NABOKV-L post 0005232, Wed, 28 Jun 2000 15:46:01 -0700

Re: Brian Boyd on Quirky, Quirks, and Pale Fire (fwd)
From: Rodney Welch <>


I read with great and careful interest your generous quack to my quibble;
responding to it will take some time. For now, let me just say I still do
not find the theory convincing, do not believe it represents true authorial
intent, and that as I read your letter I found myself thinking more and more
of those forest trails in the far distance beyond Mona Lisa's head,
wandering further and further into the mist.

This opinion requires more support than I can presently give it, but give me
a week -- well, give me two -- and I will entail my objections in more


> From: Galya Diment <>
> Reply-To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>
> Date: Tue, 27 Jun 2000 21:29:03 -0700
> Subject: Brian Boyd on Quirky, Quirks, and Pale Fire
> From: Brian Boyd <>
> 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
> conclusion.
> A.
> 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
> annotation.)
> 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.
> B.
> 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
> stand
> 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
> inconclusive.
> 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
> fireflies.)
> 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
> town.
> 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