Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015824, Thu, 20 Dec 2007 18:02:49 -0800

C Kunin replies on how VN saw Shade
Dear Anthony Stadlen,

I have never really doubted the quality of the poem within the
context of the novel, though I do believe it is marred (intentionally
by Nabokov) by the strokes Shade suffers during the writing of the
fourth canto. It is clear from the quotes you cite that the poem was
never to be published as a poem by a poet named Shade.

And if you think about it, if my interpretation is correct, then the
feat achieved by Nabokov is even more impressive. He set himself the
task of writing a poem by a half mad-man who has two personalities,
and who suffers from cerebral stroke during the writing of the poem.
The poem must be convincing both within the context of the novel and
to the readers of PF as the work of a man, far from perfect, but who
has suffered greatly in his life who succeeds in making a work of art
out of that life and pain.

I guess I can understand that Nabokov would have been willing to
publish the poem separately - - as a teaser for the novel - - and I
suppose the post-Lolita Nabokov could have even expected that he
could get away with it. But Shade and Nabokov had two quite different
literary personae and I still doubt that anyone other than Nabokov as
a famous author of highly respected literary achievement and in a
post-modern literary context (neither one of which apply to Mr Shade)
could have gotten away with it.

As for the description of the poem by Vera, it is quite correct but
certainly over-simplified. I do not read here anything that throws
any light on Nabokov's attitude toward Shade as a person of either
sound character or high morality. He was willing to divulge such a
benevolent attitude on only two of his characters, Lolita and Pnin. I
continue to suspect that Mr Shade is not in the same category.


> Dear Carolyn,
> I have found the further evidence I alluded to a short while ago,
> in response to your question, of VN's high opinion of Shade and his
> poem. It is given by Brian Boyd (16 December 2005) in response to
> my questions, and can be found in the archives. Here it is:
> << [...] That the quality of the poem was as high as Nabokov could
> achieve seems to be confirmed by every recorded comment he made
> about it:
> "I should have written you sooner but I had an intense period of
> inspiration that I badly needed for a long poem (part of my new
> novel) and kept imbibing it while it lasted for hours on end" (to
> Edmund Wilson, 27 Feb 1961, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya).
> Nabokov could have "badly needed" inspiration even to parody
> ineptitude or limitation, but he would surely have needed it even
> more to attain excellence in a language not his own. His gratitude
> seems to point toward the second reading.
> In reply to some questions Andrew Field sent while preparing
> Nabokov: His Life in Art, Véra Nabokov answered on 11 December
> 1965, quoting VN directly:
> " 'To be quite frank, Shade's poem is a rather good Nabokov poem,
> and the allusion to Frost is incidental and meant only to give
> local color.' We read somewhere in a review that the poem was
> mediocre, obscure and a parody of something or other. Sources: A
> pinch of Pope perhaps, as form goes. My husband admits that apart
> from the poem about the little horse in the wintry woods, he has
> not read much Frost."
> Clearly V and V were surprised and amused to read that "the poem
> was mediocre, obscure and a parody." And the comment about Frost
> may be set
> against Abe Socher's claim to a source for the opening of "Pale
> Fire" in Frost's poem "Of a Winter Evening" (<http://
> www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/socher.htm> http://
> www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/socher.htm).
> Just after completing the poem in February 1961, Nabokov drafted a
> letter to the New Yorker, asking if they would be prepared to
> publish the whole of the "Pale Fire" poem in a single issue. It
> would have been a strange move to ask them to publish a poem by an
> invented poet that he thought was artistically flawed and indeed as
> we know he would later call Shade "by far the greatest of invented
> poets" (SO 59). Since he had taken the trouble to compose fine
> poems for his invented Vasily Shishkov (which would be hailed as
> masterpieces by his critical foe Georgy Adamovich) this is no mean
> claim.
> When the magazine Show asked Nabokov a few months later in 1961 if
> he had anything they could publish, Véra answered, offering "Pale
> Fire":
> "The poem has 999 lines, consists of four cantos, and, while it
> contains the essence of the poet's life story, presents also his
> philosophy and its history. The last [1000th] line was never
> written because the poet was killed after the 999th" (VéN to
> Richard Schickel, 18 May 1961).
> This would seem to address the concern of Anthony Stadlen (Nabokv-
> L, 10 Dec 2005, asking of me: "But how does he know that 'we return
> to the
> first line' Why should we accept Kinbote's assertion? How, even,
> do we know that there would have been only one more line?").
> Nabokov had also
> noted in his draft letter to the New Yorker: "this long poem which
> its (invented) author the American poet John Shade did not quite
> complete (when he died before writing the last[,] one thousandth[,]
> line)." Nabokov at least intended that Shade intended just one more
> line, but never wrote it. It would presumably have rhymed with
> "lane" in 999. Since Shade particularly liked "the consonne
> d'appui," it may have ended with the "l" of "lane," as well as the
> rest of the syllable, as in "slain," the first line of the poem.
> But we do not and cannot know. [...]. >>
> Best wishes,
> Anthony Stadlen
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