NABOKV-L post 0018576, Sun, 13 Sep 2009 23:01:05 -0600

THOUGHTS: Pale Fire and The Cream of the Jest
Has anyone connected /Pale Fire/ with /The Cream of the Jest/ (1917), by
James Branch Cabell?

First among the similarities is the structure. TCotJ is the story of a
recently deceased Virginian writer, Felix Kennaston, told by his neighbor,
Richard Harrowby. In the first chapter, Harrowby introduces his project,
saying that he will not try to duplicate the recent biography, but rather
will explain how Kennaston suddenly became possessed of genius. The next
few chapters are the first draft of the ending of Kennaston's first novel,
in which a character reveals himself to be the author's stand-in. Harrowby
then returns for most of the book, narrating how Kennaston finished his
novel and what occurred as he was writing the next one. (There's no index,

Harrowby is not Kinbotean. Mostly he's indistinguishable from an omniscient
narrator, and when he does appear, any humor is far more subtle than
Kinbote's egotism. The humor of the book is in scenes with Kennaston, and
not all of it is very subtle.

Harrowby's description of Kennaston is reminiscent of Kinbote's description
of Shade: "The man could create beauty, to outlive him; but in his own
appearance he combined grossness with insignificance, and he added thereto a
variety of ugly senseless little mannerisms." Unlike Kinbote, Harrowby says
he disliked Kennaston and gives no reason to think Kennaston liked him.

Then the romantic imaginary world, Poictesme, not entirely unlike a medieval
Zembla, but it's Kennaston's (not Harrowby's) fantasy world--also the
setting of many of Cabell's other novels.

Another similarity is Kennaston's quest for hidden knowledge. It's not
about death, though. Using half of a mysterious "sigil" that he seems to
have created in his first novel, he can dream of his unattainable heroine
Ettare, who he meets at various times and places in history. He gets
nowhere in understanding how this happens, so he uses his new historical
knowledge to try to understand "Why is a Kennaston?" After a good deal of
cynicism and irony, he arrives at a theory much like Shade's: just as he put
himself in his fantasy world, "Kennaston seemed to glimpse an Artist-God,
with a commendable sense of form--Kennaston's fellow craftsman--the earth as
that corner of the studio wherein the God was working just now, and all life
as a romance the God was inditing..." (Ellipsis in original.)

But his God, unlike Shade's, has concentrated on life on earth, leaving
non-living matter (on earth and in space) in ugly asymmetry.

Another similarity is that both Kennaston and Harrowby write beautifully in
an elaborate style, with occasional rare words, that closely resembles their
author's style.

The main thing that made me compare the books, though, is the end of
Kennaston's quest. He shows Harrowby the sigil, which Harrowby recognizes
as the lid of the cold cream that his company makes and Kennaston's wife
(now dead) used. Harrowby is too kind to disillusion Kennaston, but he
brings up the possibility of a mundane explanation, and Kennaston explains
"the one great thing the sigil taught me—that everything in life is
miraculous. For the sigil taught me that it rests within the power of each
of us to awaken at will from a dragging nightmare of life made up of
unimportant tasks and tedious useless little habits, to see life as it
really is, and to rejoice in its exquisite wonderfulness. If the sigil were
proved to be the top of a tomato-can, it would not alter that big fact, nor
my fixed faith. No Harrowby, the common names we call things by do not
matter—except to show how very dull we are." This reminded me of Shade's
less certain belief that began with apparent evidence of the supernatural
but survived apparent disproof of the evidence.

There are also minor similarities. Shade mentions "Hurricane Lolita", and
Kennaston's first novel becomes a best-seller as a result of being
criticized as indecent. (This is exactly what happened to Cabell's novel
/Jurgen/, published several years /after/ TCotJ--I wonder whether he planned
that.) By the way, the word "nympholept" appears, describing men who are
obsessed with unattainable women.

Kennaston and Harrowby live in Virginia, and Shade and Kinbote live in
either Virginia or West Virginia. This is one of the few points that could
be a deliberate hint from VN. However, Cabell's Lichfield, based on
Richmond, is not Nabokov's college town in the hills.

Sybil Shade is a member of women's clubs, and Mrs. Kennaston supplemented
the family's income by lecturing at women's clubs before Kennaston inherited
his uncle's fortune. However, the Kennastons' distant relationship doesn't
resemble the Shades' as described by either Shade or Kinbote (except that
both couples have separate bedrooms).

Kennaston gets cryptic hints about small mirrors (and white pigeons) in
connection with the sigil. In a mildly Kinbotean inversion, the sigil is
illustrated on the frontispiece, and when turned upside-down, it can be

Did VN read TCotJ? I have no idea. All I can find is that Wilson
recommended his /New Yorker/ article praising Cabell in a letter of April
24, 1956 (278 in /Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya/). "He has certain things in
common with Volodya, of whom I was sometimes reminded in reading him." (I
must speculate that among the ways to recommend something to Nabokov, that
would have been one of the least effective.) Similarities include a
fondness for sometimes obvious anagrams, an elaborate style, and an interest
in fictional creation that doesn't need anything to do with reality,
especially not with reality's social problems. If Nabokov did read Cabell,
I have no idea whether he would have seen anything to use or surpass.

Both writers read widely and eclectically, so we shouldn't be surprised to
find the occasional coincidence. Harrowby's wife says of her husband's
cosmetics business, "I look upon him in a new light, so to speak, when I
realize that daily he is gladdening Calcutta with his soaps, delighting
London with his dentifrice, and comforting Nova Zembla with his talcum
powder." I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, and "I trust the
reader appreciates the strangeness of this..."

Jerry Friedman

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