Subject:Re: [NABOKV-L] Botkin
From:Jerry Friedman <email@example.com>
Date:Sat, 4 Sep 2010 10:24:29 -0700
To:Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>
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,
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?
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?
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.
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?
Understanding these questions might take us a long way toward incorporating Botkin into the novel’s world.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Incidentally, has anyone ever thought about CK's odd comment about "Zemblan anatomy"? Huh?