Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004780, Fri, 18 Feb 2000 16:53:11 -0800

Re: Pale Fire & homophobia (fwd)
Tom Bolt writes:

> So far, the tone and approach of the arguments on
> this subject have been not far above the level of
> "Nabokov must have been a pedophile, or else
> he wouldn't have written LOLITA."

I beg to differ. No one has remotely suggested that VN was a homosexual;
obviously the possibility is quite the reverse. The argument is, perhaps,
taking the stance that because VN writes negatively about homosexuals he must
have been a homophobe. I wish I could say in that sentence "allows his
narrator to write negatively" -- but (whatever one's narrator theory may be
vis à vis this text) there is no denying that VN has created a laughably
self-deluded character who is also homosexual.
Tom also writes:

> Robert Myers refers to "something at the heart of
> PALE FIRE...the homophobia inherent in the
> work." Doesn't cite examples. Is it really a
> given? Or just a feeling? A suspicion?

Examples are too numerous (and obvious) to mention. Near everything the
character of Kinbote does reinforces the stereotype "homosexual = damaged",
and in this case the damage is further embodied as Kinbote's madness. The
intention, it seems to me, is that madness and homosexuality in a sense
"confirm" one another. This would not be dissimilar from making an
African-American character also a very stupid character -- which has created
some problems for a famous 19th century American novel (or two) -- and is
similarly indefensible. (Let us, however, leave the question of Huck Finn, at
least, aside for the moment, as the authorial "intention" -- if I may be
allowed to use this currently unfashionable term -- is clearly in opposition
to the prevailing racial attitudes of the time. Again, this is not the case
with Pale Fire -- there is no apparent recognition of "the homosexual's
plight in (American) society" (to coin -- or quote -- the kind of "general
topic" phrase VN surely hated -- and rightly) or need for its change -- nor,
I might add, need there be. But this further confirms VN's seemingly careless
attitude toward homosexuals and how they might be offended by this work.)
Further, Tom writes:

> Aldo Alvarez says, in his more interesting ramble
> around the topic:
> There IS something to questioning Nabokov's representation of queers,
> but it's not a question of it being Bad or Good Art or having it fit
> into a Politically Correct canon. It's a question of trying to
> understand something about this particular text's relationship to the
> subject.
> However--What subject, good lord?

The subject in question, i.e. homosexuality and VN's relation to it.

Is Aldo Alvarez
> saying that "the subject" of PALE FIRE is homosexuality?

Not remotely.

> This assertion also needs an argument. Also--are we really
> to understand that Vladimir Nabokov needed Firbank, Benson,
> and camp to get to frivolity, irony, and indeterminacy?

There are certainly parallels to be made here: whether VN "needed them" or
not, his text shares (to some extent) the flavor of theirs.

Tom goes on:

Shouldn't a charge as serious
> homophobia have a serious basis?

If, Tom, you seriously believe that the presentation of homosexuality in PF
is not negative, I would challenge you to point out how it is not. In this
case, given the amount of material from each side of the argument, the burden
surely must be placed on your side. After all, there is hardly a phrase from
Kinbote's pen or mouth that doesn't drip with (authorial) contempt.
And let's also have the juicy
> counter-examples, the smugness of the "grinning
> old males" and "rubicund convives" who blandly
> dominate the academic world of the book -- who
> but Kinbote could show them from such an acute
> and peculiar angle?

But whether this is not, in fact, further a negative side of Kinbote (whom we
are, as we all know, encouraged to believe is mad) ought also to be
considered. In any case, the sexual orientation of the "g.o.m.s" and "r.c.s"
is not at issue in these caricatures.
Tom concludes:

> PALE FIRE is a demanding book: it tests our intellects,
> our emotions, and even our prejudices. It calls for
> an approach, an engagement by us as readers, that
> can begin to meet its challenges. But isn't that also
> the fun of it?

No one here has denied any of these things: several gay and non-anti-gay
writers on the list have indicated (as do I -- one of the gay ones) that it
is one of their favorite books. But I must add that this is despite its
treatment of homosexuality, which is perhaps best described as "demeaning,
though very funny." (Rather like Dame Edna Everage's avowal that she has been
given a great gift: the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.) God
knows no one is calling for a ban on it (Lord!) but hadn't we best recognize
that there is a human failing (very rare, indeed, in Nabokov's writing) lying
at the heart of this book?

Christopher Berg