Has anyone connected /Pale Fire/ with /The Cream of the Jest/ (1917), by James Branch Cabell?
First among the similarities is the structure. TCotJ is the story of a recently deceased Virginian writer, Felix Kennaston, told by his neighbor, Richard Harrowby. In the first chapter, Harrowby introduces his project, saying that he will not try to duplicate the recent biography, but rather will explain how Kennaston suddenly became possessed of genius. The next few chapters are the first draft of the ending of Kennaston's first novel, in which a character reveals himself to be the author's stand-in. Harrowby then returns for most of the book, narrating how Kennaston finished his novel and what occurred as he was writing the next one. (There's no index, though.)
Harrowby is not Kinbotean. Mostly he's indistinguishable from an omniscient narrator, and when he does appear, any humor is far more subtle than Kinbote's egotism. The humor of the book is in scenes with Kennaston, and not all of it is very subtle.
Harrowby's description of Kennaston is reminiscent of Kinbote's description of Shade: "The man could create beauty, to outlive him; but in his own appearance he combined grossness with insignificance, and he added thereto a variety of ugly senseless little mannerisms." Unlike Kinbote, Harrowby says he disliked Kennaston and gives no reason to think Kennaston liked him.
Then the romantic imaginary world, Poictesme, not entirely unlike a medieval Zembla, but it's Kennaston's (not Harrowby's) fantasy world--also the setting of many of Cabell's other novels.
Another similarity is Kennaston's quest for hidden knowledge. It's not about death, though. Using half of a mysterious "sigil" that he seems to have created in his first novel, he can dream of his unattainable heroine Ettare, who he meets at various times and places in history. He gets nowhere in understanding how this happens, so he uses his new historical knowledge to try to understand "Why is a Kennaston?" After a good deal of cynicism and irony, he arrives at a theory much like Shade's: just as he put himself in his fantasy world, "Kennaston seemed to glimpse an Artist-God, with a commendable sense of form--Kennaston's fellow craftsman--the earth as that corner of the studio wherein the God was working just now, and all life as a romance the God was inditing..." (Ellipsis in original.)
But his God, unlike Shade's, has concentrated on life on earth, leaving non-living matter (on earth and in space) in ugly asymmetry.
Another similarity is that both Kennaston and Harrowby write beautifully in an elaborate style, with occasional rare words, that closely resembles their author's style.
The main thing that made me compare the books, though, is the end of Kennaston's quest. He shows Harrowby the sigil, which Harrowby recognizes as the lid of the cold cream that his company makes and Kennaston's wife (now dead) used. Harrowby is too kind to disillusion Kennaston, but he brings up the possibility of a mundane explanation, and Kennaston explains "the one great thing the sigil taught me—that everything in life is miraculous. For the sigil taught me that it rests within the power of each of us to awaken at will from a dragging nightmare of life made up of unimportant tasks and tedious useless little habits, to see life as it really is, and to rejoice in its exquisite wonderfulness. If the sigil were proved to be the top of a tomato-can, it would not alter that big fact, nor my fixed faith. No Harrowby, the common names we call things by do not matter—except to show how very dull we are." This reminded me of Shade's less certain belief that began with apparent evidence of the supernatural but survived apparent disproof of the evidence.
There are also minor similarities. Shade mentions "Hurricane Lolita", and Kennaston's first novel becomes a best-seller as a result of being criticized as indecent. (This is exactly what happened to Cabell's novel /Jurgen/, published several years /after/ TCotJ--I wonder whether he planned that.) By the way, the word "nympholept" appears, describing men who are obsessed with unattainable women.
Kennaston and Harrowby live in Virginia, and Shade and Kinbote live in either Virginia or West Virginia. This is one of the few points that could be a deliberate hint from VN. However, Cabell's Lichfield, based on Richmond, is not Nabokov's college town in the hills.
Sybil Shade is a member of women's clubs, and Mrs. Kennaston supplemented the family's income by lecturing at women's clubs before Kennaston inherited his uncle's fortune. However, the Kennastons' distant relationship doesn't resemble the Shades' as described by either Shade or Kinbote (except that both couples have separate bedrooms).
Kennaston gets cryptic hints about small mirrors (and white pigeons) in connection with the sigil. In a mildly Kinbotean inversion, the sigil is illustrated on the frontispiece, and when turned upside-down, it can be read.
Did VN read TCotJ? I have no idea. All I can find is that Wilson recommended his /New Yorker/ article praising Cabell in a letter of April 24, 1956 (278 in /Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya/). "He has certain things in common with Volodya, of whom I was sometimes reminded in reading him." (I must speculate that among the ways to recommend something to Nabokov, that would have been one of the least effective.) Similarities include a fondness for sometimes obvious anagrams, an elaborate style, and an interest in fictional creation that doesn't need anything to do with reality, especially not with reality's social problems. If Nabokov did read Cabell, I have no idea whether he would have seen anything to use or surpass.
Both writers read widely and eclectically, so we shouldn't be surprised to find the occasional coincidence. Harrowby's wife says of her husband's cosmetics business, "I look upon him in a new light, so to speak, when I realize that daily he is gladdening Calcutta with his soaps, delighting London with his dentifrice, and comforting Nova Zembla with his talcum powder." I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, and "I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this..."
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