Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023377, Tue, 9 Oct 2012 19:24:10 -0400

Re: THOUGHT and Frost
One small point is worth noting: Dante's "shades" can foresee the future
but have no knowledge of the present. To say that Aunt Maud could not send a
warning, however garbled given her late-life aphasia, about a possible
future event would be against the grain of a lot of literary and mythic
"shadedom." I am trying to think of other writers (Homer, Vergil, and Shakespeare,
of course) who employ prophetic ghosts. Pushkin? Gogol? What is the "ghost
tradition" in Russian literature?

In a message dated 10/9/2012 5:50:48 PM Central Daylight Time,
b.boyd@AUCKLAND.AC.NZ writes:
> 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 <i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">
> previous (1991) interpretation of <i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> 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 <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal"> VNAY 454 the letter
> from Nabokov to Andrew Field, decoding the message in the Haunted Barn and
> declaring: “It is <i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">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, <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> 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:
> <i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">Life is a message
> scribbled in the dark.
> <i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> Anonymous.
> 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 <i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> 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. <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> 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 <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">Pale Fire’s<i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal"> 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 <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">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 <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">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 <i
> style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">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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