Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0002659, Mon, 22 Dec 1997 12:29:50 -0800

Re: PF narrator? BOYD
EDITOR's NOTE. Brian Boyd <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz> presents the best of
all possible Xmas present to NABOKV-L's subscribers. The Shade/Kinbote
authorship enigma has been with us for 35 years. For those who are
"new" Nabokovians, the issue, simply put, is "Who is the (fictive) author
of PALE FIRE's) "Commentary" amd "Index."
The recent discussion on NABOKV-L has been vigorous, but for the
most part, longer on opinion than hard evidence. Several of the
anti-Shadeans (including your editor) have raised particular points.
Below, Brian Boyd offers by far the most detaile dargument in favor of the
Shadean faction (and rebuttal of the Kinbotean position). I would urge all
of us to re-read PF with Brian's comments in hand. It would be something of an
event in Nabokov studies if this question could be resolved in time for
the centennial.
While like others I welcome such wide discussion of the proposal that
Shade may have invented Kinbote and written his commentary (this is
the sort of thing the List is for!), I cannot help wishing those who
_reject_ the proposal would _argue_ their case rather than merely
report their dissatisfaction, their cringing, their dizziness or
other fascinating symptoms.

There are only five or six instances of argument I can see in the
List discussion so far (but fortunately the proportion of argument to
symptom-reporting is increasing): Suellen Stringer-Hye’s aphorisms;
Mark Chulsky’s efficient rebuttal of them; Don Johnson’s "Kinbote
knows Russian and there is no evidence that Shade does" (but this line
of argument could be used to prove that Nabokov couldn’t have written
either _Pale Fire_ or _Ada_, since there is no evidence, outside the
Zemblan in _Pale Fire_ and the Dutch in _Ada_, that he knew any
Scandinavian languages or any Dutch: it is very possible for an
inventive wordsmith with a particular purpose to do enough poking into
another language to play a little with its lexicon); Mary Bellino’s
"the Shadeans cannot account for Botkin" (I have been a Shadean for
over 25 years and have never had any more problems than anyone else
accounting for Botkin, whom I include as part of my Shadean reading at
_VNAY_ 433-5 and 444; see also Sergey Ilin); Sergey Ilin’s details
(with Don Johnson’s counterargument about Russian, already
counter-counter-argued above, and his acceptance of the epigraph as
counting in Shade’s favor); and Wayne Daniel’s argument against
excessive complexity (all I can report is my own experience: I have
never enjoyed any other novel as much as _Pale Fire_, both when I
first read it at 17, following every cross-reference and so in effect
reading much of it twice or three times, before I was a Shadean, and
when I re- and re- and re-read it for the first time, still at 17, now
a Shadean, when I enjoyed it still more; I reread it every so often,
with the same excitement, and always prepared to dump the Shadean
reading, and always startled by the plethora of details that insist I
adopt it).

As Alexander Dolinin suggests, interested readers should certainly
look up David Lodge’s Nabokov chapter in _The Practice of Writing_,
although Lodge seems not to understand either my evidence or my
argument. But at least he advances a counter-argument, which I look
forward to addressing in the right place. Yet like many of the
contributors to the list, he completely overlooks the problematic
details in _Pale Fire_ that drive many readers to the conclusion that
there is something in the novel that needs more explanation than the
megalomania and paranoia of Kinbote or Botkin. All right, the
Shade-as-author solution to these interlocking problems may be wrong,
but Nabokov _has_ gone to a great deal of imaginative trouble to pose
the problems. Surely they cannot really be ignored.

If they are faced up to, the question then is, can they be solved
more adequately in some other way than through Shade as author? Quite
possibly they can (I know there is a great deal in _Pale Fire_ I
don’t understand yet), but I wish those who disagree with the
solution some of us propose would try to explain more than we do and
not, by ignoring the problems the novel poses, a good deal less.

As Don Johnson comments of the discussion so far, it has been very
general. Can I just remind readers of a very few of the problems, the
suspicious particulars, that no one seems to want to recall?

The dates (Shade, Kinbote and Gradus all share the same birthday,
surely a strikingly gratuitous coincidence if it leads nowhere; the
Shadow Gradus is assigned the killing of Kinbote--which will lead to
his slaying Shade--on the very day Shade writes "I was the shadow of
the waxwing slain," on the very day according to the Shadean
hypothesis when Shade begins to write a poem right at the end of
which he will feign his own death).

The names (Kinbote, who has written a book on surnames--a clear
Nabokovian hint that we should look closely at and think about his
name--has a name that means the bote or compensation "given by a
murderer to the family of the victim").

The echoes (the waxwing-like bird in Charles II’s coat of arms; the
reflection of his red outfit and the deep-blue sky in a pool as he
escapes from Zembla, in a striking echo of the red-streaked waxwing
and the azure reflected sky of the poem’s opening lines; the
clockwork Negro gardener and barrow at the end of Canto 1, just
before Shade is first "Tugged at by playful death," and the clock,
the Negro gardener and barrow at the end of Canto 4, just before he
apparently steps off to his death; Shade says he is "ready to become
a floweret or a fat fly, but never to forget," and Kinbote and Botkin
are each equated with fat flies [Kinbote: "an elephantine tick; a
king-sized botfly; a macaco worm [Webster’s Second: "the larva of a
botfly (_Dermatobia hominis_), parasitic on man and monkeys in South
America"]; the monstrous parasite of genius, "171-72; Botkin, "king-
bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought
to have hastened their phylogenetic end," 306; a connection first
noticed by Shadean Chris Ackerley of Dunedin, New Zealand, and again
pointed out to me privately by another Shadean, John Morris of
Washington, D.C.]); the name of the man who kills Shade, if reversed
as in a mirror, yields "Sudarg of Bokay," "a mirror-maker of genius,"
and Shade, in a mirror image of genius, says he imagines projecting
himself beyond death, and living on in a reflected sky—a realm that
has striking similarities with "blue inenubilable Zembla," the "land
of reflections").

The allusions (the Case of the Reversed Footprints that Shade
mentions in his poem just after the waxwing image actually refers to
two Holmes stories, "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House": in the
first, Holmes lets us all believe he has died by plunging into an
abyss and remains in apparent death long enough for Watson to write
up the story; in the second Holmes returns, explains how he had made
it seem he died, and arranges for himself to be shot, by setting up a
_wax_ image of himself whose _shadow_ cast on the _window_ lures a
killer to shoot at it).

The title (it has wonderful resonances throughout the novel as a
whole, but what significance does it have in the poem alone? what
reason would _Shade_ have for choosing "Pale Fire" as the title for
his poem, why would he draw on Shakespeare in that way, if he had no
plan to show the poem and the commentary taking from and giving to
each other?)

Perhaps these striking connections are all chance or senseless design
(but can anyone who knows Nabokov or who reads Shade’s equation of
"coincidence" with "a web of sense" really believe that?), or perhaps
they can be explained in some way other than by seeing Shade as
author. Simply ignoring the countless individual problems of _Pale
Fire_ and their cumulative effect does not seem a profitable critical
response to the novel; and if one actually tries to account for them,
I know of no explanation yet proposed as an alternative to Shadean
authorship that does explain these riddling allusions, echoes,
connections and coincidences (Kinbote’s borrowing from the poem might
perhaps account for some--although his impositions on the poem
usually seem comically gross, not sublimely subtle--but certainly not
for other crucial instances like the Holmes allusion, or the fat fly,
or the conjunction of "the contrapuntal theme . . . not text, but
texture," "Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind of correlated
pattern in the game," and "Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble
grows, And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose. // _Man’s life
as commentary to asbtruse / Unfinished poem_. Note for further use"
in a poem pointedly "unfinished" in that its last couplet line is

May I just pose one final question?

Nabokov thought deception an integral part of art: "Art is a magical
deception, as all nature is magic and deception" (_EO_ 3:498); "all
art is deception and so is nature" (_SO_ 11); "Deceit, to the point
of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my
notions of strategy" (_SM_ 289). In his own practice he became ever
more deceptive as he moved from his straightforward early verse
(although even in 1918 he developed a sudden interest in metrical
variety, to the extent of encoding a secret diagram of the Great Bear
in the metrical schema of a poem about the constellation) to the
increasing complexity of his work from _The Defense_ to _Ada_ and
_Transparent Things_.

Nabokov, who wrote that "Poets are the best exponents of the art of
deception" ("Lermontov’s Dream"), called Shade "by far the greatest
of _invented_ poets" (_SO_ 59). Now that means he thought Shade a far
greater poet than even Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the one other
unquestionably major writer he created. Fyodor, like Nabokov, begins
with somewhat insipid and transparent verse (although by the time of
his work at about the age of 25, quoted in Chapter 1 of _The Gift-_,
not nearly as guileless as Nabokov’s more youthful verse) and becomes
steadily more deceptive and complex as he turns to prose, in his
abandoned life of his father, then in his life of Chernyshevsky, and
especially in the complex deceptions of his autobiographical novel
_The Gift_ itself (in announcing his plan to write _The Gift_, he
comments that "The most enchanting things in nature and art are based
on deception," 376).

Now Shade, when we meet his work, is much older (61) than Fyodor
(about 32 by the time he writes his greatest and most deceptive work
so far, _The Gift_ itself). One might therefore expect, from the
example of Nabokov and of his one previous invented writer of genius,
that Shade by late in his career would have become far more deceptive
even than Fyodor. Shade too articulates his own conviction of the
importance of deceptiveness in art ("I am also in the habit of
lowering a student's mark catastrophically if he uses `simple' and
`sincere' in a commendatory sense; examples: `Shelley's style is
always very simple and good'; or `Yeats is always sincere.' This is
widespread, and when I hear a critic speaking of an author's
sincerity I know that either the critic or the author is a fool,"
156), yet his own magnum opus seems perfectly straightforward (if
hardly "simple") and "sincere." Shade also has a burning conviction
of something deceptive in life, in the hiddenness of what is behind
life, that he articulates again and again in "Pale Fire", especially
in the "not text, but texture" passage, and implies that he resolves
to mimic the hidden designers of life:

It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns;
Kindling a long life here, extinguishing
A short one there.

Now if Nabokov thought Shade by far the greatest of invented poets,
if he thought deceptiveness intrinsic to art and poetry in
particular, if he had reason to expect an artist to become more
deceptive as he became more practiced at his art, if he had made a
lesser poet than Shade highly deceptive, if he makes Shade explicitly
decry the notion that art is simple and sincere, if he gives Shade
his own conviction that life itself is a deceptive game, if he has
Shade say he wants to play that secret game himself, does it not seem
odd that what he presents as the very evidence that Shade is "by far
the greatest of _invented_ poets" is a poem that seems to show a
homely "fireside poet" (80) and offers "an autobiographical,
eminently Appalachian, rather old-fashioned narrative" (296) that
seems anything but deceptive, and to many readers even seems
embarrassingly domestic and direct?

If on the other hand "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain" actually
hints at Shade’s intention to project himself beyond death, into a
world of reflections, in a manner beyond the image in these lines,
then the poem is indeed highly deceptive, the work of an
extraordinary imagination, and as committed to the inventive
exploration of death as it says throughout it is.