Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005224, Tue, 27 Jun 2000 21:29:03 -0700

Brian Boyd on Quirky, Quirks, and Pale Fire
From: Brian Boyd <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz>

The Quirk Quacks Back

Rodney Welch writes (June 25) that there are "definite quirks" in my _Pale
Fire_ book, and that "the big one, for [him], occurred when King Hamlet's
glow-worms got dragged into the discussion." Although as Galya Diment
notes, "quirky" need not be pejorative, "quirk" in Rodney Welch's usage
seems to mean something like "peculiarity, defect."

May the Quirk quack back? A quirky overreaction, perhaps, but by dwelling
on Rodney's example in painstaking stages I would like to show what can
lie behind what might seem to a rushed or unresponsive reader a quirky

First, as I note, I am not the first to "drag King Hamlet's glow-worms
into discussion" of _Pale Fire._ Let me cite my book (p. 177):

Since 1963 readers of Pale Fire have again and again discovered
for themselves as they read Hamlet--the play Nabokov has called "probably
the greatest miracle in all literature"--a curious interrupted echo of
Shade's and Nabokov's title, as if _Timon of Athens_ were not the only
source for the title.* But no one has known whether the echo was by
accident or design. We now have the evidence to declare it very deliberate
and pointed design. The ghost of King Hamlet, talking to his son, cries out:

Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu! remember me. (1.5.88-91)

The asterisk marks an endnote listing critics from 1963, 1966, 1970, 1988,
and two from 1995 who in discussing _Pale Fire_ have noted the "pale
. . . fire" here in _Hamlet_.

Now there seem to be three possible ways to relate Shakespeare's "pale
. . . fire" to the title of Shade's "Pale Fire" and its source in the
lines from _Timon of Athens_: "the moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale
fire she snatches from the sun."

1) The _Hamlet_ "echo" may be entirely accidental: VN had only the _Timon_
lines in mind, and did not at any point in working on _Pale Fire_ recall
"pale his uneffectual fire" from _Hamlet_.

That seems unlikely, given both the closeness of fit (see more below) and
VN's knowledge of _Hamlet_. He complained of not being able to forget
anything, knew all of Shakespeare intimately (he could, for instance,
spring on people for identification phrases from plays as little read as
_Love's Labour's Lost_), revered _Hamlet_ far more and _knew_ the play far
better and _drew_ on it far more often than anything else in Shakespeare
(witness his translations of passages, and his plan to translate the whole
thing, in the 1930s, the intense and highly scholarly _Hamlet_ discussion
in _Bend Sinister_ in the 1940s, the intricate and extensive network of
_Hamlet_ allusions in _Ada_ in the 1960s). He knew _Hamlet_ virtually by heart.

2) VN had the _Hamlet_ lines in mind, as well as the _Timon_ passage, and
expected readers to encounter them when they reread _Hamlet_, and to enjoy
the echo as just that, a little find that leads nowhere.

Of course people do reread _Hamlet_, and once alerted by VN's novel to the
combination "pale fire," find it hard not to be struck by "pale his
uneffectual fire." A series of critics who happen to have been writing
about _Pale Fire_ have drawn attention to the echo, often unaware of each
other's discoveries, and presumably many other readers have noticed it
without rushing into print. The echo, on this explanation, is simply a
surprise, a little reward for memory and attention.

3) VN had the _Hamlet_ lines in mind, and meant them to count for
something more.

But wouldn't that be confusing, since the _Timon_ lines are clearly
pointed to as a solution to the riddle of the source for Shade's poem's
title, a solution that VN hints at repeatedly without Kinbote's awareness?

Well, yes, it would be puzzling, but VN loved to prepare for his readers
puzzles within puzzles, surprises within surprises, discoveries within
discoveries--just as nature, as he at least thought, hides more than we
expect, more even than the scientist who has just discovered something
expects still to be hidden in the very fact discovered.

As a compact and uncontroversial analogy, may I take an example from "The
Admirable Anglewing" in _Nabokov's Butterflies_ (p. 541)? VN names an
incidental character in an entomological museum, a "dragonfly man," Bill
Uhler. I was amused to see Nabokov in his manuscript of this unfinished
story working out an anagram of "libellula" (a word he uses elsewhere in
his fiction, meaning of course "dragonfly"), crossing letters off, and
coming up with this part-homophone, part-anagram. By e-mail, I pointed out
to my co-editor, Bob Pyle, without spelling out the details, my delight at
the entomological play in "Bill Uhler." He wrote back that he had enjoyed
it too, that the play on the butterfly species "uehleri" was most
unexpected here. It turned out that Bob hadn't noticed the
"dragonfly"-"libellula"-"Bill Uhler" connection, and I hadn't an inkling
of the "Bill-Uhler"-_uehleri_ link. (Incidentally, we decided not to
footnote this, on the principle that the first time a work of ficti!
on sails into print a pleasure craft like this shouldn't carry a cargo of

As this example suggests, nothing pleased Nabokov more than offering
readers the pleasure of a discovery, and at the same time concealing a
further potential discovery likely to be overlooked in the welcome
surprise of the first.

Now in the case of "pale fire," the novel hints that the place in
Shakespeare where the title comes from is in _Timon of Athens_, and it
does so with unusual insistence. Indeed it seems rather uncharacteristic
for Nabokov to point _so_ emphatically toward an answer, if it were the
whole answer, if it were not partly camouflage for a second-tier
solution: a phrase that he knew that reader after reader would come across
in rereading Shakespeare's most widely-read play, and that would cause a
thrill of happy recognition in readers' minds.

But of course, if when we reread _Hamlet_ we notice the "echo" of "The
glow-worm . . . gins to pale his uneffectual fire" in the title of "Pale
Fire," we then face a new problem (again, a characteristic move on
Nabokov's part, or nature's): does this new discovery lead anywhere?

And this is where I am "quirky": I try hard to answer that question.


Reading these lines in _Hamlet_, we do not know where to turn to in _Pale
Fire_ to find if VN intended his title to echo the Ghost's phrase, or what
if anything he could have intended by it.

1) But in the course of rereading _Pale Fire_ we might notice the passage
describing how the future Charles II hears the news of his mother's death,
in the first light of a summer morning, after a formal ball he has
attended with Count Otar and with Fleur and Fidalda de Fyler. The sisters

side by side, thin-legged, in shimmering wraps, their kitten noses
pink, their eyes green and sleepy, their earrings catching and loosing the
fire of the sun. There were a few people around, as there always were, no
matter the hour, at this gate, along which a road, connecting with the
Eastern highway, ran. A peasant woman with a small cake she had baked,
doubtlessly the mother of the sentinel who had not yet come to relieve the
unshaven dark young _nattdett_ (child of night) in his dreary sentry box,
sat on a spur stone watching in feminine fascination the luciola-like
tapers that moved from window to window

of the palace where Queen Blenda has just died.

"Catching and loosing the fire of the sun" (not "losing," which may have
been what VN intended; but perhaps he really did mean "loosing," in the
sense of "unleashing"?) has an odd ring for those who have already
identified the source of the poem and the novel as _Timon_'s "the moon's
an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun": it
certainly seems like another of the commentary's echoes of the passage
from which the title of Shade's poem derives.

And then, a few lines later, the word "luciola." Now we cannot find this
word in Webster's Second, Webster's Third, or the Oxford English
Dictionary, but it looks Italian enough for an Italian dictionary to be
the obvious place to search next. In my very humble
("piccolo") Italian-English dictionary, "lùcciola" is translated
"1. firefly 2. glow-worm." These two English equivalents, both of which
nicely fit the context, are entomologically imprecise and more or less
overlapping: "firefly," according to Webster's Second, means "In popular
language, any nocturnal wingless light-producing insect. They are mostly
beetles belonging to two families, Lampyridae and
Elateridae." "Glow-worm" Webster's glosses as: "Any of various luminous
insects with the wings rudimentary or wanting, esp. a. The wingless
females and larvae of the European beetles of the genus _Lampyris_ . . . . "

(Of course, there are always other possible routes of inquiry. If you
can't find "luciola" in Webster's, perhaps you could write to G. and
C. Merriam & Co, the publishers of Webster's? That is what Professor
Reuben Abel of New York did in 1967, and received this answer: "_Luciola_
is a variant spelling of the Italian _lucciola_ meaning a firefly, and is
found occasionally as a designation of that insect in older books in
English about Italy." Professor Abel, who had other queries about _Pale
Fire_'s verbal arcana, received other replies from the generous
researchers at Merriam-Webster. When he wrote to Nabokov asking if these
were correct, Vera replied on January 31, 1968: "My husband asks me to
tell you that the Merriam Company supplied the correct answers for
lucciola, brocken and knackle. . . . Merriam are also right on skoramis. . . . VN enjoyed your correspondence with the M. Co.")

But why does Nabokov use a word like "luciola" that his readers cannot
easily identify? Granted, it's a wonderful word, especially for a novelist
whose wife was learning Italian in the year _Pale Fire_ was written, and
whose son was starting to speak it fluently, and who was himself a
collector of insects and words. Still, why confront the English-language
reader with such obscurity?

2) Might it not be because he has something to hide, and yet has something
eventually to disclose for those sufficiently curious?

Is there anything in the local context that might explain it? For those
who know the "pale fire" lines in _Timon_ and have noticed that "catching
and loosing the fire of the sun," and have already been struck by the
"glow-worm . . . gins to pale his uneffectual fire" in _Hamlet_, there may
be a tantalizing conjunction between this phrase and "luciola" as
"glow-worm," especially since these are two early-dawn scenes, Hamlet with
the ghost of his father, and Charles with the lights moving about the
palace where his mother has just died, and there seems such an air of
mesmerizing mystery in these "strange lights" ("A strange something struck
all four of then. . . . here was Otar, looking with a puzzled expression
at the distant windows of the Queen's quarters, and there were the two
girls . . . their earrings catching and loosing the fire of the
sun. . . . A peasant woman . . . sat on a spur stone watching in feminine
fascination the luciola-like tapers that moved from window to !
window; two workmen, holding their bicycles, stood staring too at those
strange lights. . . . "). Yet there is nothing definite enough to connect
the Zemblan scene and the Danish: "luciola" remains suggestive, but

3) Does "luciola" or "glow-worm" or "firefly" occur elsewhere in _Pale
Fire_, perhaps? It is surely no secret that Nabokov, even more than most
novelists, often works by inviting the reader to connect one part of the
text with another.

"Luciola" does not recur, nor does "glow-worm" appear except via
"luciola," but "fireflies" occurs once. The use of an obscure synonym
(like "luciola") of a common word (like "firefly") as a hidden key to a
hidden pattern is standard Nabokovian practice, like the "myosotes" the
reader must connect with the "forget-me-nots" of _Ada_. (For that matter,
in _Ada_ VN deploys as part of one significant pattern
"firefly," "glowworm," an invented species "_Photinus ladorensis_" within
the real genus of American fireflies _Photinus_, and "cantharid," after a
family of beetles in which one genus has females also known in America as

When Kinbote at last gets hold of the manuscript of Shade's poem, assuming
that it immortalizes his Zembla, he tells us, he

weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a
moment I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if
informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of
stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in
the bruised and branded sky.
I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart.

Now this passage is full of fire and fun in its own right. Kinbote of
course is not holding all Zembla pressed to his heart: he will find
nothing of _his_ Zembla in the "Pale Fire" manuscript he hugs so
tightly. And his "fireflies . . . making decodable signals on behalf of
stranded spirits" seems nothing more than a typically, wonderfully,
Kinbotean flight of fancy.

In that case, are there then any other "fireflies" or "glow-worms" in the
novel, without either word's being used? Once the question is raised, an
answer should spring to mind: the "pale light" that flies around the
Haunted Barn, and that Hazel asks "Are you a will-o-the-wisp?" Now
although both Hazel and Kinbote try to decode the message spelled out by
the light in the Haunted Barn, they cannot, but we can: it turns out to be
decipherable as a message from Aunt Maud's stranded spirit (as deduced
independently, first by Robert Martin Adams, in 1978, and as confirmed
several times by the Nabokovs: see _Nabokov's Pale Fire_ 110, 273-74 nn 5,
6). The message, indeed, warns Shade and Kinbote not to cross the lane to
Goldsworth's, where a gunman waits (pada ata lane not ogo old wart
. . . : father at the lane not to go to Goldsworth's . . . ), a warning
that applies in other words just at this very moment that Kinbote, with
"Pale Fire" under his arm, thinks of "fireflies . . . maki!
ng decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits."

Now this already might suggest that the earlier "luciola-like
tapers," visible in the windows of Queen Blenda's castle moments after she
dies, might be meant to imply something more: if Kinbote's extravagant but
at first apparently inconsequential "fireflies" spell out something so
much more pointed than they seem to, might the same be true of the
"luciola-like tapers"?

This seems still more likely if we recall that there is an extended
pattern of "pale lights" or "pale fires" in the novel, associated with
both ghosts and with Shakespeare. For instance, as Charles II escapes
through the tunnel, carrying a copy of _Timon of Athens_ and emerging to
safety and a car waiting in Timon Alley, he switches on a flashlight ("The
dim light he discharged at last was now his dearest companion, Oleg's
ghost, the phantom of freedom"). After the account of the Haunted Barn,
with _its_ "pale light," Kinbote quotes Shade's poem "The Nature of
Electricity," with its playful conjecture that the dead could come back as
electricity to light up our lives, and that Shakespeare may flood a whole

In the passage where the "luciola-like tapers" move from window to window,
VN uses a word meaning "glow-worm" or "firefly," and a phrase that evokes
a Shakespearean "pale fire," as he renders a break-of-dawn scene that
echoes the time of day that famously prompts King Hamlet's ghost to leave
(the previous day: "the morn in russet mantle clad"; then, to Hamlet,
announcing his departure, "The glow-worm shows the matin to be near, / And
gins to pale his uneffectual fire"), as another royal spirit, too, departs
from her son's presence.

Throughout _Pale Fire_ there is also a pattern of communication between
the dead or the living that is denied or dismissed, either explicitly, or
implicitly, because of its outlandish improbability. Neither Hazel nor
Kinbote can decipher the "pale light," the "will-o-the-wisp," in the
barn--but we can decode it as a very precise message. Shade declares that
when Hazel dies he

. . . knew there would be nothing: no self-styled
Spirit would touch a keyboard of dry wood
650 To rap out her pet name; no phantom would
Rise . . .

But if the argument of my book--of parts that Rodney Welch seems to
accept--are correct, then Hazel's spirit is indeed in touch with her
father, even in these very lines, in a kind of irony that VN has used
before in stories like "Ultima Thule" and "The Vane Sisters." Kinbote's
"fireflies . . . making decodable signals on behalf of stranded
spirits" seems pure imagistic exuberance, but turns out to echo directly
the message in the Haunted Barn and the moment that that message points
forward to.

When we remember that Charles has "a sickly physical fear of [Queen
Blenda's] phantom," that an absurd series of faked séances mocks the idea
of getting in touch with her spirit, that the presence of Fleur de Fyler
in Charles's room "at least kept at bay the strong ghost of Queen
Blenda"--in other words, because of Fleur the ghost does not appear--it
would involve an irony typical of _Pale Fire_ if the scene of
"luciola-like tapers" while Fleur de Fyler's earrings at 4 a.m. are
"catching and loosing the fire of the sun" in fact evokes Hamlet's
father's ghost saying "The glow-worm shows the matin to be near, / And
gins to pale his uneffectual fire," and implies in some way the presence
of an unrecognized ghost.

This does not get us very far, but at least I hope details like the links
between "luciola" and "fireflies," and "pale lights," "dim lights" and
"pale fires," and Shakespeare and ghosts and mortals, suggest that it is
not sheer arbitrariness to connect "The glow-worm . . . gins to pale his
uneffectual fire" and the early-dawn scene of Queen Blenda's death. What
exactly we then make of these hints of something more somewhere in this
scene or this note is quite another step, another matter.

To be as laboriously explicit as I have here, to review pertinent evidence
from elsewhere in the novel and from Nabokovian practice in other works, I
have already needed, for this first short step in one argument, ten times
the length of the paragraph I allotted this point in the book. Perhaps I
should have taken ten times as long as I do in _all_ the arguments in Part
3 of the book, but there are readers and publishers to think of. In the
book I prefer to move quickly enough to keep readers awake, and assume I
do not need to spell out every inference or to reestablish every point
once a general direction has been marked out. But that does not mean the
arguments have been advanced without considering alternative explanations,
that they have been reached by quirk rather than questioning.

Might I just add one last cluster of observations about the scene I have
been focusing on? Queen Blenda dies and the luciola-like tapers pass from
window to window in her palace on July 21, 1936. Her death occurs on VN's
father's birthday. A few months after his father's death, VN wrote to his
mother from Cambridge that he felt his father had been present with him in
the exam room, and he would write in a similar vein about his father in
other letters to his mother, in poetry ("Easter," "Evening in a Vacant
Lot"), in fiction (in _The Gift_ especially), and in his autobiography,
where a famous image of his father suspended as if forever in the azure
segues into the "wax tapers in mortal hands" at his funeral. Of course
July 21 is also the day in 1959 that John Shade is killed in a blunder
that matches the assassination of V. D. Nabokov, and the day he completes
his poem, and the day he writes the lines "I'm reasonably sure that we
survive / And that my darling somewhere is aliv!
e," and the day that Kinbote takes the manuscript, thinking he now has all
Zembla pressed to his heart, and feels it as strange as if "fireflies
. . . were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits." In
Nabokov dates like "July 21," words like "luciola" and "fireflies," and
evoked echoes like those Shakespearean "pale fires," are neither
accidental nor univocal but instead planned, precise and yet polysemous.

Brian Boyd