NABOKV-L post 0015473, Wed, 12 Sep 2007 10:28:38 -0400

Subject
WIP/THOUGHTS: Nabokov, Ovid, Dante
Date
Body
Dear list,

Since this forum has been so instrumental in shaping my own ideas about VN's work, I thought I would share a couple of connections I've posited in my essay-in-progress, tentatively titled "Nabokov, Shakespeare, Ovid: Darker Metamorphoses in Pale Fire." I won't go into the whole argument here--or into all of my evidence--but in short, my essay argues that there is a pattern of allusions within Pale Fire that leads us through Ovid, Shakespeare, Eliot and Dante (plus a few others). These allusions consistently involve human-into-beast metamorphoses (especially human-into-wolf), cannibalism, and ultimately incest. What follows are a couple of examples.

Prior to this first excerpt, I've argued that Shade's mother's maiden name, Lukin, together with Kinbote's numerous references to New Wye as Arcady, should lead us to Ovid's story of Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who after serving Zeus a hash of human flesh is turned into a wolf.

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Still more evidence for the link between Shade and the king of Arcadia can be found when we compare Ovid’s account of Lycaon’s transformation with a passage from Shade’s poem. Here first is the translation from Ovid given in Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves:
In vain he attempted to speak; from that very instant
His jaws were bespluttered with foam, and only he thirsted
For blood, as he raged among the flocks and panted for slaughter.
His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked;
A wolf,*he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression,
Hoary he is as afore, his countenance rabid,
His eyes glitter savagely still, the picture of fury. (10)
At first blush, this seems like nothing we encounter in “Pale Fire,” yet a closer inspection of Shade’s fourth canto reveals several unmistakable correlations. Throughout the canto, Shade seems to promise revelations that never quite materialize. In the first four lines (P. 335-338) Shade claims that he will cry and try and do unlike any before him, but this is quickly followed by a description of his poetic process which, while interesting, does not seem to reveal anything particularly remarkable. After relating his episode of somnambulism, Shade moves on to a lengthy discussion of his bathing and shaving habits which lasts, with a few interruptions, nearly fifty lines. Within this section, Shade says that he will “speak of evil and despair,” but he again follows this promise with what seem to be more mundane details about his grooming, mixed in with a few complaints about music, academics, and psychologists.
If, however, we look at this section again in light of Ovid’s telling of the Arcadian myth, we may see that Shade was indeed revealing more “of evil and despair” than is first apparent. The passage begins with an excerpt from an imagined biography, in which we see Shade in his bathtub: “And with his toe renewing tap-warmth, he’d / Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed” (P. 893-894). Kinbote, then, is not the only character in New Wye who imagines himself a king.Shade goes on to describe his appearance as he shaves:
The more I weigh, the less secure my skin;
In places it’s ridiculously thin;
Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick
And my grimace, invites the wicked nick.
Or this dewlap: some day I must set free
The Newport Frill inveterate in me.
My Adam’s apple is a prickly pair:
Now I shall speak of evil and despair
As none has spoken. Five, six, seven, eight,
Nine strokes are not enough. Ten. I palpate
Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess
And find unchanged that patch of prickliness. (P. 895-906)
Here we see Shade, “like a king,” describing himself in images remarkably similar to those used by Ovid. Lycaon’s “vesture was changed into hair,” while Shade cannot seem to rid his skin of the “prickly” vesture covering his Adam’s apple (an emblem of sin?). Webster’s 2nd, Nabokov’s dictionary, says that in Old English law, vesture means the “stubble or growth . . . with which land was covered, as the vesture of an acre.” Shade, in lines 936-937, invokes this same kind of vesture when, again describing his shaving, he says “now I plough / Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows.” Lycaon’s jaws are “bespluttered with foam,” while Shade’s jaws are presumably covered in “Our Cream,” the advertisement for which he mentions in line 922. In his note to this line, Kinbote, wittingly or unwittingly, brings Shade’s image into even closer alignment with Ovid’s when he points out that Our Cream is actually “a bubbly foam, [rather than] a creamy substance” (C. 922). Given that Lycaon “thirsted for blood” we might further imagine the foam covering his jaws to be bloody, just as we see John Shade’s face covered in the “strawberry-and-cream” gore near the end of the passage.
Still more knowledge of Shade’s appearance completes the correspondence. Ovid describes Lycaon as “hoary,” or gray, and gray is likewise the color most associated with Shade. I have already noted Shade’s “gray stubble,” but the association becomes even clearer when Kinbote, in the foreword, shows Shade responding negatively to a question “with a resolute shake of his hoary forelock” (21). (Note the resonance between “Hoary . . . afore” and “hoary forelock.”) What is more, while Lycaon’s limbs become “crooked,” John Shade, again in Kinbote’s foreword, is decribed as “misshapen” (26). To sum up, Lycaon is shown as a king turned to a hoary, hairy beast with a face covered in bloody foam. John Shade sits “like a king” while he too is shown to be hoary and hairy, with a face covered in bloody foam.


The second excerpt involves the cannibalism theme.


An allied image occurs earlier in the foreword, when Kinbote describes a fur-collared Shade whose “abundant gray hair looked berimed in the sun.” Shade at this moment is together with Sybil trying to “extricate one tortured rear wheel out of a concave inferno of ice” (20). In Canto XXXII of Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolino, the cannibal count who to avoid starvation consumed his two sons and two grandsons.
Noi eravam partiti già da ello,
ch'io vidi due ghiacciati in una buca,
sì che l'un capo a l'altro era cappello;
e come 'l pan per fame si manduca,
così 'l sovran li denti a l'altro pose
là 've 'l cervel s'aggiugne con la nuca. (124-9)
John A. Carlyle’s literal prose translation of these lines reads: “We had already left him, when I saw two frozen in one hole so closely, that the one head was a cap to the other. And as bread is chewed for hunger, so the uppermost put his teeth into the other there where the brain joins with the nape” (396). The “two frozen in one hole” are the shades of Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri (398-99). Thus, as William Warren Vernon summarized the scene, “Dante and Virgil [stand] horror-struck at the grim spectacle of two shades in the ice” (590). As John and Sybil Shade try to free the “tortured” wheel of their car from a “concave” depression, they likewise present an image of two Shades frozen in one hole in the ice. Furthermore, Ugolino was affiliated with the Guelph party. Guelph means wolf, which explains why at the beginning of Canto XXXIII, Ugolino relates a dream in which he envisions himself and his family as “lupo e i lupicini,” a wolf and his offspring (Carlyle 348-9).

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As I said, this is only part of the argument, but I thought these excerpts succinct and self-contained enough to share here. I am happy to receive objections.

Best,
Matt Roth


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