NABOKV-L post 0012222, Sat, 17 Dec 2005 19:43:13 -0800

Fwd: Re: Boyd re the Pale Fire poem

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Date: Sat, 17 Dec 2005 20:21:38 EST
Subject: Re: Boyd re the Pale Fire poem

I wrote on 10 December:

< I am grateful to Brian Boyd for so eloquently and precisely defending
Shade's "Pale Fire". But how does he know that "we return to the first line"?
should we accept Kinbote's assertion? How, even, do we know that there would
have been only one more line? The symmetry between parts 1 and 4, and 2 and 3,
would be thus preserved, but how do we know Shade wanted to preserve it? >

Brian Boyd replied on 16 December:

<< [...] 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
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
Socher?s claim to a source for the opening of ?Pale Fire? in Frost?s poem ?Of
a Winter Evening? (
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
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
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. [...]. >>

I am delighted that Brian Boyd has given more evidence to confirm Nabokov's
own high opinion of the poem "Pale Fire", and that he has responded to my
questions about line 1000 of the poem "Pale Fire" with important (albeit
extra-textual) evidence. That Nabokov intended that Shade intended line 1000 to
be the
last is a fascinating piece of information, but it has the same standing as
Nabokov's (equally extra-textual) statements about Kinbote's killing himself
after completing his work on the book or about the whereabouts of the crown

Perhaps Nabokov thought that the beautiful lead-up to line 1000, together
with the symmetry of cantos 1 and 4, and 2 and 3, was enough to convey that line
1000 must be the last.

However, my question remains: Why should we accept Kinbote's assertion (as
Brian Boyd apparently did until I asked him why) that Shade intended line 1000
to be identical with line 1? The "slain" at the end of line 1 makes sense if it
is followed by line 2: "[...] the waxwing slain / By the false azure [...]".
It would be rather odd and clumsy standing alone at the end of line 1000. Is
it not a sign of Kinbote's insensitivity that he is able to countenance such an
oddity, and a sign of our susceptibility to seduction by Kinbote if we are
able to countenance it?

Might not Nabokov have intended his readers to find their way out of the
unreliable narrator Kinbote's seductions and imagine what line 1000 might have
been? What about a competition for the most satisfying line 1000?

Anthony Stadlen

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