NABOKV-L post 0004618, Sat, 4 Dec 1999 21:51:44 -0800

Rosenbaum on Pale Fire and Brian Boyd's New Book (fwd)
From: Kurt Johnson <>

Kinbote (this time, Pseudolucia kinbote) rises once again-- strange (perhaps
trivial) coincidence but a coincidence all the same

Both Brian Boyd and Israel's Dubi Benyamini [of Nabokov's Blues] were in New
York last week; Brian called my attention to Ron Rosenbaum's article in a
phone call about "things general" and Dubi, staying at my house, was the
first person (other than me) to see the type specimen of Pseudolucia kinbote
in six years and have a chance to opine on its status as good species or
invalid synonym. Kinbote is a "Blue" named from Chile in 1993 by Zsolt
Balint and me, but whose type specimen has been lost ever since the death of
Chile's Luis Pena (the author of The Butterflies of Chile) caused a major
problem in recovering material on loan to his book's artists. The recent
question has been was kinbote REALLY a synonym of Emilio Balletto's P.
scintilla or a valid species itself, thus rising "out of synonymy" and
returning to "specieshood" once again. This year the type specimen of
kinbote was finally found by Pena's estate and returned to me in New York
for eventual return to its "home" location, the Field Museum in Chicago. No
one had looked at the type specimen of kinbote since 1993 and it is since
then that a substantial "ring" of look-alike blues in its complex have all
been shown to be valid, non-interbreeding, species by Benyamini's breeding
experiments (and the place of Balletto's scintilla in this ring also
ascertained). Benyamini has concluded in seeing the kinbote type specimen
that it is neither scintilla nor any of his new species. Thus, contrary to
the species list in Nabokov's Blues (which rendered kinbote into taxonomic
synonymy's "dead zone"), and, "in sync" with the apparent rise of Pale Fire,
ala Boyd and Rosenbaum, there has also been a "rise" in the small world
("trivial"-- to quote one recent negative review of Nabokov's Blues) of
butterfly taxonomy-- looks like kinbote returns to species status. Weird.
[Perhaps when we write this up for a scientific journal we can catch that
world up with a note in the "Etymology" re: the recent develops concerning
Pale Fire, Brian's book etc.].


----- Original Message -----
From: Galya Diment <>
To: <>
Sent: Thursday, December 02, 1999 8:29 AM
Subject: Rosenbaum on Pale Fire and Brian Boyd's New Book

> The Novel of the Century: Nabokovs Pale Fire
> by Ron Rosenbaum
> O.K., Ill play. You know, the Century-Slash-Millennium List Game. I
> admit I was
> reluctant to get into the whole Man -of-the-Century,
> Movie-of-the-Millennium
> enterprise. But a couple of things changed my mind: calls from two
> networks and a
> newsmagazine on the Hitler questionwas he the "most evil" man of the
> century?
> should he be Man of the Century, period?started me thinking in those
> terms. And
> then the arrival of a book Id long been looking forward to, a book
> which suggested
> my first Edgy Enthusiast End-of-Century Award, the one for Novel of
> the Century.
> The book that prompted these reflections and confirmed me in my choice
> for Novel
> of the Century was Brian Boyds remarkable, obsessive, delirious,
> devotional study, Nabokovs Pale Fire
> (Princeton University Press). And (insert 21-gun salute here) my award
> for Novel of the Century goes to
> Nabokovs Pale Fire, with Ulysses and Shadows on the Hudson taking the
> silver and the bronze.
> The Judges Rationale: Pale Fire is the most Shakespearean work of art
> the 20th century has produced, the
> only prose fiction that offers Shakespearean levels of depth and
> complexity, of beauty, tragedy and inexhaustible
> mystery.
> One of the achievements of Brian Boyds book is that he makes explicit
> the profound way in which Pale Fire
> is a Shakespearean novelnot just in its global vision and the infinite
> local reflections in a global eye it offers, but
> also in the profound way in which Pale Fire is haunted by specific
> works of Shakespeare, and by Shakespeare
> himself as Creator. If, as Michael Woods (author of The Magicians
> Doubts) argues, Pale Fire offers "a
> theology for skeptics," Brian Boyd makes explicit the ways in which it
> is a theology of Shakespeare.
> Before I pay further tribute to Pale Fire, I want to pay further
> tribute to Brian Boyd. Yes, I already saluted his
> courage and scrupulousness as a scholar for renouncing his previous
> position on the Pale Fire narrator
> question at the Nabokov Centennial Night last April (see The Edgy
> Enthusiast, "Nabokovs Pale Ghost: A
> Scholar Retracts," April 26).
> But he deserves new accolades for this new book-length examination of
> Pale Fire. An investigation notable
> less for his new theory of the controversial narrator question (with
> which I respectfully disagree) but for the way
> his pursuit of the narrator question has deepened the vista of
> delights in the novel andmost
> importantlydisclosed an even deeper level of Shakespearean affinity
> and signification in Pale Fire.
> If Charles Kinbote is the ostensible narrative voice of Pale Fire, the
> one who writes the footnoted commentary
> to the poem that opens the novel, deliriously mad commentary that
> forms the bulk of the book, Brian Boyd has
> becomeand I mean this as the highest complimentKinbotes finest
> Kinbote.
> Before venturing further into the depths and delights of Pale Fire
> theories, I want to pause here for the benefit
> of those who have not yet tasted the pleasures of Pale Fire. Pause to
> emphasize just how much pure reading
> pleasure it offers despite its apparently unconventional form.
> Following a brief foreword, the novel opens with a
> 999-line poem in rhymed heroic couplets formally reminiscent of
> Alexander Pope, but written in accessible
> American colloquial language at least on the surface. Please dont be
> intimidated by the poems length or
> formality; its a pleasure to read: sad, funny, thoughtful, digressive,
> discursive, filled with heart-stopping
> moments of tenderness and beauty.
> Following the poem (entitled "Pale Fire") which is identified in the
> foreword as the last work of John Shade, a
> fictional Frost-like American poet, another voice takes over: the
> commentator Charles Kinbote. A delightful,
> deluded, more than a bit demented voice whose 200 pages of commentary
> and annotations on the poem
> constitute the remainder of the novel. Kinbotes voice is completely
> madhe is the ultimate unreliable narrator,
> the mad scholar colonizing the poem with his own baroque delusionbut
> also completely irresistible. Kinbote
> weaves into his footnoted annotations on the poem the story of his own
> relationship with the poet, John Shade.
> How he befriended him during the last months of his life while Shade
> was composing "Pale Fire." How hed
> disclosed to Shade, a colleague at the college where they both taught
> literature, the fantastic story of his
> (Kinbotes) supposed secret identity: that he was not really Charles
> Kinbote, but rather the exiled King of
> Zembla, a "northern land" where he once ruled as Charles the Beloved
> until he was deposed by evil
> revolutionaries from whom he fled into exile. Revolutionaries who sent
> an assassin to hunt him down, an
> assassin whose bullet, meant for Kinbote, mistakenly killed John Shade
> instead.
> And now, having absconded with the dead poets manuscript of "Pale
> Fire," holed up in a cheap motel in the
> mountains, Kinbote attempts to demonstrate with his commentary that
> Shades last masterpiece is really about
> him, about Kinbote, about his own tragic and romantic life as King of
> Zembla, his flight and exile. All this
> despite the fact that, on the surface, neither Kinbote nor Zembla
> appears anywhere in "Pale Fire," despite the
> fact that the poem seems on the surface to be John Shades attempt to
> come to terms with his own tragedy, the
> suicide of his beloved daughter Hazel Shadeand his efforts to explore
> the possibility of contacting her in the
> Afterlife, across the border between life and death which has exiled
> her from him.
> As I said, it only seems complicated and cerebral. In fact, reading
> Pale Fire, both novel and poem, is an
> almost obscenely sensual pleasure. I guarantee it.
> Nor should the pleasures of reading Brian Boyds book be
> underestimated, even though I believe hes reading
> into Pale Fire a ghost story as fanciful as the one Kinbote reads into
> John Shades poem. Boyds ghost story
> is his new revised solution to the Pale Fire Narrator-Commentator
> Question: Who is Commentator Charles
> Kinbote? If we believe he invented an imaginary past as Charles the
> Beloved of Zembla, did he also invent John
> Shade the poet hes purportedly reading his Zemblan story into? Or did
> Shade invent Kinbote?
> For some three decades following the 1962 publication of Pale Fire,
> most critics and readers have followed
> the ingenious solution to this mystery offered by Mary McCarthy in a
> famous New Republic essay entitled "A
> Bolt From the Blue." McCarthy argued from submerged clues in the
> Commentary that the "real" author of the
> Commentary and Foreword (and Index) in Pale Fire, the real Zemblan
> fantasist, was a figure barely
> mentioned in the Commentary, an academic colleague of Shade and
> Kinbote called, anagrammatically, V.
> Botkin.
> I wont go into the details of her dazzling conjecture here, suffice it
> to say its powerfully persuasive and held
> sway until the early 1990s when Brian Boyd unveiled his first (and now
> abandoned) Pale Fire theory. Based
> on Mr. Boyds interpretation of a discarded epigraph from a revised
> manuscript of a Nabokov autobiography,
> Mr. Boyd argued that Kinbote did not exist as Botkin, or as a separate
> entity of any kind: that Kinbote was
> invented by John Shade who not only wrote the poem called "Pale Fire"
> but invented a mad Russian
> scholar-commentator to write a Commentary that massively misread
> Shades own poem as a Zemblan fantasy.
> O.K., Im not doing justice to Boyds conjecture perhaps because Ive
> never found it convincing: It always
> seemed needlessly reductive to collapse the voices in the novel from
> two to one. But Mr. Boyds theory did
> attract a considerable number of believers who called themselves
> "Shadeans"even after Mr. Boyd pulled the
> rug out from under them a couple years ago by retreating to an
> intermediate position that said, Well, no, Shade
> did its more than a pastiche for Kinbote to prey on with his parasitic
> exegesis.
> In fact, let me take a real leap here, let me go out on a limb few
> would venture forth upon, let me
> make the following assertion: Not only is Pale Fire the
> (English-Language) Novel of the Century,
> but "Pale Fire" the poem within the novel may well come to be looked
> upon as the Poem of the
> Century in its own right.
> But let me return briefly to the afterlife. As I said, it is not so
> much Mr. Boyds far-fetched
> argument that Hazel Shades ghost is the afterlife muse of "Pale Fire"
> that makes his book so
> illuminating as it is his exploration of the afterlife of Shakespeare
> in Pale Fire. In particular, the
> afterlife of Hamlet, the ghost in Hamlet, and Hamlet as the ghost that
> haunts Pale Fire.
> Early in Kinbotes commentary on the poem, he cries out against his
> supposed enemies: "Such
> hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that ones
> attachment to a masterpiece may
> be utterly overwhelming, especially when it is the underside of the
> weave that entrances the
> beholder and only begetter, whose own past intercoils there with the
> fate of the innocent author."
> When I reread this passage, I initially thought of it as a kind of
> allegory of Brian Boyds own
> obsessive "attachment to a masterpiece," especially to the "underside
> of the weave" of Pale
> Fireof the way Mr. Boyd has become Kinbotes Kinbote. But submerged in
> the coils of that
> passage I think there is an expression of the way Vladimir Nabokov had
> himself become
> Shakespeares Kinbote: ecstatic commentator on his own overwhelming
> attachment to a kindred
> creator, William Shakespeare.
> When Kinbote speaks of the weave that entrances," he speaks of the
> entranced as "the only
> begetter," which is the mysterious phrase for the shadowy figure
> evoked in the dedication of
> Shakespeares sonnets to their "onlie begetter."
> Scholars have argued for centuries over the identity and significance
> of "onlie begetter," but there
> can be little doubt that the only begetter passage in Pale Fire is one
> more instance of the way "the
> underside of the weave" of Pale Fire is shot through with a web of
> Shakespearean references, the
> way Pale Fire is dedicated to, haunted by, a work of Shakespeareand
> not the most obvious one.
> The obvious one is Timon of Athens, since it seems at first that Pale
> Fire takes its title from this
> amazing passage in Timon, a bitter denunciation of a cosmos of
> Universal Theft:
> Ill example you with thievery:
> The suns a thief, and with his great attraction
> Robs the vast sea; the moons an arrant thief,
> And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
> The seas a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
> The moon into salt tears.
> God is that great! That last liquid surge that resolves the moon into
> salt tears: the image, of course,
> of flickering moonlight dissolved (reflected) on the surface of the
> waves, dissolved into the
> gleaming golden teardrops of light. And, of course, the theme of
> theft, all Creation as theft from a
> greater Creator, is shot through the book and may reflect Nabokovs
> theft fromat the very least
> his debt toShakespeare.
> But Brian Boyd has come up with a less obvious but perhaps more
> crucial Shakespearean origin for
> the title of Pale Fire: the pale ghost in Hamlet who speaks of his
> haste at dawn to return to the
> purgatorial fires of the underworld in these terms:
> Fare thee well at once!
> The glow worm shows the matin to be near,
> And gins to pale his uneffectual fire
> Boyd makes a brilliant link between that passage in Hamlet about the
> ghost and the glow worm
> and a fragment of a poem in the Commentary to Pale Fire, lines in
> which John Shade conjures up
> Shakespeare as the ghost of electricity, a fantastic glow worm,
> illuminating the contemporary
> landscape from beyond:
> The dead, the gentle deadwho knows?
> In tungsten filaments abide,
> And on my bedside table glows
> Another mans departed bride.
> And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
> Town with innumerable lights.
> Shades poem (which of course is Nabokovs composition) is called "The
> Nature of Electricity," and
> it is, in fact, metaphorically electrifying in its suggestion that a
> current from the afterlife
> illuminates contemporary creation, that Shakespeares ghost illuminates
> Nabokovs creation.
> I think Mr. Boyd is at his most astute when he comments upon this
> passage: "The evocation of
> Shakespeare flooding a whole town with light [suggests] something
> particularly pervasive and
> haunting about Shakespeares creative energy From start to finish of
> Pale Fire Shakespeare
> recurs as an image of stupendous fecundity." And he adduces a further
> instance of Shakespeare as
> the ghost of electricity in Kinbotes Commentary when the mad annotator
> avers: "Science tells us,
> by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart but vanish like
> a ghost, if Electricity were
> suddenly removed from the world."
> Electricity, as a ghost that creates the world, doesnt merely haunt it
> but holds it together, gives it
> coherence; Shakespeare as the ghost that gives Pale Fire its
> astonishing holographic
> coherencethe way each particle reflects the whole like a jewel, the
> way the whole haunts each
> particle like a ghost of coherence. But in Mr. Boyds elucidation of
> the theme it is not just the
> ghost of Shakespeare, but a specific ghost in Shakespeare: the ghost
> of Hamlet, which is the
> spirit that electrifies Pale Fire.
> Isnt it curious that the two novels that are to my mind chief rivals
> for greatest fictional
> achievement of the century, Ulysses and Pale Fire, are both haunted by
> Hamlets ghost? Joyce,
> as Im sure you know, devoted an entire chapter of Ulysses, the pivotal
> "Scylla and Charybdis"
> chapter, to an eccentric theory of the special relationship between
> Shakespeare and the ghost in
> Hamlet. To the apocryphal (but not utterly improbable) anecdotal
> tradition that one of the roles
> Shakespeare played as actor was that of the Ghost in Hamlet. And that,
> in crying out on stage to
> his son (his namesake, the young Prince Hamlet) across the divide
> between life and afterlife,
> Shakespeare was himselfthe theory goessomehow crying out to the
> departed spirit of his own
> son, the twin called Hamnet, who died at age 11, not long before
> Shakespeare wrote or at least
> played in Hamlet.
> In the thicket of Joyces speculation about ghostly fathers and sons,
> Hamlets and Shakespeares,
> one can sense Shakespeare emerging as the ghostly father of Joyce. And
> similarly in Nabokov as
> the ghostly father of Pale Fire.
> Nabokov, Mr. Boyd reminds us, once called Hamlet "the greatest miracle
> in literature." What
> makes Pale Fire Novel of the Century is that it, almost alone, has
> that absolutely miraculous "bolt
> from the blue" quality. Pale Fire is as startling, as stunning, as
> life-changing as the sudden
> heart-stopping appearance of a real ghost. And the real ghost that
> inspires Pale Fire from beyond
> the grave, the real shade that haunts its reflected sky is not Hazel
> Shades, but Shakespeares
> Hamlet.