Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015544, Fri, 5 Oct 2007 10:45:58 -0400

THOUGHTS re: Kinbote's academic discipline
See below, if you have the patience.)

--- R S Gwynn <Rsgwynn1@CS.COM> wrote:

> In a message dated 10/3/2007 3:10:55 PM Central Daylight Time,
> > Alexey asked: Is Kinbote a Professor of Russian? The head of the
> department
> > to which Kinbote belongs is Prof. Nattochdag, not Prof. Pnin, the head
> of
> > the Russian department.
> >
> > MR: No, a thousand times no! Kinbote does not teach Russian. I have
> seen
> > this mistake in at least two other published articles, as well. I
> quote
> > from Kinbote's note to line 691, where Sylvia O'Donnell addresses
> Kinbote:
> > "I'm sure you'll like it up there [at Wordsmith] though I wish I could
> > figure out why anybody should be so keen on teaching Zemblan." That of
> > course does not answer the question of what Kinbote/Botkin really
> teaches,
> > but it's not Russian or English. I think most speculation has pointed
> to his
> > being part of a Scandinavian Studies dept., no?
> P. 281: "You'll find him, I'm sure, in North West Three where we have
> the
> Icelandic Collection." Of course, the only authority we have on this is
> Kinbote
> who, if he was present, was soon seen "crossing over {the open gallery]
> at a
> quick military march from east to west." Nicely symbolic directions, by
> the
> way. C. K. explicitly gives us the information that he does not teach
> Russian.

One striking fact is that Kinbote tells us nothing at all
about his teaching--he only mentions it to say that during
a lecture he had insulted a colleague who wasn't present--
which in normal novel reading suggests something about his

As Zembla doesn't exist, I think we can disregard Sylvia's
comment and Kinbote's identification of Nattochdag.

Brian Boyd sums up the evidence that Kinbote teaches
Scandinavian Studies of some kind: In addition to
the "Icelandic Collection" that R. S. Gwynn quoted above,
Charles clearly knows enough Swedish or other Scandinavian
languages to incorporate them into Zemblan, a clubwoman
asked him to lecture on something Norse/Finnish, and
Oscar Nattochdag (a real Swedish surname meaning "night
and day", we've been told here) would be a congruous
name for his department head. It might also be relevant that
King Charles lectured on (forged) Zemblan variants of an
Icelandic work.

Nevertheless, I don't think we can absolutely deny that
Kinbote taught Russian. The only evidence against it is,
as Alexey said, that K. tells us Nattochdag was the head of
his department (and summoned him to a meeting about insulting
that colleague). Kinbote says Pnin, the head of the Russian
Department was "a regular martinet in regard to his
underlings" and is happy that Botkin "was not subordinated
to that grotesque 'perfectionist'." Kinbote is typically
not sympathetic to anyone (but Shade) or indignant against
anyone who hasn't injured him. Thus in normal novel reading,
this suggests to me that Botkin was in Pnin's department
(for which he's certainly qualified), couldn't get along
with Pnin's insistence on academic and professional
standards, and switched to a more easygoing department.
This would have happened around the time he changed
his name and otherwise began denying that he was
Russian, that is, around the beginning of his insanity.

Brian Boyd says something that disagrees with this:
"Professor Kinbote is certainly a new arrival in New Wye:
he says he has known Shade for only a few months, a
time span nothing could lead him to underestimate." He
adds that Kinbote probably did arrive (not by parachute)
in the previous October, as he knows so little about
America. But this doesn't explain K.'s feelings about
subordination to Pnin. To the extent that there's a
real story, I suspect Kinbote arrived in September, taught
Russian for a semester, switched departments in January,
and moved in next to Shade in February, met him for the
first time, and started idolizing him (maybe because he
already saw in Shade an outlet for his Zemblan delusion).
I teach at a smaller college than Wordsmith and I certainly
didn't meet every professor here in my first semester, or
second or third.

By the way, Boyd thinks it likely that Kinbote's previous
teaching job was in Scandinavia. But what would he have
taught? A Russian would have to be a remarkable scholar
to teach Scandinavian literature in Scandinavia! But the
boastful Kinbote tells us nothing about his scholarly
accomplishments except his book on surnames. If he was in
Scandinavia, it's more likely that he taught Russian.
(Or European literature--Charles told Disa that he would
"examine literary masterpieces with brilliant and charming
young people", and he lectured on /Finnegans Wake/ in
Zembla. Not that any of that "happened".)

In any case, Kinbote is so unreliable that you don't have
to stretch much to say he was still teaching Russian in
the spring term of 1959. He would have said he didn't
teach it because he wished he didn't, and applied the same
transformation to a relatively painless meeting with Pnin
that he applied to Gordon's shorts.

So was Kinbote a professor of Russian when he knew Shade?
A thousand times no, but a few times yes.

Jerry Friedman

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