Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005622, Thu, 14 Dec 2000 13:37:00 -0800

Fw: Boyd on NYT Forum and "Nabokov's Pale Fire"
EDITOR's NOTE. As an early Xmas present from Brian Boyd and NABOKV-L, we
offer the gem below. As an ideal Xmas gift for the admirer of PALE FIRE, I
suggest a copy of Boyd's book NABOKV'S PALE FIRE. THE MAGIC OF ARTISTIC
DISCOVERY with this note inserted.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Brian Boyd (FOA ENG)" <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz>

Late Entry

Although I knew the New York Times Forum was discussing my Nabokov's Pale
Fire in July, I had no time to look at the discussion, especially since I
knew I would become embroiled if I participated while it was evolving.
Circumstances reminded me of the discussion and then allowed me time to
access it, and I have sent in a response.

May I note two clusters of details that seem to strengthen the case I made
in the book? If you have not read my _Nabokov's Pale Fire_, please do not
read on
in this note, because I structure the book so that the interpretation I
propose is disclosed only after well over a hundred pages of engaging with
Pale Fire at successively deepening levels, rather than as a solution that
can bypass all the more immediate experience of the novel.

If, then, you have read Nabokov's Pale Fire, you will recall that I suggest
that Hazel's shade helps prompt Kinbote to develop the Zembla fantasy, and
then through his attempts to prompt Shade himself to write a poetic version
of the Charles II saga, inspires her father to write the long
autobiographical poem, "Pale Fire." One key component of the argument is
this: Unattractive Hazel, who takes after her physically unappealing father,
and not her beautiful mother, does not blossom into radiance herself as she
passes into adolescence; indeed, the problem of her looks only intensifies:

Another winter was scrape-scooped away.
The Toothwort White haunted our woods in May.
Summer was power-mowed, and autumn, burned.
Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned
Into a wood duck. And again your voice:
320 "But this is prejudice! You should rejoice
That she is innocent. Why overstress
The physical? She wants to look a mess.
Virgins have written some resplendent books.
Lovemaking is not everything. Good looks
Are not that indispensable!" And still
Old Pan would call from every painted hill,
And still the demons of our pity spoke:
No lips would share the lipstick of her smoke. . .

Kinbote helpfully explains Shade's reversal of the fairytale of The Ugly
Duckling (318-9) by noting that the wood duck with its complex dark
colorings is actually more splendid than the swan. Hazel, the dingy cygnet,
here seems identified not only with the dingy cygnet but also with the dingy
white butterfly, the Toothwort White (Pieris virginiensis [I note for the
first time the "virgin" in this name, not only reflecting Hazel's fate but
as if foreshadowing Lucette, who also drowns herself because convinced she
will never lose her virginity on the terms she craves]), in contrast to her
mother, repeatedly identified with the resplendent Red Admirable (Vanessa
atalanta). I suggest that Hazel survives death, and is transformed, that she
gains her mother's beauty, that the cygnet does turn into the richly hued
wood duck, that the Toothwort White does turn into the Red Admirable, indeed
into the particular Vanessa that Shade incorporates into the end of "Pale
Fire" and that greets him moments later, just as he is about to die, in an
exuberant frolic that Kinbote describes so hauntingly in the note to line
993. (See N's PF ch 9.)

A contributor to the New York Times Forum participating under the pseudonym
nnyhav suggests (posting #3619) that the name Vanessa "points to the Vane
Sisters." Surely this is right.

Remember that "The Vane Sisters" was published in Hudson Review in 1958-59,
and then in Encounter, in 1959, the year before VN began Pale Fire, with an
invitation from the author to solve the puzzle in the story, the first
successful solver to receive a prize; the solution was then explained by VN
in the next issue. VN knew, in other words, that "The Vane Sisters" and its
spectral solution were widely available for readers of Pale Fire.

That the "VaneSSa" is in a sense the ghost of a girl who was fascinated by
spiritualist phenomena and has committed suicide, and who now from the
beyond communicates, unrecognized, with someone else, seems even surer than
before when we remember that "The Vane Sisters" are Cynthia, who has a
strong belief in "intervenient auras," and Sybil, who commits suicide, and
who together, from the beyond, communicate with the narrator without his

In response to my record of the date of "The Vane Sisters," teddy174c (post
#4446) notes that if VN wrote PF with his revealed spectral solution to "The
Vane Sisters" in mind, "Hence repeat of Sybil--and Vanessa: Sybil
Vane--should prompt the reader familiar with the story, to look for similar
otherworldly 'signs' within PF."

Perfectly true. I had always wondered at VN's using the rather unusual name
Sybil for a major character in a work published for the first time in 1959
and then for his next new work of fiction, published in 1962, and now I see
why. And as I note in _Nabokov's Pale Fire_, VN repeatedly allows the reader
multiple pathways to his great surprises. On the other hand, the very
presence of "Sybil Vane" in "Sibyl - Vanessa" by itself is of course no
instant solution, since if it prompts us to look for the otherworldly, Sybil
is of course still alive. (I discuss Sybil as analogous to the White Queen
"in the way" of the solution to one of VN's chess problems, (N's PF 141).
Which is precisely why the eerie charge in the Vanessa needs to be resolved
by seeing that perhaps Hazel has metamorphosed from dingy white to
resplendent color, or in chess terms that she has now been promoted to
queen, that she now takes after her mother, she has become the Vanessa.

The second cluster of details does not arise from the Forum discussion, but
involved something I had long ago noted, and rediscovered in my notes only
as I was putting away the Pale Fire materials I had been working with in
response to the Forum exchange.

A central part of my argument is that Hazel, so dowdy and depressed in life,
seems to have been transformed into spiritual beauty and buoyancy in death.
She inspires in Kinbote, I suggest, images of Zembla, images that reflect or
refract in a wonderfully evocative key her own experience. Kinbote imagines
himself a king, his high value vouched for by the fact that he can be
desired even by the most adorable of women, like Fleur de Fyler, sitting so
memorably before a "cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really
fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She
turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite
number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful
groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual
nymphs" (note 80). But because of his serenely happy homosexuality, he can
only spurn these women, for all their singular beauty, without a twinge of
regret, in Fleur's case, or in Disa's, with night after night of remorse,
but only in his dreams.

Many parts of the Zembla story, passed on by an excited Kinbote, trigger key
memories in Shade, I suggest, and stir in him the idea for an
autobiographical poem whose centerpiece will be Hazel's suicide. The memory
of a television advertisement for some feminine beauty product that runs,
ironically, on the very night Hazel's unattractiveness leads to her death,
seems to be specifically triggered by the image of Fleur de Fyler as a
"nymph" before her mirror (I notice only now that the young woman in the
advertisement seems indeed, echoing Fleur's name, to have been a defiler of
flowers: "A nymph came pirouetting, under white / Rotating petals":
Nabokov's humor is never far away!). Shade describes the advertisement in
terms that echo the most celebrated image of female vanity in English
poetry, Belinda at her toilet in The Rape of the Lock (Shade of course is a
Pope specialist), but in a way that also evokes T.S. Eliot's image of a
beauty before her mirror in section II of The Waste Land (and Eliot's poetry
has been the occasion for the only instance in "Pale Fire" of direct
communication between the living Hazel and her parents).

If Hazel prompts Kinbote to imagine Fleur de Fyler, and thence prompts her
father to evoke a poignantly ironic echo of Belinda in a television
advertisement that reverses the image of Hazel's own sense of her
overwhelming ugliness on the night of her death, then what Belinda has to
say at the climax of The Rape of the Lock will prove oddly pertinent. After
the Baron, moved by her beauty, cuts off a lock of her hair, Belinda

Oh had I rather un-admir'd remain'd
In some lone Isle, or distant Northern Land;
Where the gilt Chariot never marks the Way,
Where none learn Ombre, none e'er taste Bohea! (IV.153-56)

We will return to that Ombre shortly, but for the moment what we as readers
of Pale Fire cannot help noticing is that Belinda's words here include the
closing words of the novel. The last entry in Pale Fire's Index, naturally
enough, is Zembla, but quite suprisingly, this entry contains no references
to any of the innumerable passages in which Kinbote evokes what he thinks
his lost kingdom: just "Zembla, a distant northern land."

Because of her beauty, because a man has been too forward with her, Belinda
wishes she could remain unadmired in some distant northern land. Because she
lacks beauty, because a man has spurned her, Hazel commits suicide, only to
discover beyond death, I have suggested, a new life of beauty opening up for
her after death and through the imagination, when she inspires Kinbote with
the idea of a distant northern land, and through him her father's image of a
woman on the TV screen who reflects both Pope's nymph and Eliot's vamp.

It would have been far more natural for Nabokov to have ended the Index by
making Kinbote lavishly pile up all the references to the Zembla he has
extolled throughout the commentary. But the entry breaks off suddenly at
"distant northern land." This has always puzzled me, although I have thought
that it perhaps is meant to indicate that, just as he adds the last touches
to his Index, Kinbote breaks down, unable to bear the accumulated weight of
his nostalgia, or rather, his realization that there was, after all, no lost
kingdom to be nostalgic about. (This seems to be hinted both by Véra's
letter to Walter Minton of January 4, 1962, quoted in The American Years,
463-4; "the last line of the book, its crucial line, its melting horizon,
with its suggestion of unfinished interrupted life, 'Zembla, a distant
northern land'--without any reference to verse or page"; and by the parallel
with Humbert's life hurrying to a close in the last lines of Lolita, as
Nabokov explained to Alfred Appel, Jr., in The Annotated Lolita: "I did
want, however, to convey a constriction of the narrator's sick heart, a
warning spasm causing him to abridge names and hasten to conclude his tale
before it was too late.")

Yet at the same time, surely, it seems that something else has made Nabokov
end, against the firm format of the Index, with three words thrust into
lingering focus by the surprise that they close the book so abruptly, that
they do not lead into a welter of entries. In a book saturated with Pope, we
will eventually discover that these three words come straight from The Rape
of the Lock, and we will ask, why does Nabokov end the novel by
foregrounding them and the allusion so emphatically?

Throughout his mock-epic, Pope plays deftly with the disparity between the
enormity of literal rape and the comparative triviality of the Baron's
merely cutting off a lock of Belinda's hair, which Belinda nevertheless has
reason to feel as an invasion of her person and as a kind of sexual assault,
as her lament unconsciously stresses: "Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to
seize / Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!" The phrase "distant
northern land" comes from earlier in Belinda's lament after the "rape," and
when Nabokov highlights the phrase so strikingly at the end of Pale Fire, he
surely invites us to ask why Kinbote's last words echo Belinda's.

Pope's heroine wishes she could have "unadmired remained / In some . . .
distant northern land" after the irresistible allure of her beauty has
driven a man to force himself on her. That Nabokov recalls these words at
the very end of the novel surely reinforces all the other suggestions that
the ultimate voice behind these words is the tragic heroine of Shade's poem,
who takes her own life precisely because her lack of beauty drives a man not
toward her but from her. If Belinda at her toilet adores her own beauty,
Hazel knows after Pete Dean's recoil from her she will never again be able
to bear looking in her mirror.

Hazel takes her life, but discovers a new world in death. She creates in
Kinbote's despair a sense of triumph, the mirror-world of Zembla, the land
of reflections. There, he can see his exile and alienation transfigured into
a story of adulation and escape. And there she can confront the image of
herself with a new sense of beauty and delight, as she conjures up Fleur de
Fyler and other images of women spurned, and through these and other Zemblan
images helps inspire her father to turn the story of her tragedy into his
greatest artistic triumph. Fleur at the mirror prompts Shade to recall or
construct a television advertisement of a nymph at her toilet in the woods,
in ironic echo of Belinda at her toilet, worshipping her own beauty.

Now Hazel can see herself in the mirror of death with an equanimity and
amusement and pride that were quite impossible in life, and that reverse all
the shallow vanity of Pope's Belinda. And when Kinbote's text breaks off
with a phrase of Belinda's bemoaning her loss, it is also Kinbote bemoaning
the end of his vision of himself, far from unadmired, in his distant
northern land; it is Hazel recalling herself, like Kinbote, being so
unadmired in New Wye; and it is Hazel and her father, so steeped in Pope,
signing themselves into Kinbote's Index, with a sense of the triumph and
delight that they have discovered in death and in each other.

I said we would return to the "Ombre" in Belinda's lines. This refers to the
fashionable card game to which she is addicted, although of course the name
means "shade" in French. Shade plays on the name in a rejected variant, "I
like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost 'man' / In Spanish . . . " (note to 275).
As Tony Fazio points out (Nabokovian 45), the first instance of "Ombre" in
The Rape of the Lock occurs in these lines:

Think not, when Woman's transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, oe'rlooks the Cards.
Her joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And love of Ombre, after Death survive. (I.51-56)

It can surely be no accident that John Shade muses throughout "Pale Fire"
about the death of his daughter and her possible survival after death, using
images of shade and shadow, and that on the cards in which he writes his
final day's lines, which it seems she overlooks, he declares: "I'm
reasonably sure that we survive / And that my darling somewhere is alive."
Pope's lines play with the idea of women surviving death only in order to
satirize female vanity and to set up the supernatural "machinery" of his
poem, the minuscule mock-gods of his mock-epic. Shade's lines borrow Pope's
very rhyme, but they are in deadly earnest. And yet he has no idea that in
fact there is a kind of supernatural machinery behind his poem, that Hazel,
such a contrast to the Belinda supposedly attended by the ghosts of dead
women, herself hovers around him and inspires him from death to write his
affirmation that she is "somewhere . . . alive."