NABOKV-L post 0012223, Mon, 19 Dec 2005 15:41:47 -0800

Dmitir Nabokov on Pale Fire poem

----- Forwarded message from -----
Date: Mon, 19 Dec 2005 21:02:40 +0100
From: Dmitri Nabokov
Subject: FW: Re: Boyd re the Pale Fire poem
To: "'D. Barton Johnson'" <>


One has the right to question or to deflate anything, of course. If it
helps, however, my father told me that an author is omniscient and
omnipotent. He also pointed out to me, very early on, the phantom
"around-the-corner" 1000th line.

My most cordial Holiday greetings to all!

Best, D

-----Original Message-----
From: Sandy Klein []
Sent: dimanche, 18. décembre 2005 06:44
Subject: Fwd: Re: Boyd re the Pale Fire poem

From: Vladimir Nabokov Forum [mailto:NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU] On
Behalf Of Donald B. Johnson
Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2005 10:43 PM
Subject: Fwd: Re: Boyd re the Pale Fire poem

----- Forwarded message from -----
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"? Why 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

?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

? ?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? (

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.
[...]. >>

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

Anthony Stadlen

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