Vladimir Nabokov

Et Ceteras, Ellipses and Errors in PF's Commentary

By lawrebas, 6 December, 2020

The ‘Pale Fire’ quotations Kinbote uses in his commentary headers intrigue me. 

Some he ends with an et cetera (eg ‘Lines 1-4: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, etc.’):

  • C.1-4, C.39-40, C.90-93, C.120-121, C.162, C.167, C.231, C.417-421, C.597-608, C.609-614, C.704-707, C.835-838, C.939-940, C.993-905.

I wonder why the single-line references used in C.162, C.167 and C.231 have etcs instead of simply quoting the full line (as he does in C.57, C.130, C.286, C.549, C.596, C.662)?

One entry only quotes from line 35; however it’s listed as deriving from both lines 34 and 35: ‘Lines 34-35 ‘Stilettos of a frozen stillicide’ – perhaps Kinbote meant to include line 34’s svelte. On the other hand ‘Line 426: Just behind (one oozy footstep) Frost’ should also refer to line 425 for its just behind.

Others include one or more ellipses: 

  • C.181-182, C.246, C.431, C.433-434, C.C.734-735 [three of them here].

The entry for C.431 should read ‘Lines 431-432: March night ... headlights from afar approached’ because the word approached appears on line 432.

Occasional discrepancies occur: eg in line 182 the poem has ‘cicada’ whereas the commentary has ‘cicadas’; there are brackets in the poem’s line 404 but parentheses in C.403-404. I’m sure there are others. 


3 years 7 months ago

This is a good catalog of errors and inconsistencies. My own sense is that both VN and his commentator could be a touch careless when it came to these kinds of details (cf. the italics issues in the Index and the math issue with the barn ghost's message). I don't think there's method in it. Nonetheless the bones you have unearthed here should be retained in the museum of VN's oddities, in case a matching bone is dug up later.



3 years 7 months ago

In reply to by matthew_roth

I quite like your suggestion that these discrepancies be included in a museum of VN's oddities.

Presumably the entire collection would need to be housed in a rather large, possibly Hermitage-sized building . . . 


3 years 7 months ago

I am very interested in the subject of misprints, so I think these finds are interesting. Most of them seem explainable to me as not being misprints, rather as a choice of selecting the specific words of the lines that K wants to comment on.



C.167: There was a time, etc.

Actual line:There was a time in my demented youth

[K only wants to refer to the phrase There was a time and not to in my demented youth.]


C.231: How ludicrous, etc.

Actual line: How ludicrous these efforts to translate

[K only wants to refer to the line, not the meaning of the line and its following lines, because these are supplanted from the variants he mentions]


‘Lines 34-35 ‘Stilettos of a frozen stillicide’ 

[Agreed: No reason to include line 34 ]


‘Line 426: Just behind (one oozy footstep) Frost’ should also refer to line 425 for its just behind.



181-82: waxwings…cicadas

Actual line: Today I’m sixty-one. Waxwings/Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings.

[“waxwings” should be capitalized; cicada should be singular. ]


Line 246: ...my dear

Actual line: Your steps upstairs, and all is right, my dear.

[K only wants to highlight “my dear,”; only he makes quite a point of all NOT being all right! Still it does not seem a misprint to me.]


C.431: March night…headlights from afar approached

Actual line: Of a March night, where headlights from afar/ Approached

[This seems possibly done to simply make it more readable: leaving off  “Of a” and not capitalizing the next line “Approaching,” Still it should be 431-432]


C.433-434: To the…sea Which we had visited in thirty three

[Here he capitalizes the second line “Which”, so that would seem to make 431's “approached” incorrect]


C.734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable

[K is merely pointing out the “pyrotechnics,” the texture of these bobbling “b”s.  However, I find this commentary to be important, pointing as it does to the stanza beginning 803 “Life Everlasting – based on a misprint!”  the commentary is:

“A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics. The poet’s plan is to display in the very texture of his text the intricacies of the ‘game’ in which he seeks the key to life and death (see lines 808-829)”

He is noting here the importance of misprints as the key to life and death, i.e.  A MISPRINT =  SPIRIT MAN.


My theory is that the intentional misprints must somehow relate to the theme of life/death/hereafter. I am still pondering just how that works with the misprints I feel fairly sure about.

As with James Ramey’s misprint sleuthing, they should reveal in the end the actual steps of the ‘game.’ So that would be the trick, seeing if these lead somewhere that informs the novel. 



3 years 7 months ago

Building on MARYROSS's response, I am struck by the contrast between these two entries:

C.167: There was a time, etc.

Actual line: There was a time in my demented youth


C.270: My dark Vanessa

Actual line: My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest


I wonder why C.167 warrants an 'etc' whereas C.270 doesn't. K's wanting to refer to a phrase in both, and there's no reason why he couldn't have added an 'etc' after 'Vanessa' to indicate that the line continues (as he appears to be doing in C.167).

At first I'd thought that the punctuation after Vanessa might have removed the need for the 'etc'. That seems to be true of C.213-214 where Kinbote quotes 'A syllogism' without an 'etc'. (In the poem 'A syllogism' is followed by a colon.) But if that were the case, then the following entry ought to have an 'etc' because there's no punctuation after 'out':

C.42: I could make out

Actual line: I could make out our front porch when I'd take


I can't help wondering if these et ceteras might be performing another function. 


Another 'error':

C.149: one foot upon a mountain

Actual line: One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand


3 years 7 months ago

It seems to me that, for the most part, K is merely choosing the particular words he wants to use to launch into solipsistic non-sequiturs. In these cases an "etc." would not be necessary, because he is not really interested in what follows, only what the chosen words mean specifically to him. This may be true of changing "mountaintop" to just "mountain" as well. K's intention is to speak of the Bera range, not where Shade's foot stands.

However, with C.167, the "etc." actually is necessary, since he is writing about everything that follows, that is, he is indicating that this is the beginning of Canto Two:

The poet began Canto Two (on his fourteenth card) on July 5, his sixtieth birthday (see note to line 181, "today"). My slip - change to sixty-first.

What I find interesting here, is why the 'slip' of his birthday? The "Old Calendar" wouldn't change this, would it? I believe there are astrological implications to Shade's birthday; the year between 60 and 61 is known in astrology as the important "Saturn Return", that occurs every 30 years (see my Notes 76). Perhaps this is what might be highlighted by the "etc."?  That is, if you can see that other "etc.s" highlight something thematic?



3 years 7 months ago

For that slippery slip check out p. 26 of Matthew Roth's 'The Composition of Nabokov's Pale Fire'.


3 years 7 months ago

thanks, just looked it up. Here it is for others to enjoy the joke:


HM does not include the final sentence of the note to line 167: “My slip—change to


Comment: This was a happy accident. It appears that the mistake was, at first,

Nabokov’s own. Rather than fixing it, he simply transferred the blame to Kinbote and allowed us

to enjoy the joke at Kinbote’s expense


Quite likely that is what happened, but it may be that he found it felicitous because it enhances the thematic emphasis. 

William Dane

3 years 6 months ago

Perhaps the publishing thread in Transparent Things is of note here. For instance in chapter 19 the ghostly narrator reports that protag Hugh

"liked to read a set of proofs twice, once for the defects of the type and once for the virtues of the text. It worked better, he believed, if the eye check came first and the mind's pleasure next. He was now enjoying the latter and while not looking for errors, still had a chance to catch a missed boo-boo--his own or the printer's. He also permitted himself to query, with the utmost diffidence, in the margin of a second copy (meant for the author), certain idiosyncrasies of style and spelling, hoping the great man [the writer-character Mr. R.] would understand that not genius but grammar was being questioned." (Pg 74 of the Vintage Ed.)