NABOKV-L post 0002663, Wed, 24 Dec 1997 12:47:17 -0800

PF NArrator?: Bellino contra Boyd
I thank Brian Boyd for his generosity in taking the time to sort out
and reply to some of the positions taken by list members in the current
Pale Fire thread. As a gesture of appreciation I'll try to keep my
contraposting as brief as possible.
First, when I say that "the Shadeans cannot account for Botkin," and
when others "report their dissatisfactions, their cringing, their
dizziness or other fascinating symptoms," what we are expressing is an
_aesthetic_ reaction to the idea of Shade as author of the commentary
and inventor of Kinbote/Botkin. My own view is that the book does not
work as well artistically under this schema, and that if it was
Nabokov's intention that the book be "solved" in this way, he may in
part have failed to realize that intention. (Note however that I believe
Pale Fire to be the greatest novel of the twentieth century.) Now these
matters do not admit of discussion, in part because of the "de gustibus"
principle and in part because we no longer permit considerations of
authorial intent to enter into critical debate. But I do want to add
that after a re-reading of Boyd's analysis in VNAY (pp. 424-56) I am
quite willing to admit that the Shadean solution is better "clued" than
I had previously thought. It is in fact well-clued enough to be one of
Nabokov's typical "false solutions." This in itself proves nothing
either way. 
Let me explain why I do not think the Shadean hypothesis fits my
understanding of what Nabokov was trying to accomplish in his fiction. I
will turn for a moment to Lolita, which arguably exhibits a lesser
degree of narrative complexity than Pale Fire (unless of course someone
wants to posit that the whole thing was written by that old fraud John
Ray, Jr). Within Humbert's narrative there are hints and patterns that
do not emanate from Humbert; they can only be evidence of the hand of
the author -- that is, VN. The narrative universe of Lolita is "open" in
the sense that not everything in it can be explained with reference to
the characters alone. Pale Fire in either the strict Botkinian or
Shadean interpretation is (or so I thought until recently) a "closed"
narrative universe in which everything can be explained by the chosen
hypothesis. Almost. This is probably a good time to pause and point out
that because John Shade is an example of what Fowler has called a
"Nabokovian favorite," his views on many topics are indistinguishable
from those of Nabokov himself, which may be why Nabokov "quotes" him in
later interviews. Shade resembles his creator in several respects, even
possibly including the desire and ability to create fictional worlds.
But he did not create the novel Pale Fire, as a glance at the title page
will show: it is the creation of Vladimir Nabokov. This sounds
simplistic; naturally I hope to show that it is not. But I will begin
with a simple question: if it is legitimate to ask who chose the
epigraph, is it any less legitimate to ask who wrote the dedication? Or
to ask who is the "you" of such statements as "Canto Two, your
Nabokov used the "open" construction for most of his works; the
easiest example to parse is Bend Sinister, in which he not only causes
the same kidney-shaped imprint to recur throughout the novel in order to
let Krug know that he is not alone, but even appears at the end to whisk
Krug off to safety before tipping his hat to us as he leaves his desk,
perhaps to do some nocturnal moth-hunting. Nabokov is to Bend Sinister
as Paduk is to the world depicted therein, with the important difference
that he is good and Paduk is evil. Schemata of this sort appealed to
Nabokov, I think, because they permitted him to make a correlation
between life and art: Nabokov is to his fictional worlds as X is to our
earthly world. (We will leave X in chiasmal obscurity, lest we
inaugurate another contentious thread.) And this is precisely what we
find in Pale Fire: Shade intuits a pattern-maker, a player of a game of
worlds, a master of "plexed artistry" and "topsy-turvical coincidence."
That pattern-maker is to Shade's life as X is to the world; that
pattern-maker is Nabokov. Shade gives expression to Nabokov's own views,
but he is not the creator of the world of Pale Fire; he is one term in a
complicated correlative equation that Nabokov has devised to tell us
something about fictional worlds and about our own world. For Shade to
be the author of the commentary and the inventor of Kinbote mars the
aesthetic perfection of the book; it is redundant, a "false solution."
Shade's purpose is to experience his life as Nabokov has created it, and
through his greatest sorrow, Hazel's death, to realize that his life is
"not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense," and then out of that
realization to make art: his poem, "Pale Fire." Nabokov completes the
equation for us by leaving enough traces of himself in the book that we
will not forget that he is the creator of this world, its correlative of
What are these traces, besides the dedication? In one sense they are
the use of every fictional technique and device, every literary and
linguistic source, that Nabokov employed over the course of his writing
life. If Shade invented Botkin and his Kinbotian fantasies, he must have
taken a correspondence course from Nabokov himself, and he must have
done his homework so well that he became indistinguishable from his
master. It isn't just that the author knows Russian and Shade presumably
doesn't, or that the author writes fiction and Shade, as far as we know,
only poems and essays, or even that it's highly unlikely that Shade as
depicted is as well-read in arcana (of the sort tabulated by Priscilla
Meyer and others) as Nabokov was. More telling is the use of certain
fictional techniques that recur in Nabokov's oeuvre. I will confine
myself to two examples. When Kinbote is recounting the thrilling story
of his Zemblan escape, he tends to lapse into the cliches of the boys'
adventure story ("He would...lead them on a merry chase, assume
sensational disguises, and get in touch with the rest of the gang"), a
Nabokovian technique that goes back at least as far as RLSK. My second
example is the trademark-like appearance of the Nabokovian
butterfly-signature not only at the end of the book (where we expect it)
but also at the end of Shade's poem.
Finally, what are we to make of the (quite welcome, as far as I'm
concerned) appearance of Timofey Pnin in the book? How do the Shadeans
explain him, unless they assume that Shade is merely tipping his hat to
his favorite author? Isn't it more likely that Pnin's purpose is in fact
to disprove the "false solution" that Shade is the author of the
commentary, and to serve as another Nabokovian "signature"? 
Lengthy as this posting is, I fear I haven't had time to do justice to
my case, but I rest it anyways.  

Mary Bellino