Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023375, Tue, 9 Oct 2012 03:16:30 +0000

Re: THOUGHT and Frost
Brian Boyd writes:
I am desperately trying not to work on Nabokov, as Barrie Akin knows. In 1997 I was working on a biography of Karl Popper—as I am once again—when a Nabokv-L discussion about my previous (1991) interpretation of Pale Fire became active enough for me to have to comment—which soon ballooned into my 1999 book on the novel. I don’t want that to happen again, although maybe Nabokov’s ghost is jealous of my working on Popper and keeps on dragging me back—it certainly feels like it at times!
I quote at VNAY 454 the letter from Nabokov to Andrew Field, decoding the message in the Haunted Barn and declaring: “It is told by the spirit in the barn.” Véra Nabokov’s July 8, 1980 letter to Igor Yefimov reads: “the point here is that while Kinbote looks in his text for indications of Hentzner’s death announced by Hentzner, actually you can find in it a shadow of warning of aunt Maud about Shade’s death.” Her letter to Gennady Barabtarlo, explaining her Russian rendition of the passage, explains: “The entire message of the ghost, if carefully read, represents a clear warning from Aunt Maud advising Shade not to go to Goldsworth’s” (Barabtarlo, Aerial View, 208).
Nabokov expected it to be possible to deduce the identity of the ghost in the barn from clues within the novel. When Kinbote visits the site of the now-burned barn, he notes it “had stood on the weedy spot Shade was poking at with Aunt Maud’s favorite cane” (C.347). That seems a pregnant hint, given the poltergeist phenomena around Hazel in the months after Maud dies (“Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died. . . . Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance. . . . how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child’s weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud,” C.230, 165-67). In 1956, just as in 1950, Hazel seems “more interested than frightened” by the spooky phenomena, until “a renewal of the ‘scrabbling’ . . . suddenly jarred upon her tired nerves” (C.230, 189-90).
Kinbote notes that “The barn ghost seems to have expressed himself with the empasted difficulty of apoplexy” (C.347, 189), as if it wants to say something “that cannot be phrased by the thick unwilling tongue” (C.347, 189). These descriptions and the slurred words in the message itself seem very close to Shade’s image of Aunt Maud in her last year (“She paused, and groped, and found / What seemed at first a serviceable sound, / But from adjacent cells impostors took / The place of words she needed” (P.203-06, 40).
In her prime Maud had always been interested in “images of doom” (P.89, 36). After describing her final decline Shade wonders “What moment in the gradual decay / Does resurrection choose?” and ends the theme “The trouble is we do not make it seem / Sufficiently unlikely; for the most / We can think up is a domestic ghost.” (P.209-10, P.228-30, 40-41) before shifting first to a phrase that Nabokov must intend to resonate with the message “scrabbled” out in the dark for Hazel, and then to a Maudian image of Maud’s doom:

Life is a message scribbled in the dark.

Espied on a pine’s bark,
As we were walking home the day she died,
An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,
Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,
240 A gum-logged ant.

Notice in Kinbote’s description of the text spelled out by the light in the Barn the word “empasted,” which seems to occur in English literature just once prior to this (to judge by a search through Literature Online), in the second Quarto edition of Hamlet (it becomes “impasted” in the Folio). This may be a further clue to Maud, who as an oil painter must at least have been intimately familiar with the possibilities of the painterly technique of impasto (not as vanishingly rare a word as “empasted” or “impasted,” but uncommon outside the world of painting).
Maud also likes “images of doom.” In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet’s introduction to the speech he would like the First Player to recite about the slaughter of Priam, Hamlet, who later exhorts himself, “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (4.4.66), sets the scene for thoughts of Claudius’s doom with lines about Pyrrhus, the killer of the Trojan King:

[1404] Now is he totall Gules horridly trickt
[1405] With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sonnes,
[1406] Bak'd and empasted with the parching streetes
[1407] That lend a tirranus and a damned light
[1408] To their Lords murther, rosted in wrath and fire. . . .

I fully agree with Barrie Akin that Maud’s ability to foresee events almost three years ahead—events dependent on a conjunction of the caprices of two madmen, Kinbote and Jack Grey—is passing strange, especially in a writer who repeatedly denies that the future is an item of time. Transparent Things, at least as I understand it, depends on the fact that although the ghosts surrounding Hugh Person’s life have seen enough of a sacked waiter’s preparations to know that the hotel where he is staying is about to be set alight, they foresee that if clumsy Hugh, constantly humiliated by gravity, remains at the hotel he will jump from the fire to his death. But in fact, after the ghosts’ failed attempt to divert him from the hotel, he dies by suffocation inside his hotel room. Even these ghosts, with their complete access to past and present, in other words, do not have access to the future. But the spirit in Pale Fire’s barn does have such access, if the Nabokovs’ letters to Field, Efimov and Barabtarlo are taken as a testimony of authorial intention, and I see no reason why they should not be.
It has always seemed to me puzzling that Maud should be allowed this prescience, in view of VN’s usual insistence that the future is open possibility, not merely not-yet-reached actualities. But it also suggests how far VN is ready to stretch possibilities for an artistic purpose. I presume he does not actually believe that icicle-drips and meter-shadows can be affected by ghosts, as they are in “The Vane Sisters”; but he deploys these means to create a story that suggests that the fact that we may not be able to understand, from within this life, messages from an afterlife does not necessarily rule out that such attempted messages might surround us.
Barrie writes:

What troubles me is that, if we accept that Aunt Maud is warning Hazel that John Shade should not cross the lane – and there are references to the Red Admiral (which BB identifies with Hazel herself) and so on in the fractured words spelled out by the light (“Pada atalana…etc”) then we must accept that Aunt Maud’s ghost is able to foresee the future. So if she is attempting to warn John Shade through Hazel about the fate that awaits him if he crosses the lane, why does she not also foresee Hazel’s future death and try to warn Hazel about that – perhaps not to go to Hawaiian bars or on blind dates, or to avoid young men called Pete?

I’m sorry to be flippant about this, but it does seem odd that the ghost of Aunt Maud (who lived long enough, we know, to see Hazel born) should be so solicitous for the life of a sixty-one year old, but not for the life of his daughter - a vulnerable young woman in her early twenties.

We see what happens in the Barn. There Aunt Maud’s warning cannot be construed by anybody within the story’s world (not to mention most outside it!). We have only a third-hand report (not surprising, since the events happened long before Kinbote appeared on the scene, and Shade feels the pain too much to want to talk of his dead daughter) of the poltergeist phenomena around Hazel that would seem to indicate another frustrated non-communication from Aunt Maud. Presumably if Aunt Maud could not communicate or warn about Shade’s murder she could not do either in the case of Hazel’s suicide, but with no one present when Hazel took her life, with Shade reticent and Kinbote arriving on the New Wye scene long after the fact, why should we expect to know?
There’s a good deal more to be said about Aunt Maud in Pale Fire, I suspect, but we need to follow Nabokov’s evidence. I look forward to doing that one day, if others don’t get there first, but I must go back to Popper.

After one last diversion, on the question of Nabokov’s knowledge of Robert Frost. In an interview in the National Observer, June 30, 1964, VN said: “Not everything he wrote was good. There is lots of trash. But I believe that rather obvious little poem on the woods . . . is one of the greatest ever written.” Since he reverts to the same Frost example as in Pale Fire, and since he damns with “lots of trash . . . rather obvious” even when he praises, he seems to have read only enough Frost to find him mostly not much to his taste. He certainly does not engage with different Frost poems again and again as he does with poets he cares for, like Ronsard, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Shakespeare, Keats, Housman, Pushkin and half a dozen other Russians, or even a poet he finds so inexplicably acclaimed, like Eliot, that he felt obliged to read and rebuff his work.

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