Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0016054, Fri, 7 Mar 2008 14:38:25 -0500

Re: VNBIB: Field Guide to PF
A few thoughts on D. Barton Johnson's "A Field Guide to Nabokov's Pale
Fire," in the Stanford Slavic Studies 33 (2007):

For those who haven't read it, Don Johnson's article is a wonderfully
detailed descriptive and (occasionally) interpretive essay focusing on all
the birds that appear in Pale Fire, as well as the Vanessa atalanta. Among
the most interesting passages are those devoted to the folkloric
associations generated by both the bohemian waxwing and the red admiral.
The author clearly shows that bird and butterfly have similar associations
with death and doom. Another interesting note regards the ring-necked
pheasant Shade mentions in the poem. In a post to the list some years ago,
Brian Boyd argued that the pheasant/"sublimated grouse" is related to Hazel
Shade via the hazel grouse of VN's childhood, but Brian, I think,
misunderstood the meaning of "sublimated." Nevertheless, DBJ strengthens the
association by pointing out that the transformation of ruffed grouse into
pheasant mirrors Hazel's toothwort white to red admirable transformation.
We should also, I might add, recall the even clearer association with
Hazel's (failed) cygnet to wood duck transformation, which is of course
mentioned elsewhere in the article.

DBJ makes several interesting observations at the conclusion of the
article. One, of course, is that Kinbote is surprisingly accurate in his
ornithological descriptions (despite what VN said in an interview after the
fact). He writes that the reader "faces the problem of accounting for
Botkin's knowledge of local fauna. The birds that Kinbote/Botkin mentions
are in their proper places at the proper times. And, not so incidentally, he
sometimes seem to know too much, e.g., the original Linnaean generic name
Ampelis for waxwings, a term that has not been in use . . . since about
1900 when Bombycilla became the standard term. Even stranger, he knows that
the former means "of the vineyard," a fact that enables him to create the
bizarre vignette that Gradus/Vinogradus comes from a long line of liquor
dealers" (669).

One solution to this particular problem--though perhaps not to the more
general one introduced here--might be that Kinbote does have a dictionary
with him in Cedarn. This dictionary is NOT Webster's 2nd, but it does have
some of Webster's 2nd's definitions (see "unicursal bicircular quartic").
If we do look at the definition of waxwing in W2, we find "any of several
American and Asiatic passerine birds of the genus Bombycilla (syn.
Ampelis)," etc. So Ampelis could have been in Kinbote's dictionary.
Furthermore, if Kinbote then tried to look up Ampelis (a guide word in W2,
btw), he might have found the following:

ampelo-, ampel-. A combining form, Greek ampelo-, ampel- from ampelos,
vine, as in ampelographist, ampelography.

ampelopsin. An anthocyanin found in the Virgina creeper

Ampelopsis. 1. A genus of woody climbers of the grape family (Vitacaea).
2. A plant of the genus Parthenocissus, esp. P. tricuspidata, the Japanese
ivy, and P. quinquefolia, the Virginia creeper.

Now this is very interesting! While this makes it clear that Kinbote could
have learned the basic meaning at the root of Ampelis (vine), there seems to
be another connection lurking here. In the Foreword (p. 22) Kinbote says "A
few days later, as I was about to leave Parthenocissus Hall--or Main Hall
(or now Shade Hall, alas), I saw him waiting outside, etc." Given the
geography of New Wye (probably northern Virginia, around Harrisonburg) the
Parthenocissus covering the wall of Main/Shade Hall is absolutely the
Virginia creeper (scourge of my own back acre here in Pennsylvania, btw).
Thus, the word at the root of Vinogradus is also connected to Shade not just
by the waxwing (sampel/ampelis) but by Parthenocissus quinquefolia which
covers the Hall which will come to bear Shade's name. What does this mean?
Well, it could be Shade's ghost making more connections, or I might argue
that this is more proof that Shade, Gradus and Kinbote are one and the same,
or some will simply say that it is the great pattern-maker himself, VN, just
showing off.

(I don't suppose this quinquefolia--five leaf--has anything to do with the
patifolia--open leaf--in Charles's bedroom?)

Matt Roth

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