Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020642, Tue, 31 Aug 2010 22:38:41 -0300

Re: Botkin
R S Gwynn [Re J.Friedmann and John Morris: "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?... //...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 <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">all the questions I have about Botkin. ... 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." ] ..
RSG writes: My own theory is that Botkin was a professor at another college who was involved in a sex scandal that wrecked his career there. He was married, and that went down the drain as a result. He had some money (the "powerful Kramler") and some connections and was able to land a job, perhaps temporary, at Wordsmith. His ex-wife may have lived in Washington, as he reports a mysterious trip there in his notes. As a result of the scandal, he may have changed his name to get the other job, or that may have been a result of his madness. Thus, Zembla is a metaphor for the school he previously taught at and presumably had tenure (like a king) at. Perhaps there was some kind of witch hunt that caused him to leave the place, and this led to the Zembla delusions, which mostly seem to come from the novels of Anthony Hope and Elinor Glyn and a lot of bad movies from the 20s. By the time he is at Wordsmith he has changed his name by inverting it (remember that "inversion" is an old term). The visiting professor may be attempting to "sound him out" re. the depths of his delusion, but Gerald Emerald (not the most reliable source, btw) does go to an encyclopedia to find an article on Zembla. Maybe it exists, maybe not. If there is in fact a "real" Zembla with a king-in-hiding, Botkin has latched onto it as part of his madness. We do know that Kinbote/Botkin was in fact a reputable scholar who, according to Shade, wrote a book on surnames. One of these days I hope to be able to put all of these speculations into some kind of more coherent form. Kinbote's reflections on his religion and on the suffering of his ex-wife are the parts of the novel I find most disturbing emotionally, and I don't think there is any faking on VN's part here. The man sees himself as a sinner and is guilty about the results of his behavior, though not strong enough to change it. The "reality" of Botkin, who morphs into Kinbote/Charles X., is part of the novel's fascinating puzzle--as are such minor things as the references to Donald O'Donnell (Odon and, perhaps, Nodo) and others, who may have been "real" characters who have also morphed into their parts in Kinbote's delusions. Another thought: when Shade says that he may have guessed Kinbote's "secret," he may be referring to the fact that Kinbote is the disgraced Botkin, not Charles X. Incidentally, has anyone ever thought about CK's odd comment about "Zemblan anatomy"? Huh?

JM: Fantastic!!! How seriously must we take into account Nabokov's comments outside the novel, in SO for example, such as Kinbote's suicide, Botkin as a mad Russian scholar, aso?

Whoever wrote the Commentary also wrote the Index. The entry on Botkind is: Bokin,V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894:king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247*: bottekin-maker, 71:bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.);botkin or bodkin, a Danish stilletto.
Whoever wrote the Index was as mad as the commentator, and as imprecise (eg: the information about king-bot as a maggot of extinct fly).

The note referring to a loony at the Exton railway station (to line 629), might have a precedent (related to the quote "Even in Arcady am I, says Dementia" and to railway employees, if we don't take into account the reported comment by Shade about his clockwork-toy operating as a 'memento mori'). On note to line 286** there is: "Even in Arcady am I, says Death in the tombal scripture"
The other entry is found on note to line 162 (with his pure tongue), to describe Shade's fainting fit as a" mild form of epilepsy, a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of the tracks...Who can forget the good-natured faces...of copper-chested railway workers leaning upon their spades..."

Death, Dementia, homosexual love, derailment,key and clockwork-toy are linked in a roundabout way. Cf. CK's experience of a spark on a gilt key which caused "a wonderful conflagration to spread in the prisoner's mind" (p.123)*** and Shade's own conflagratory "fainting fit" close to CK's mention to having found "the key."(page 137).


*- On line 247) with the heading "Sybil" we read: "when alluding to me in public she used to call me 'an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." (confirming the link bt. Kinbote, who writes in the first person about his being called "a king-sized botfly" and the Index entry on Botkin,V as the same "king-sized" parasite)

** - is the mention of Gradus leaving Copenhagen, or Botkin's indication of a Danish stiletto, related to what scene in "Hamlet"? Rosenkranz and Gildenstern are equally "carriers", would they make an appearance with their deathly - and inverted - message?

*** - Like the King, described as "a prisoner", Kinbote writes from the confinement of a "Cedarn cave"...images that might indicate a prisoner's or a madman's cell.

It would be a marvellous twist should we end up by concluding that Shade's killer ( fictional Gradus/ "real" Jack Grey, according to CK) is a double-edged character (Botkin/Kinbote) who was conjured up by a mad prisoner called Jack Grey, who mysteriously also committed suicide in his cell? Now that I put this idea down it doesn't seem as absurd as it did a few minutes before...The strong argument against this humorous twist, typical of Sebastian Knight's satirical novels, is that Jack Grey would hardly be a scholar, like Kinbote, in order to invent him! What do we know of Jack Grey?

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