure called Zembla in Botkin's exiled
fantasy- with its Extremist government and secret agents - is a
transliteration of a pederast's persecution complex, complicated by
the "normal" conspiracy- mania of a faculty common room.
But there is in fact a "Zembla," behind the Iron Curtain. The real,
real story, the plane of ordinary sanity and common sense, the
reader's presumed plane, cannot be accepted as final. The explanation
that Botkin is mad will totally satisfy only Professors H. and C. and
their consorts, who can put aside Pale Fire as a detective story, with
the reader racing the author to the solution. Pale Fire is not a
detective story, though it includes one. Each plane or level in its
shadow box proves to be a false bottom; there is an infinite
perspective regression, for the book is a book of mirrors.
On the one hand,
VN never published or spoke, at least to my knowledge, the explanation
given in Boyd's biography, hence the reader is not really bound by
them. Obviously the thought was given form, but never publicly
expressed, by VN, for whatever reason. Perhaps he thought it needed
some balance or greater context.

On the other hand,
McCarthy's review reads to me like an authorial plant, (I suspect
these things were quite common, and maybe still are) especially the
line I've underlined which seems to speculate, in an assured way, on
aspects of Botkin(Kinbote)'s relationship with Shade which I find
underivable from the book as I remember it. Moreover the last
paragraph quoted supplies the context, somewhat undercutting the full
validity of the Botkin/Kinbote equation, that I find lacking in VN's
draft note for interviews.

And so, I fear, there is good cause to respect this equation.

Yet picking up on McCarthy's point that the reader's presumed plane,
cannot be accepted as final, the reader might well wonder if there are
alternate narratives that may even logically conflict with the one
that equates Kinbote and Botkin, and yet possess not just other
insights but their own forms of validation; (this might be termed the
Rashomon hypothesis or structure); and whether this isn't the case
with Hodge.

Some time ago I offered an explanation for the epigram that opens Pale

On Jun 9, 2010, at 2:32 PM, G S Lipon wrote (edited slightly):

> This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the
> despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. "Sir, when I
> heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats." And
> then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own
> favorite cat, and said "But Hodge shan't be shot: no no, Hodge shall
> not be shot."
> JAMES BOSWELL, The Life of Samuel Johnson
> The epigram, coming from another literary biography, might seem to
> have some significance to the relationship between Shade and
> Kinbote. Instead its relevance is to VN and Shade. The basis of the
> analogy is that of control of another creature's fate. The
> despicable young gentleman holds the fate of the city's cats under
> his finger, the way VN holds the fate of his characters, in this
> case Shade. Presumably VN was amused or bothered by criticism of how
> he treated his fictitious creatures. Johnson's reassurance of the
> fate of his own cat, Hodge, is then to be applied to Shade, i.e.,
> Shade shall not be shot. This should be taken as a clue against a
> naive reading of the novel in which Shade is indeed shot. Instead
> Shade loses his daughter; and then his sense of self when he
> metamorphoses into Kinbote; and then as Kinbote, presumably, does
> indeed take his own life by gunshot; but after the novel is over.

Interpreting the epigram to mean, Shade shall not be shot, opens the
door to viewing Shade's death metaphorically; and to seeing Kinbote as
an altered ego of Shade; a so-called multiple-personality.

The epigram, the inscrutable Hodge, occupies a prominent position,
front and center, in the novel. Can any exegesis of the novel be
complete, I wonder, that fails to give some interpretation of its

In this season of challenges, not the least of which is the heat and
humidity prickling the upper mid-west, I wonder if I might challenge
the list members, in as respectful a manner as might be done with
words without seeming overly coy or pandering, to adjudge my analysis,
its conclusion and how it comports with the notion of Kinbote being a
figment of Botkin; how to balance these views. Or are there other
interpretations for Johnson's favorite cat?

Respectfully and placidly yours,

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