Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020621, Fri, 27 Aug 2010 16:57:32 -0400

Re: Botkin
Matt Roth writes:

I wonder why [Morris] thinks Botkin-Kinbote acceptable when John Shade is the author, but not when VN is the author. Would readers of Shade's book have lower standards than readers of VN's book? Wouldn't they expect the same sort of "realism" that we expect?

As usual, Matt has raised a deep point, one that goes to the heart of fiction and metafiction. To answer it, we have to carry through in our imaginations the trajectory of "Pale Fire," a novel by John Shade.

This book would be published in a counterfactual world in which Shade is a well-known poet, and in which the details of his life, including the tragic loss of Hazel, are also known. Readers would come to it with a completely different set of preconceptions and questions than readers in our world bring to VN's PF.

To begin with, it would be clear that the poem "Pale Fire" is a fairly straight autobiographical account of certain elements of Shade's life. So far, so good. Then the reader would be confronted by a clearly fictitious commentary by an invented Kinbote, during which "John Shade" appears as a character in his own novel. The real Shade is of course alive -- probably on a book tour! -- and since the book is "a novel by John Shade," there is no Kinbote. No reader would be in the least doubt about any of this.

In my opinion, this would allow our hypothetical reader to view Kinbote (and Botkin, if the reader is clever enough to spot him) in the way I suggested in my earlier post: as alter egos through whom Shade explores self-images of transcendence. He postulates his own death and imagines two possible ways he might "live on in the reflected sky." His readers will of course perceive that the real pathos here is his longing for Hazel's immortality as well.

Now, we can contrast this imaginary reading of John Shade's "Pale Fire" with the actual response we have to VN's "Pale Fire." In our world, John Shade does not exist. He is a character invented by VN. And the crucial point is this: Therefore, Kinbote and/or Botkin exist on the same level of reality as Shade. CK (and/or VB) and Shade share the fictional space, so to speak. We must accept both Shade and CK/VB as characters on an equal metaphysical footing. Whereas in the counterfactual world that received John Shade's "Pale Fire," readers know that Shade is real and CK/VB is not.

This is a difficult point, but everything hinges on it. In a world with a real novelist (John Shade) who creates a character (CK/VB), the events of "Pale Fire" happen "on paper," and are thus not meant to be taken as real. No reader of "a novel by John Shade called 'Pale Fire'" believes for a moment that the author was shot by Gradus or anyone else, commented upon by Kinbote, etc. But in a world where both Shade and CK/VB are equally fictitious (or equally real, if you prefer), the relationships among these characters must observe the constraints of realism. They all inhabit the same world.

A final thought: I admit, reluctantly, that VN probably didn't intend us to view Shade as the author of all the texts that comprise "Pale Fire." In that sense, I am not a Shadean. Rather, I believe that "Pale Fire" would be a better novel under that interpretation. But in my world, authorial intention comes first, so I accept that we're left with wrestling with Botkin as VN meant him to be understood. Now if only . . .



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