NABOKV-L post 0007037, Thu, 7 Nov 2002 09:31:42 -0800

Texture vs. Text in Pale Fire
----- Original Message -----
From: "Jennifer Parsons" <>
To: "Vladimir Nabokov Forum" <>
Sent: Thursday, November 07, 2002 6:34 AM
Subject: Re: Fw: Texture vs. Text in Pale Fire (TN response to CK)

lines) ------------------

Mr. Nguyen,
I spent the better part of the weekend reading your thesis and while I
appreciate the evident effort and thought you put into it, and the
rather clever way you attempt to swiftly destroy all the lovingly built
castles of Nabokovian sense that have appeared to date (particularly
Boyd's), I have to say I think neither Boyd - nor anyone else - has
anything to fear.

Reason? You essentially say that VN's "project" PALE FIRE is a
"teaching tool" devised by VN to get the reader thinking about his own
motives for and methods of interpreting the various words and
descriptions in "the project" as he does. These words are not intended
to make any sort of sense or build a "web of sense" or reflect upon each
other in any way as elements/fibres in a story because they can only be
subjectively understood (a la Wittgenstein); they need not be much
looked at at all, really, except as a brilliant series of descriptions
given to us as lessons to provide "more knowledge of" our own methods
and reasons for interpretation. The story itself doesn't matter and
any, for example, "echoes between commentary and poem" are "no problem":
rather, they provide us with a lesson to be learned about why we think
the words mean what they do, etc. In other words: we need not waste
time trying to discern VN's intent.

The paradox here is that while you say we all understand words
differently and interpret in an infinite number of ways, you also say
the only conclusion that we should come to is that we all read words
differently and interpret in an infinite numner of ways.

So much for variety.

This thesis grossly contradicts VN's view (which I know you studiously
disregard for rather correct reason of importance of looking at the work
of fiction at hand only, rather than the author's biography, an obvious
thing, however ...) - to say nothing of PF itself - that the author's
intent - not the reader's - is what matters. The reader's intent should
be to understand what the author intends in what he writes. I do
believe the author's intent in this case is something considerably more
complex than to provide a "teaching tool" for the reader to reflect upon

I find this a flat, reductive and ultimately easy interpretation of the
great PF if there ever was one, yet ironically, you accuse Boyd and
others of being 'reductive'. At any rate. There's my two bits and very
sorry if I have offended.

> >
> > ----- Original Message -----
> > From: "Thomas Nguyen" <>
> > Sent: Tuesday, November 05, 2002 9:00 AM
> > Subject: Texture vs. Text in Pale Fire (TN response to CK)
> >

> > Dear Ms. Kunin,

> > Thank you for your comments and questions. Here is my response. I did
not mean to accuse you of anything. I merely stated that if you play the
game, why criticise others for playing it?
Firstly, I would like to point out that literary criticism is just
that--criticism. I attempted in my last response to forward the possibility
that criticism can be performed free of any personal animosity or
mudslinging. It is certainly important to be courteous, but unnecessary to
censor one's own argument to the point of inanity. I think it's wonderful
that so many people are interested in interpreting and discussing Pale Fire,
but I feel that I am not alone in thinking that the recent approaches to
the text have
not been particularly successful or persuasive. It is with that mindset
(and not being critical with the negative connotation you specify) that I
have attempted to show a different way of reading the novel that may be of
interest to some folks, particularly those who would rather not depend upon
Cliff Notes or or pestering Dmitri Nabokov for interesting
analyses of Nabokov's literature.
That aside...
Dear Mr Nguyen,

I'm afraid I don't understand. Are you saying that Nabokov wrote a novel
which poses many questions, but it's incorrect to try to answer them? You do
not see the novel, as I and others do, as a puzzle requiring solution, that
much seems clear.

The word "incorrect" in your first question is indicative of the very
problem with reading Pale Fire that I have attempted to point out in my
paper. Perhaps the most difficult decision to make after a reading of Pale
Fire is what to do with it, i.e. how should one go about trying to
understand and interpret it. As Brian Boyd carefully pointed out, there are
many "echoes" between the poem and the commentary that makes one want to try
to explain them, to give them some reason. Why indeed would Nabokov insert
elements of the Kinbote's Commentary into Shade's poem and vice versa? Now,
we can go into the novel and catalogue all the words and connect each one
of them to every possible allusion it may have to other novels, people,
political movements, etc. (and I do distinctly remember certain members of
the list proposing the creation of such an index-- good luck and happy
trails!) We could move in with an almost scientific precision to
investigate this bizarre similarity between the poem and commentary, which,
logically, should not exist if they were really written by two different
people. This was the manner in which I originally began thinking about Pale
Fire, and it certainly is not an "incorrect" approach to the novel in the
sense that there are no normative rules for how any reader should read a
literary text (and if there are any high school English teachers or
professors of English Literature or extreme terrorists who continue
preaching this message, they should be shot by Gradus, or Vinogradus, or
better yet, Leningradus). One day, as I was sifting through and agonizing
over the search for some plausible answer, I passed over the following
passage (perhaps for the 100th time) from Shade's poem and noticed a
striking similarity behind my approach to the novel and Shade's approach to
seeking the truth/meaning behind his image of the "white fountain":

I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint-- not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch."

Life Everlasting-- based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme,

Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sensse.
Yes! It suffised that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

The feeling of "Lord, I can't believe I was so foolish as to search for
something which is really just an unreasonable expectation for myself since
that "something" is impossible to attain" that Shade expresses in this
passage-- that was what I felt the moment I
reread this passage, and that was what compelled me to change my approach
to Pale Fire. In addition to the sense of freedom from the stilting
question of dual authorship discussed by Boyd and others, one cannot help
but think that perhaps Nabokov knew his readers so well that he could
parody their standard mode of reading, as he does in this passage, and in
doing so compel
those readers to change their approach.

More specifically, I realized that the problem regarding the echoes between
the poem and commentary need not necessarily be resolved by uniting the two
images into a "vulgar, robust truth", as Shade attempts to do with the
echoes between his experience of the white fountain and the one experienced
by Mrs. Z. I forward one such alternative treatment in my paper. There
are other ways to discuss and understand these images without forcing
oneself to end with a "correct" answer. My argument derives from the
novel itself: Shade's "real point, the contrapuntal theme" is "not text,
but texture... not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense"

A full treatment of this passage, again, can be found in my paper, but I can
briefly point out that, "text" refers to the white fountain that Shade
pursued. Having discovered that the word itself does not hold the key tothe
truth about the afterlife he seeks, Shade makes an important shift in his
"investigation of the abyss"-- he realizes that the point of the "game" is
not hidden somewhere in the text, but in the texture, his actual engagement
with the problem, his conscious and ethical decisions to place more weight
on certain ideas and expectations and not on others. This idea can now be
extended one level higher to our interpretations of the
"text" Pale Fire. There is no "crown" to be found in the text that will
alleviate all of our questions about the echoes and difficulty of the novel.
Allegorical explanations (such as the Shade vs. Kinbote authorship debate
or Shade being a sexual predator/split personality) provide temporary
relief until the next flimsy nonsensical explanation comes along. Some
argue: well, what's so wrong about forwarding these explanations? This is
literary study, after all, and we're all free to make whatever arguments
about the book we like.

Certainly, we're free to do so, as I pointed out earlier that I do not
believe there is any one correct way to read any literary text. However,
regardless of whether it is correct or incorrect, the way in which we read,
the TEXTURE, does have important ethical implications, and this is what I
believe is the aesthetic/ethical core of the novel:

The shift of emphasis from text to texture is an introduction to an
integral idea/theme of the novel: the mode of searching for absolute truth
in text is not only simple-minded and futile but can also be dangerous.
When reading with the mindset that an answer to the problems of the novel
HAS to be found, we do not realize that, in doing so, one employs the same
manner of
thinking used by those who go on to make the most blatant and dangerous
truth claims about the meanings of text: Christian fundamentalists,
extremist Muslims, Lenin, Hitler, et cetera... The world has learned that
totalitarian modes of thinking are not the solution, that even though
absolute truths may never be found/agreed upon, we nonetheless learn from
the patterns we are able to see and move on to better articulate some kind
of "faint hope".

Nabokov's personal life was directly effected by the consequences of such
strict modes of thinking in his homeland. For that reason, I find it
irrelevant that anybody should spend much time seeking out authorial
intention, as I would imagine that Nabokov would be the last person to tell
anybody how or how not to read a text (and if he actually did so, I would
more than likely take his words ironically). We as readers make as many
decisions as the writer does. This realization should not be a source of
despair, but rather "something of the same pleasure in it as they who
played it found." I hope this discussion has made Pale Fire criticism a
little more pleasurable for the weary onlookers of this list. I know
you're out there...
> > >
> > > Cheers
> > > Thomas
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
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