NABOKV-L post 0017920, Fri, 13 Mar 2009 12:03:29 -0700

Re: THOUGHTS: More bits of S in K, and vice-versa

MR: I should not have said that the New Wye scenes are a "fantasy," because I do think they have a degree of reality to them that the Zembla scenes do not. They are based on real events and people, but they have been re-collected by an unstable mind that can't distinguish between actual events and confabulations. The Faculty Club/encyclopedia scene is crucial to understanding this and can't be explained away without some extreme conjectural contortions (such as the idea that whenever Kinbote mentions Zembla, he is, in the real New Wye, actually saying Russia). Likewise, do we really believe in the accuracy of the contrived dialogue between Shade and Kinbote in notes like 549? I do not.
JA's re: This is a mouthful. Well, I don't think generally speaking, through out the novel, Kinbote ever mentions his relationship to Zembla to anyone but Shade, the whole thing being his well guarded secret. He does, I recall, show a picture of Zembla's king to the dreaded Gerald Emerald, who thinks he looks gay, or whatever the term was, leading us ever after to wonder if Zembla does or does not exist in the "real" world of the novel. Though I would assume he spoke directly about Zembla, not Russia; this would explain the faculty wife in the store who wonders how Shade and Sybil can stand him, that she considers him to be quite insane. I should think it would be much more goofy imagining Shade himself confronting this faculty wife in the grocery store and having her tell  Shade, to his face, she doesn't know how Shade can stand himself! All right this scene didn't happen. So which ones did? Is there a stylistic marker, like Bunnuelle's
tinkling bells in the film Belle de Jour signifying when we can assume events stopped being actual? As to the question of strained contortions this was always a constant  feature and danger to Nabokov's work, compositionally speaking. As a writer, I've always found it funny the way he has Kinbote and Hermann Karlovich notice things for the reader's benefit they then doggedly pretend not to have noticed--a problem Nabokov only solved in Lolita, I think, where he came up with the simple elegant trick of having Humbert retrospectively realize most everything he dramatized missing. Thus 2: Do we really believe in the contrived dialogue of note to line 549.? Nope, but I'm not so sure this is a "tell" to the reader that the incident didn't happen at all. It's an inevitable problem of the nature and structure of first person accounts pretending to be journals or notes, even by sane characters--they're larded up with dialogue and novelistic
attributions no one in real life would ever use--which Nabokov himself made fun of while simultaneously indulging. True, he does want you to question it, but how far? Let's take "The Vane Sisters" as an example. Now that would seem to be a genuine ghost story (Nabokov's early 1950s letter to Katherine White tells so) but let's imagine this weren't a story a real claim, that someone were actually trying to pass off that acrostic as a ghostly intervention. It would obviously be a phony: the super-sleek styling that is the result of calculation and numerous retwritings, all those allusions to trick reading, including the mention of a story within the story whose last paragraph contains a code hidden it so as to mirror readers to that whay lays hidden in its own text--come on, we'd think, the whole thing was clearly thought out just to get us to find that message, someone's having us on, again. I mean, are we supposed to believe that ghosts traffic
in trick expositonal techniques? Seems like a good old fashioned ectoplasmic appearance would be simpler than, say, getting Nabokov to write something he did not want to. My point is that the conventions of first person fiction foist these stylizations onto any given work, even when the intention was serious; Nabokov uses this for humorous effects, to destabilize the reality of the situations depicted, but to me it just seems likes it's a way to goose the reader to wonder about the motivations of the narrator, or his take on certain situations, while still keeping things for the most part status quo "realistically" speaking. I.E. I did think that scene happened pretty much the way Kinbote says it did, because the stylization is a convention of first person narratives. However I suspect that Kinbote, in seeing things his own way, has gifted himself a gusty eloquence so that he dominates the argument while Shade is allowed only a couple of refreshing
 Given these scenes, is your assertion that "N. wanted the "reality" of Zembla to remain ambiguous, but not that of New Wye" at least questionable? 
JA's re: Interesting question. I
Of course one could argue that these unbelievable scenes are just mistakes, or fancies, or that as readers we need to suspend our disbelief a little. Fair enough, as long as we recognize that EVERY theory of Pale Fire resorts to that argument on one point or another. I should say, also, that I have never found that the revelation of a secondary personality detracts from my enjoyment of the drama and humor of the New Wye scenes. The scenes still play out before our eyes, whether or not we believe they happened that way on some level of fictional reality. As for your point that if Kinbote's New Wye narrative is unreal, then we can't discern whether anything is "true" or not, I have to disagree. After all, we still have Shade's poem, which, though it contains its own evasions, gives us ample ground to stand on. That is why I say that the poem is the cantus firmus, the fixed line. When we fold (like a carpet) the commentary back over the top of it, we
experience the poem's melody in a strange new way but the melody remains, at its core, a fundamental reality from which the rest spirals out.
JA: I don't think it's admirable to be vague and washy, and I think if N had wanted us to find this sort of reading it would be very concretely and consciously there, and would have been discovered years ago. 
MR: I think it is to VN's credit that his novels are still revealing themselves half a century later. The secondary personality theory is not really new; it is simply a re-working of the Shadean theory that has been around almost as long as PF itself. I think there is a reason that VN didn't denounce Bader's interpretation when she came out with it. He knew that she didn't have the whole thing yet, but she had peeled back some layers of the novel that needed peeling. When did the statute of limitations for discovering things run out?
JA: The correlated details work 1. as a parody/exaltation of criticism; 2. as a comic dramatic form of characterization. We go from seeing Kinbote as he sees himself to a kind of understanding of who he "really" is; as we suspect he must be. The zembla fantasy and it's relationship to the world of New Wye provide fun, humor and pathos--they dramatze a portrait of a man drowning in himself,  a man who is anything but a king in life. Worse, even in his own fantasy--and this is the particularly Nabokovian touch--the poor self-loathing creature manages to exile himself from his own made up kingdom! How then could these details be considered in any way superfluous to the plot?
MR: I was not as clear as I should have been. I did not mean to say that either the whole Zembla plot or the poem-commentary structure of the book serve merely as ornament. I meant to say that those "covert concords," the more subtle consonant details, are more richly integrated into the plot when we see Kinbote and Shade as one person.
CK: To this I would add that Kinbote's annotation to l. 949 is actually addressed to a doctor.
MR: Yes, but Humbert Humbert often addresses himself to the "jury." It does not follow that he wrote his memoir in a courtroom.
Sergei: Second, is that Kinbote as Botkin could very well know the "Song..." and these werewolf references, but it is hardly imaginable in case of Shade.
MR: "The Vseslav Epos" was published in 1949. Perhaps Prof. Pnin (Szeftel) gave John Shade a copy!
For those still interested in what VN knew about fractured personalities, I recommend reading chapter II of Myers' Human Personality, while keeping in mind that this is not ALL of what VN knew:

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