NABOKV-L post 0014434, Tue, 19 Dec 2006 09:38:40 -0500

Twiggs Pale Fire essay (a response to our many discussions of the
Dear List,

In the years that I’ve belonged to Nabokv-L, a couple
of questions keep recurring: How good is Shade’s
poem? What is the meaning of the epigraph? For me
these questions have always been closely related. In
writing about one, I felt I had to write about the
other. To try to show their relation I had to spell
some things out and go on longer than I would have
liked. For those who bear with me, I appreciate your

Jim Twiggs

On the question of the merits of John Shade’s poem, I
stand with such doubters as Walter and Charles. In my
view Pale Fire is a brilliant, pitch-black comic novel
that contains an artfully constructed but
deliberately--and often deliciously--bad poem.

I first encountered VN’s work in 1957, when a sizable
chunk of Lolita appeared in The Anchor Review. I was
an undergraduate at the time--a veteran who, during
four uneventful years in the Navy, had become an avid
reader of serious fiction. After falling hard for
Lolita, I devoured Laughter in the Dark, Pnin, and
Nikolai Gogol. Alongside these marvelous works, in a
privileged corner of my bookshelf, were two other of
my all-time favorites: The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology
of Bad Verse, edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles
Lee, and Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.

The Stuffed Owl, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a
famous collection first published in 1930. In the
Preface, Wyndham Lewis (the humorist, not the
Vorticist) describes bad verse as follows:

“Bathos, as we observe, is not all. There is often
found in Bad Verse that windy splurging and
bombinating which makes Victor Hugo’s minor rhetoric
so comic and so terrible. Other plain marks are all
those things connoted by poverty of the imagination,
sentimentality, banality, the prosaic, the style
pompier, and what Mr. Polly called “rockcockyo”;
anaemia, obstipation, or constipation of the poetic
faculty; inability to hold the key of inspiration;
insufficiency of emotional content for metrical form.
The function of the poet, says Sir Arthur
Quiller-Couch, is to strip the idea of triviality and
the accidental and to reclothe it in beauty and
concrete form. When the poet assumes the cothurnus,
the chlamys, and the mask to announce that it will
rain tomorrow because his corns are shooting he
becomes a candidate for this book, whoever he may be.

To my mind at least, and to my ear as well, John
Shade’s poem--despite some good lines, some striking
images, and some genuinely moving passages--bears
most, if not all, of the marks of bad verse as set
forth by Wyndham Lewis. Even more important, no one
who’s read VN’s book on Gogol can fail to recognize
the connection--I mean, of course, a connection of
spirit; I’m not claiming a direct influence--between
VN’s account of poshlust and Wyndham Lewis’s
description of bad verse. In my opinion, a careful
reading of Nikolai Gogol--a book that doesn’t seem
much in favor these days--will greatly enhance
anyone’s appreciation of VN’s great comic novels of
the Cornell years. An early reviewer of Lolita--R.W.
Flint in The New Republic in 1957--understood very
well the importance of the Gogol book:

“Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1944) is the best
treatise on comedy I know of . . . [T]he parallel with
Gogol has to be found behind yet another set of ironic
baffles, in a really fiendish, lyric delight in the
bottom absurdity of things . . . [Nabokov] also shows,
in this model of critical biography, a standard of
comedy (‘ likes to recall that the difference
between the comic side of things, and their cosmic
side, depends upon one sibilant...’) that springs to
wonderful life in Lolita.”

And springs to life as well, I would say, in Pale
Fire. It’s worth adding that Laughter in the Dark also
contains significant Nabokovian ideas on humor--ideas
that are put in the head and mouth of a vile,
Quilty-like cartoonist named Axel Rex.

(For those who might be interested, Flint’s entire
rew/2003_07_17.html )

I read Pale Fire in 1962, on the day it hit the
bookstores. I read it straight through and wasn’t
disappointed. I expected it to be funny, and it was.
It was laugh-out-loud, drop-dead hilarious. I expected
it to be funny in a certain way (the way prepared for
me by the books mentioned above), and it was. As I
handed it to my wife--she too being a fan of good
fiction--I remarked that here, at last, was the book
of poshlust.

For the next week or two, we read the thing aloud to
each other, back and forth, vying for the upper hand
in finding the best parts. Eventually we passed the
book on to a couple of our literarily-inclined
friends, both of whom agreed that it was a comic
masterpiece. This didn’t keep any of us from seeing
that the novel, including wacky old Shade’s piddle-ass
poem, is also atremble with real pain and real sorrow.

VN tips his hand in the epigraph, from which we can
infer that we are to be treated to a ludicrous story
told by a more or less unreliable narrator (which
Boswell certainly was) who reveals more about his
subject and himself than he is aware of. Anyone who
has read the Gogol book will also see--and this is the
deeper point of the quotation--that the ludicrous
story of the young gentleman “running around town
shooting cats” has called forth in Johnson an even
more ludicrous response:

“And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought
himself of his own favorite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge
shall not be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’”

What we have here is a perfect, and perfectly obvious,
example of sentimental hogwash--i.e., one of the
standard and least harmful forms of poshlust. If we
had known Johnson, and if we were sensitive to such
things, we would be embarrassed for him in the same
way we’re embarrassed when a close friend baby-talks
to his pooch in public, oblivious to the spectacle
he’s making of himself.

VN returns to the same theme when Kinbote, in his
commentary to line 91, fills out our picture of Aunt
Maud--who is revealed to be, like Nabokov himself, a
connoisseur of poshlust. This is clear from the fact
that the zipper and underwear ads in Maud’s scrapbook
are of the same general kind as the sample that
appears in another of VN’s major statements on
poshlust, the “Philistines and Philistinism” chapter
of Lectures on Russian Literature, under the very
wonderful label “Adoration of Spoons.” Kinbote, of
course, views these ads through the eyes of a randy
homosexual. What for Maud are specimens of kitsch
(unless she had read Nikolai Gogol, she wouldn’t know
the term “poshlust”) are for him examples of
camp--kitsch and camp being closely related to each
other and to poshlust. For Maud and Kinbote alike, the
ads are both funny, in the requisitely unconscious
way, and arousing. No doubt Maud--smart, talented,
sexy woman that she clearly was--had already seen the
unintentional humor in the word “nothing” before
Kinbote noticed it. Quite a gal, our Maud--though we
wouldn’t have known it from Shade’s poem. Nor would we
have known the extent of Hazel’s rage at, and
alienation from, her parents--and wouldn’t, therefore,
have known the full, or at least a fuller, story of
her death--unless Kinbote had told us.

We can all agree, I suppose and hope, that Kinbote, in
his craziness, is a self-centered, unreliable,
self-deceiving, and manipulative narrator whose
ludicrous story overflows with elements of kitsch,
camp, and poshlust. In my view, Shade, in his quiet
fashion, is just about as bad. Kinbote is, in
fact--though in ways he is often unaware of--a far
more reliable source, especially on matters of
importance, than the supposedly honest, sensible, and
straightforward John Shade. We must take seriously
Kinbote’s description of the poem as “being too
skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work.”
We must consider the possibility that Shade’s
“thingum” is not so transparent after all--thatbe
as flawed as Kinbote’s view of the poem.

Not all manifestations of poshlust are as innocent as
the ones I’ve mentioned. More serious by far are those
that occur when a reputable author, aiming to be
elevated and solemn, writes down lines that turn out
to be classics of unintentional humor. This is what
happens in the final stanza of Canto Two--a stanza
that one of my friends used to read aloud at parties,
along with some favorite selections from The Stuffed
Owl, as part of the evening’s entertainment. Here yet
again, as if our memories needed refreshing, are the
final two lines of the canto:

A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank
Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.

Although I have no hope of changing anyone’s mind, I
wish that those who imagine this to be great poetry
would at least try to hear the lines as Walter and I
hear them--i.e., as funny--and see what that does for
their view of the poem and of the book as a whole. If
you still can’t do it, then follow Charles’s
suggestion and remove a couple of adjectives, thusly--

A shape stepped off the reedy bank
Into a gulping swamp, and sank.

Just like that, we’re in the neighborhood--aren’t
we?--of such other bits of deathless verse as

The boy stood on the burning deck


“Shoot if you must this old gray head
But spare your country’s flag!” she said.

Even better, we are right there with that other great
American chronicler of the Early Departed, Emmeline
Grangerford, whose ode to the little Bots boy has had
me in stiches since I was seven years old. If we
didn’t already have Wilde’s quip about the death of
little Nell, we would have to invent it to cover the
case of Hazel Shade.

To be blunt, it’s not only poor Hazel who is drowning
here, it’s the reader as well--drowning in bathos.
Nabokov is too fine a writer for this to be an

Walter has suggested, as I recall, that the mockery we
hear in these lines is coming from VN. Well yes, but
in a sense it’s coming from Hazel. This is the ghost
of the angry daughter taking revenge on a distant,
neglectful, befuddled father. In Kinbote’s fanciful
words, Hazel has come back as one of those “plump
hairless little devils whom Satan commisisions to make
disgusting mischief in sacrosanct places.”

But forget the metaphors. This is Shade’s guilty
conscience mocking his attempt--his need--to exploit
Hazel’s death in the service of his tacky obsession
with the Great Beyond.

In other words, there’s a reason why these lines are
so bad. In this novel the comic (the physical--the
pharsical, if you will) is always undermining the
characters’ pathetic attempts at transcendence or even
mere peace of mind.

We see this especially in Canto Four--which, for me,
is a great piece of writing on VN’s part, though not
the poet’s. Here’s a relevant quote from Nikolai
Gogol: “[G]enius is always strange; it is only your
healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader
to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the
reader’s own notions of life.”

Shade, in Canto Four, seems, most of the time, to fit
the role of wise old friend and healthy second-rater.
His elaborate wind up--”Now I shall speak” etc.--might
lead us to expect one of those windy splurges
mentioned by Wyndham Lewis. But no. The delivery, when
it comes, is puny--an extended bit of dithering about
poetic composition, giving way eventually to a
grotesque picture of a fat naked old coot sitting in a
tub, shaving, bleeding profusely, lathering up. The
tone is humorous and folksy; we can’t help being
charmed. But this other thing keeps breaking in--

Now I shall speak of evil and despair as none has

Now I shall speak . . .

Now I shall speak of evil as none has spoken.

On each occasion, Shade brings the unruly impulse
under control and dithers on. Evil, it turns out, for
this silly old fart, is a list of V splurge, he proceeds dutifully through the list
till the stanza’s end. This is VN--the only genius in
sight--winking at us through Shade’s trite, poshlust-y
musings. This is kitsch on a level that even Kinbote
couldn’t aspire to. This is kitsch on a stick, wrapped
in a parody of Eliot.

This is also where Kinbote’s description of the poem
as “being too skittish and reticent for an
autobiographical work” comes into play. That’s because
the real evil in the novel, and the real despair--the
first, the suicide of a young woman, being the cause
of the second--aren’t being faced up to. Hazel, you
might say, is the dead baby that everybody in the
room, including old dad here, is either trying to
ignore or to wish away (Rorty is very good on this, in
his writings on Nabokov). And what VN is giving us,
beneath all the parody and joking, is an unforgettable
picture of a father crazed with a grief that he hasn’t
yet fully acknowledged. This is what keeps
interrupting his verbal ramblings--the ramblings
themselves being a way of avoiding the pain, guilt,
and rage that are eating him alive. This is the
wackiness not only of Shade but of every parent who
has ever lost a child, especially to suicide. You do
not get over the suicide of a child.

Once out of the tub, his bleeding (emotional as well
as physical) under control, his nakedness (both
physical and emotional) safely covered, Shade plods
through yet another dull day until finally, his brain
drained (as he puts it, being ever the poet), he falls
into a sort of kindly reverie, during which, in the
course of still more of those lumpy, sing-songy
pontifications on art and the cosmos, he announces
that he’s “reasonably sure that we survive / And that
my darling somewhere is alive.”

It’s here that we need to revisit the epigraph.
Imagine, if you will, that Hodge, despite Johnson’s
sentimental self-assurances to the contrary, had been
felled by a bullet from the young gent’s gun. Can’t we
then also imagine that Johnson would take refuge in
the idea that Hodge, though shot on the street and
lying there in plain sight, dead as a doornail, is
somewhere still alive? (If you don’t know that
people’s minds work this way, then you need to watch,
immediately if possible, Erroll Morris’s movie called
Gates of Heaven--another example of using poshlust as
a key ingredient of serious art.)

And Johnson, in the depths of his misery, might well
cry out, “But Hodge is not dead; no, no, Hodge is
somewhere still alive.”

Cruel as it may seem to say so, this gush of wishful
thinking is not different in kind from Shade’s
“reasonable certainty” about Hazel. The difference is
one of degree, children being, for most of us, more
important than pets.

Flaubert’s Dictionary is a savage satire on trite
thinking, written in the form of a guide to what it’s
fashionably safe to say on a wide range of topics. I
don’t recall that there’s an entry for FUNERAL OF A
CHILD, but if there were it might read as follows:
“Inform the bereaved parent not to weep, his darling
is somewhere still alive.”

When such “comfort” is routinely and smugly peddled,
whether by a preacher or by a seer, any sensitive,
intelligent person is outraged, or ought to be. But
when a parent says it to himself, we may understand
that that this is all that keeps him from going over
some final edge.

If we think of Shade’s “reasonable certainty” in this
light, it seems almost unbearably poignant--as, I
believe, it’s supposed to seem. But as a piece of
real, hard-won wisdom-- Gimme a break.

Having finished with Hazel as a stand-in for the cat,
VN goes on to put Shade himself in the role of Johnson
and then, shortly thereafter, in the role of Hodge.
First a piece of smug, lip-smacking self-satisfaction
in which our bland old second-rater serves up another
helping of chicken soup for the soul--this time to the
effect that he’s reasonably certain homain (neighbor, wife, garden--everything
nicely in place). And then--

And then-- Well, we know that ludicrous story. Poor,
poor Hodge.

Think about it: minutes after announcing that he’s as
certain of an afterlife as he is that he’ll live to
see another day, a man is mistaken for someone else
and shot dead by an escaped lunatic, at which point
his work is stolen by another lunatic who in turn . .

What’s happened, surely, is a prime example of what
R.W. Flint called VN’s “really fiendish, lyric
delight in the bottom absurdity of things.”

While I’ve got Flaubert handy, I’ll use him to wrap
things up. In Madame Bovary, at the end of his brief
but astonishing lecture on love and the limits of
language, Flaubert tells us that “no one ever has been
able to give the exact measure of his needs, his
concepts, or his sorrows. The human tongue is like a
cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes to set a
bear dancing when we would make the stars weep with
our melodies.”

On my reading of Pale Fire, it’s best understood along
these same lines. Two lost souls whose colossal needs
mock their puny gear. Mad for meaning, chasing signs
and symbols all over creation, they cannot connect
with their own selves, let alone with each other.

Read this way the book is both richly comic and deeply
humane. Charles Kinbote--c’est moi. Ditto for the
crappy poet.

But wait--what about that majestic Vanessa that
flutters about at key points in the novel? Oh that.
Haven’t you heard? According to at least one
supposedly reliable source, it was trapped and
murdered by a well-known lepidopterist whose name, for
some reason, I can’t for the life of me right now

One final (I promise) note. The title of Wyndham
Lewis’s anthology is taken from Wordsworth:

“Yes, helped by genius--untired Comforter,
The presence even of a stuffed Owl for her
Can cheat the time.”

Out of curiosity, as I started writing this letter, I
ran an archives search on the words “stuffed owl.”
Although I found no mention of the anthology, I
discovered that VN himself referred to a stuffed owl
in at least one place. You can read about it in a
message from Robert Cook to Don Johnson, dated 7
February 1996.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that the anthology
contains a Subject Index that rivals, for sheer
perverse funniness, the index of Kinbote and the
Dictionary of Flaubert.

Jim Twiggs
December 17, 2006

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