NABOKV-L post 0020638, Tue, 31 Aug 2010 12:21:54 -0400

Re: Botkin
I offered this as one of five possible interpretation of how Botkin fits into "Pale Fire":

4) As a variation on #3, Zembla is not real, but all the rest applies: that is, Botkin invents both Zembla and the Kinbote persona, which delusion is inexplicably tolerated at Wordsmith, encouraged by Shade, etc.

And Jerry Friedman responded:

Number 4 is the only one I've ever considered as a possible "real story". Botkin is a Russian scholar who goes mad, possibly as the result of cerebral sclerosis, and believes himself to be the former king of Zembla now living in exile under the name Charles Kinbote. He quite possibly tells his neighbor, John Shade, his delusional escape from Zembla as if he were not the king, and urges Shade to write a poem about it. Later he acquires the poem and writes a commentary on it, taking the opportunity to tell the reader a more or less similar version of his story, again pretending (for the most part) that he's not the king.

This endorsement of the above "real story of Botkin" is interesting and sensible, though it leaves unanswered questions about Kinbote/Botkin's adventures in New Wye, as Jerry points out later in his post. Here are a few others:

Is CK/VB kidding, or lying, in the several places where he quotes others as addressing him as "Charles" or "Dr. Kinbote"? I'm thinking, for instance, of Sybil Shade's first words to our commentator: "You are Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?" (p. 23) (By the way, I love the way this question is posed, since the accurate answer would be "No"!) Are we to imagine that Shade has briefed his wife on Botkin's delusion, and asked her to humor it? Or is it CK/VB himself who, in writing his commentary, makes the substitution?

Then there's the party at the Hurleys, where Mrs. H. says, "You must help us, Mr. Kinbote . . ." (238) This is an especially noteworthy instance because it occurs in the context of Shade's having just defended CK/VB as "a person who peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention." Mrs. H., embarrassed at CK/VB's sudden appearance, tries to dissimulate, pretending that they were speaking of a "loony" at the Exton railway station. CK/VB probably doesn't understand that he's the "loony" they were actually talking about, but we do. Does Mrs. H., guided by Shade, also humor Botkin here by calling him Kinbote? It seems far-fetched. I take the point that faculty members have to tolerate a good deal of eccentricity, but would they really go so far as to call their mad colleague by a false name?

Most curious of all is the commentary to line 894 in which CK/VB maintains that he is often half-recognized as King Charles, and narrates a scene in which Shade and several other faculty members discuss Zembla and the King. (266-69). Is there a way to interpret this scene consistently with the "no Zembla in the world of 'Pale Fire'" theory?

Zembla's existence or non-existence may be connected with the generally skewed geography of "Pale Fire"'s world. A face-value reading of the Commentary gives us a world that contains New Wye, Cedarn, and a number of other unreal places - along with Zembla. Is this all part of CK/VB's delusion? Has CK/VB invented a fanciful geography for his adopted country, in addition to a fanciful country of origin? There's an interesting passage in the commentary to line 287 in which Sybil tells CK/VB that they are traveling to either Wyoming or Utah or Montana. Ten minutes later, Dr. A. tells CK/VB "in stolid detail" that in fact the Shades will stay at a ranch at Cedarn in Utana on the Idoming border. Thus, within less than a page, we go from the geography of our own world to the invented geography of "Pale Fire." We might read this as another attempt to "blur the reality" of what happens in the novel, confronting us with mutually exclusive geographies in the same way that both Zembla and not-Zembla appear to coexist.

The question remains, though, how Kinbote and not-Kinbote (that is, Botkin) can coexist. I'll take Jerry Friedman's question "Is Botkin straight or gay?" as a shortened form of all the questions I have about Botkin. What they really amount to is: Is V. Botkin the Great Beaver? Is he the flamboyant character we know as Charles Kinbote? Is that all he is? Is there another personality called "Botkin" who leads some other, presumably quieter, life? Understanding these questions might take us a long way toward incorporating Botkin into the novel's world.



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