NABOKV-L post 0026480, Mon, 28 Sep 2015 20:36:50 +0000

THOUGHTS: Gilgamesh and "Pale Fire"
The theme and structure of the poem “Pale Fire,” have long put me in mind of the ancient, near eastern epic of Gilgamesh. Both have a circular composition; both explore grief and the search for meaning in the face of mortality; and both include a quest for immortality that ends in apparent failure. I never see this connection made or explored in critical writings [1] and, until recently, I was unaware that Nabokov himself made such a connection, so I have assumed that there is nothing here worth pursuing.

Matthew Roth’s article, “The Composition of Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” in the most recent issue of Nabokov Online Journal has, however, changed my mind. Roth carefully combed through the 1092 individual index cards that make up Nabokov’s holograph manuscript of Pale Fire, collecting and investigating variants and cancellations throughout the text. One index card in particular caught my attention. It contains a fragment of text that did not make it into the final version of Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote’s note to line 235 of the poem (Roth, 2015; pp. 11-12):
235 Life is a message scribbled in the dark

One is reminded of a certain fragment from a Sumerian poem discussed some thirty years ago, I believe, in [the] ^an amphilogical society’s^ proceedings [of an amphilogical society]:

71 . . . it is a dream . . . it is a sleep
72 . . . silence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This card also contains a marginal notation at the bottom, which is circled: “1930 Am. Phil. Soc. Proc.” Roth locates these fragmentary lines of poetry (with the same line numbers and ellipses) in a 1946 article by Samuel Noah Kramer, published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.[2] This article summarizes extant Sumerian tales, including five stories of Gilgamesh. The lines quoted on Nabokov’s index card come from Kramer’s own translation of “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” (Roth, 2015; p. 12). The Sumerian Gilgamesh stories predate the larger and more artistically unified Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh but they recount similar incidents with similar themes.[3] In this work Kramer also cites a previous paper [4] that provides an excellent synopsis of the later Babylonian Gilgamesh (Kramer, 1944). Even if Nabokov was not familiar with this earlier paper, his knowledge of Kramer’s 1946 paper suggests familiarity with the Babylonian epic.

The reference to Gilgamesh in the holograph manuscript did not survive the editing process, but it reveals that the ancient epic was on Nabokov’s mind as he wrote “Pale Fire.” Thematic and narrative connections suggest to me that Gilgamesh resonates strongly with “Pale Fire,” perhaps even as strongly as the Odyssey chimes with Ulysses. Here are several connections that I propose are significant:

(1) Cedar imagery: Cedars in Gilgamesh are associated with mortality and worldly fame. In the Sumerian tales Gilgamesh, spurred by an acute sense of his own mortality and the urging of the sun-god Utu, seeks fame in the Cedar Land. In the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh travels to the Cedar Mountain in search of fame, and later, seeking literal immortality, he visits the old man Utanapishtim. Meanwhile, Charles Kinbote claims to write his commentary (and await death) in a cabin near the town of Cedarn, Utana.[5] The opening image of “Pale Fire” involves the death of a cedar waxwing that “Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky” (l. 4), and the news of Hazel Shade’s death is preceded by the headlights of a police car that fling a “festive blaze…./ Across five cedar trunks” (ll. 479-480).

(2) The theme of bereavement and mortality: Gilgamesh receives his first taste of grief and a powerful sense of his own mortality from the unexpected death of his bosom friend Enkidu. Similarly, John Shade’s grief over the death of his beloved daughter Hazel fuels his own obsession with death and the afterlife.

(3) A quest for eternal life: Following the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh travels to a distant mountain to find the old man Utanapishtim, who may hold the secret of eternal life. After the death of his daughter John Shade also travels in search of a mountain. Shade’s mountain, however, is part of a near-death vision that he may or may not share with an old woman named Mrs. Z. Such a shared vision would provide Shade with evidence of life after death.

(4) Failure of the quest and the consolations of worldly achievement: Under Utanapishtim’s direction Gilgamesh finds the lotus of eternal life but, on his way home, he loses the lotus to a serpent. Returning to the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh takes comfort from what he has built, particularly the beautiful walls of his city. Meanwhile, on his way home from an ambiguous encounter with Mrs. Z, John Shade discovers that she did not share his vision of a white mountain and that his evidence for an afterlife is only a typographical error. Back at home, Shade seeks comfort in his art.

(5) Circular composition: The Babylonian epic begins and ends with a meditation on the mighty walls encircling the city of Uruk (a.k.a. Erech) built by its hero king, Gilgamesh, and many commentators have argued that the unwritten last line of “Pale Fire” is identical to its first line.

Kramer SN (1944) “The Epic of Gilgames and Its Sumerian Sources,” Journal of the American Oriental Society. vol. 64. pp. 7-23.

Kramer SN (1946) “Heroes of Sumer: A New Heroic Age in World History and Literature,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. vol. 90, pp. 120-130.

Roth M (2015) “The Composition of Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” Nabokov Online Journal. vol. 9, pp. 1-34.

[1] Brian Boyd, for example, does not mention Gilgamesh in his 2001 book Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery and a search of the Nabokv-L archives returns no links between Pale Fire and Gilgamesh.

[2] The article, “Heroes of Sumer: A New Heroic Age in World History and Literature,” is available from JSTOR (

[3] Kramer, for example, identifies the “motivating theme” of “Gilgamesh in the land of the Living” as “man’s anxiety about death and its sublimation in the notion of an immortal name” (Kramer, 1946; p. 127).

[4] This article “The Epic of Gilgames and Its Sumerian Sources,” is also available from JSTOR (

[5] Roth also notes the link between “cedar land” and “Cedarn” and proposes a connection between “Utana” and the sun-god “Utu,” from the Sumerian tale, “Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” (Roth, 2015; p. 12). My suggestion that “Utana” recalls “Utanapishtim” is based on the less conservative hypothesis that Nabokov also knew and incorporated details from the Babylonian epic. Roth also limits the Gilgamesh connections to Charles Kinbote (Roth, 2015; p. 12): “The question, then, is why Nabokov thought to include a direct allusion to this obscure, and only partially extant, epic. The answer may lie in a possible analogy to Kinbote’s experience, and in the poem’s reference to a ‘cedar land.’”

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