NABOKV-L post 0015767, Tue, 4 Dec 2007 10:08:04 -0500

THOUGHTS: Exploring the Geographies of VN's Novels
Given the energetic current of "strong opinions" swirling through The List
these days--a good thing, in my opinion--I've been thinking about how we
approach novels like Pale Fire. In particular, I've been thinking of VN's
famous passage in SM about chess problems. A couple quotations:

"It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really
between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver
(just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between
characters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a
problem's value is due to the number of "tries"--delusive opening moves,
false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead
the would-be solver astray" (290).

"The [sophisticated player] would start by falling for an illusory pattern
of play based on a fashionable avant-garde theme . . . which the composer
had taken great pains to 'plant'. . . . Having passed through this
'antithetic' inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the
simple key move . . . as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany
to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores."

Thinking about these passages in terms of VN's fiction, we now have two
metaphors--chess and exploration--to guide us. What strikes me about VN's
thoughts, especially in the context of our recent and not-so-recent debates
here, is the emphasis on the importance of "tries"--those false scents and
specious lines of play that take the reader on a wild goose chase. Yet I
wonder if critics of VN's works really value the "tries" as much as VN seems
to. As I have been attempting to piece together my own theories about Pale
Fire, I often feel an intense pressure to be right--that is, to find "the
ultimate solution" to end all solutions. Am I correct that the intense
debate surrounding Pale Fire does not so much stem from the fact that the
novel has inspired various contrasting interpretations but from a fear that
accepting another's interpretation necessarily invalidates one's own?

Allow me to extend VN's metaphor a bit. Imagine VN's fictions as
planets--perhaps together they make a solar system. We, his readers, are
explorers (and temporary inhabitants) of these planets. On each planet, we
have a goal, something we are looking for, but the directions are confusing
and we end up taking a more circuitous route than was really necessary.
Still, along the way we discover some pretty wonderful features of the
planet that are clearly put there by a loving (though perhaps a bit wicked)
designer. (We try to be careful not to see a primitive salad bowl in every
concave depression of a rock.) Upon returning to our home planet, we write
up our report for the ones who sent us on the expedition. We faithfully
transcribe our diaries and relate all the details of what we found along our
winding way. But when we submit our draft of the report to our superiors,
they send it back with a note saying they are only interested in the "best
way to reach the goal," not all that surrounding country leading nowhere.
Since we won't get paid for the expedition unless our report is accepted, we
give them what they want and the details of our trip--the bubbling
landscapes, the beasts with five legs--are discarded and eventually

The point of this analogy is to suggest that when we explore VN's fiction,
we might benefit from an approach to interpretation which places less
importance on the ultimate goal. As I develop my own theories about Pale
Fire, I am constantly in a state of anxious doubt about whether or not I'm
headed in the right direction, but I'm equally thrilled by what I'm finding
along the way. I am open to the notion that where I'm headed may not turn
out to be the ultimate goal, but I am also fairly convinced that the
landscape I've discovered is a landscape not of my own making, and I think I
could reasonably help others to see this landscape, too. The question then
becomes whether or not it is valuable to report on those treks into the
wilderness, or should we limit our published reports to only those details
which lead most directly to the finish line. Is there a way of valuing
those "tries" that the designer has intentionally placed in the problem, or
should we simply put up a sign at the entrance to those dead-end tunnels
that says DO NOT ENTER?


Matt Roth

Search the archive:
Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies: