Re: [NABOKV-L] Botkin
Jerry Friedman <>
Sat, 4 Sep 2010 10:24:29 -0700
Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>

Especially after reading Matt Roth's comments, I'd like to ask Anthony Stadlen and anyone else who might know: Was I right in suspecting that Kinbote's mentions of Botkin are "psychologically strange"?  Or are people with such delusions known to refer to their original selves, not as overtly the same person, but revealing that they still know of some connection?

And how likely is it that what Kinbote writes about the escape from Zembla in August through October would match what he told Shade in May and June?  Or how likely is it that reading Shade's poem would have influenced details of that story?

On Tue, Aug 31, 2010 at 10:21 AM, John Morris <> wrote:

Number 4 is the only one I've ever considered as a possible "real story".  Botkin is a Russian scholar who goes mad, possibly as the result of cerebral sclerosis, and believes himself to be the former king of Zembla now living in exile under the name Charles Kinbote.  [...]

This endorsement of the above “real story of Botkin” is interesting and sensible,

Thanks!  But what I actually believe is that there's no real story.

though it leaves unanswered questions about Kinbote/Botkin’s adventures in New Wye, as Jerry points out later in his post.  Here are a few others:


Is CK/VB kidding, or lying, in the several places where he quotes others as addressing him as “Charles” or “Dr. Kinbote”? [...] I take the point that faculty members have to tolerate a good deal of eccentricity, but would they really go so far as to call their mad colleague by a false name?

Oddly enough, a colleague recently sent an e-mail informing all us fellow employees that he was changing his last name.  "Okay," I thought, "I'll try to remember that."  Of course, he's sane, but as I said before, it's not clear what Kinbote's colleagues know about his insanity and when.  And what if some dean had said, "I know he seems crazy, but he's still capable of teaching, and we can't replace him till fall, so I think we'd better humor him"?


Most curious of all is the commentary to line 894 in which CK/VB maintains that he is often half-recognized as King Charles, and narrates a scene in which Shade and several other faculty members discuss Zembla and the King. (266-69).  Is there a way to interpret this scene consistently with the “no Zembla in the world of ‘Pale Fire’” theory?

Not that I can see.  Nor can I see a way to interpret it consistently with a setting in 1959, given Shade's Johnsonian style.  Except that Kinbote made it up.


Zembla’s existence or non-existence may be connected with the generally skewed geography of “Pale Fire”’s world.   A face-value reading of the Commentary gives us a world that contains New Wye, Cedarn, and a number of other unreal places – along with Zembla.  Is this all part of CK/VB’s delusion?  Has CK/VB invented a fanciful geography for his adopted country, in addition to a fanciful country of origin?  There’s an interesting passage in the commentary to line 287 in which Sybil tells CK/VB that they are traveling to either Wyoming or Utah or Montana.  Ten minutes later, Dr. A. tells CK/VB “in stolid detail” that in fact the Shades will stay at a ranch at Cedarn in Utana on the Idoming border.  Thus, within less than a page, we go from the geography of our own world to the invented geography of “Pale Fire.”  We might read this as another attempt to “blur the reality” of what happens in the novel, confronting us with mutually exclusive geographies in the same way that both Zembla and not-Zembla appear to coexist.

I've had the same thought.  Another possibility is that Kinbote invents Utana, etc., to disguise the place where he's hiding from Prof. C. and Prof. H., but why bother appending a falsely named place to his Foreword?

The question remains, though, how Kinbote and not-Kinbote (that is, Botkin) can coexist.

[...] Is V. Botkin the Great Beaver?  Is he the flamboyant character we know as Charles Kinbote?  Is that all he is?  Is there another personality called “Botkin” who leads some other, presumably quieter, life?

Or led?  I presume the Botkin personality doesn't tell people about the king's escape from Zembla.  Otherwise I don't know what we can say about how similar he is to Kinbote--except that tantalizing remark about the happy, healthy, heterosexual.

Understanding these questions might take us a long way toward incorporating Botkin into the novel’s world.

Or to think about the possible function of the blurring.

R. S. Gwynn wrote:
I find this very interesting.  My own theory is that Botkin was a professor at another college who was involved in a sex scandal that wrecked his career there.  He was married, and that went down the drain as a result.  He had some money (the "powerful Kramler") and some connections and was able to land a job, perhaps temporary, at Wordsmith.  His ex-wife may have lived in Washington, as he reports a mysterious trip there in his notes.  As a result of the scandal, he may have changed his name to get the other job, or that may have been a result of his madness.  Thus, Zembla is a metaphor for the school he previously taught at and presumably had tenure (like a king) at.  Perhaps there was some kind of witch hunt that caused him to leave the place, and this led to the Zembla delusions, which mostly seem to come from the novels of Anthony Hope and Elinor Glyn and a lot of bad movies from the 20s.

And operettas?

Thanks, because none of the above had ever occurred to me.  Though I find it hard to see Zembla as a metaphor for or a delusional version of Kinbote's previous job, since most of his emphasis is on his boyhood and youth.  Maybe it's his whole life before his madness.  We could speculate endlessly on what Botkin's life might have been like, keeping in mind that if Kinbote's claimed birthdate is reliable, he wouldn't remember pre-Communist Russia.
By the time he is at Wordsmith he has changed his name by inverting it (remember that "inversion" is an old term).  The visiting professor may be attempting to "sound him out" re. the depths of his delusion, but Gerald Emerald (not the most reliable source, btw) does go to an encyclopedia to find an article on Zembla.  Maybe it exists, maybe not.  If there is in fact a "real" Zembla with a king-in-hiding, Botkin has latched onto it as part of his madness.  We do know that Kinbote/Botkin was in fact a reputable scholar who, according to Shade, wrote a book on surnames.

It depends on what you mean by "know".  The book exists according to Shade according to Kinbote, and it's in that same scene with the dubious encyclopedia and "Nay, sir."  Also, what was the name of that book's author?  Maybe "Kinbote", though in the same note Kinbote associates that name with "the mirror of exile".  If not, has Shade just given away Kinbote's identity as Botkin or the king?  If he has, why doesn't Kinbote comment, the way he does when Oswin Bretwit gives away information?

Yet another clue in that same dubious scene is that Shade looks like Goldsworth, and I think few readers are inclined to disregard that.

One of these days I hope to be able to put all of these speculations into some kind of more coherent form.  Kinbote's reflections on his religion and on the suffering of his ex-wife are the parts of the novel I find most disturbing emotionally, and I don't think there is any faking on VN's part here.

I think there's some parody of Kinbote's overdramatization.
The man sees himself as a sinner and is guilty about the results of his behavior, though not strong enough to change it.  The "reality" of Botkin, who morphs into Kinbote/Charles X., is part of the novel's fascinating puzzle--as are such minor things as the references to Donald O'Donnell (Odon and, perhaps, Nodo) and others, who may have been "real" characters who have also morphed into their parts in Kinbote's delusions.

Another thought: when Shade says that he may have guessed Kinbote's "secret," he may be referring to the fact that Kinbote is the disgraced Botkin, not Charles X.
Another interesting point.

Incidentally, has anyone ever thought about CK's odd comment about "Zemblan anatomy"?  Huh?

An outstanding example of building an imaginary country down to tiny details?  And what is the thing about female armpit hair in Pale Fire and Ada?  Is it interesting that Kinbote doesn't mention male armpit hair, as far as I remember?

Jerry Friedman
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