On Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 9:58 AM, John Morris <morris.jr@comcast.net> wrote: 

"malignd" writes:

What is the point, if one can ask after "points," of Botkin? I've never understood what VN intended by this. If it's  just another wrinkle, it seems to me one too many. Kinbote is rich and vital and wonderful and bizarre. That he is the projection or alter ego of a cipher (in the novel's context) is cause for despair. If Kinbote isn't real, and I think that's what is implied, not only am I personally disappointed, but don't know how to grasp Botkin. Was it Botkin who lived next door to Shade or is that fantasy? Etc. I don't find these considerations exciting.

I substantially agree with this, and offer a fuller description of what seem to me to be the problems posed by taking Botkin seriously in the world of Pale Fire.  (The following is adapted from my piece, "Genius and Plausibility," on the Zembla site, in which I defend a Shadean interpretation.)

I did enjoy the picture in your recent note of "Pale Fire, a novel by John Shade".  If Pale Fire had had a title page like that, it would overcome the strongest objections to the Shadean theory, I think.  I don't think the situation would be as clear-cut as you said, though.  Many readers in Shade's world would wonder whether Hazel and her death were real.  

There is another description of the "frame" [of the novel]: Vseslav Botkin, a deluded Russian refugee professor, imagines himself to be Kinbote, and . . . does what, precisely? The problem lies in the relationship between Shade and Kinbote/Botkin if we view Kinbote/Botkin as an existing personage and not a creation of Shade himself.

Boyd, in PF:MAD, gives Botkin no clear role in his interpretation. At several points, Boyd uses the locution "stands behind" to describe Botkin's relation to Kinbote. But he does not appear to acknowledge that this phrase needs a good bit of unpacking.


"The book is so steeped in Zembla," he notes, "that it is never quite resolvable whether it exists or not within the world of the book, so that a scene like Shade's public defense of Kinbote from identification as the ex-king of Zembla may or may not [my italics] blur the reality of what has happened in New Wye."

I think that phrase raises a good point.  If there's even doubt about whether Zembla exists, that scene definitely blurs "the reality of what has happened in New Wye".  

This permanent uncertainty will not do, I would suggest.

I'm not sure why not.  Nabokov, according to his wife, objected to the idea of a dramatis personae in the book because it replaced uncertainty with certainty (to paraphrase).

A decision really needs to be made among (at least) five alternatives:

[snipping the ones I don't see as likely]

3) Zembla is real, and so too is Kinbote, in the sense that "Kinbote" is a sustained delusion of a Russian faculty member, which delusion is inexplicably tolerated at Wordsmith,

I imagine you've seen the discussions of this point.  If Kinbote acquired or revealed his delusion in, say, February, the college might not have been able to do much but let the situation go till the end of the term.  And people have said that back then, there weren't many qualified professors in Russian or Scandinavian studies and they could get away with a lot.

and encouraged by Shade. Botkin lets it be known that he is "really" Charles Kinbote, who is "really" the exiled King of Zembla.

4) As a variation on #3, Zembla is not real, but all the rest applies: that is, Botkin invents both Zembla and the Kinbote persona, which delusion is inexplicably tolerated at Wordsmith, encouraged by Shade, etc.

Number 4 is the only one I've ever considered as a possible "real story".  Botkin is a Russian scholar who goes mad, possibly as the result of cerebral sclerosis, and believes himself to be the former king of Zembla now living in exile under the name Charles Kinbote.  He quite possibly tells his neighbor, John Shade, his delusional escape from Zembla as if he were not the king, and urges Shade to write a poem about it.  Later he acquires the poem and writes a commentary on it, taking the opportunity to tell the reader a more or less similar version of his story, again pretending (for the most part) that he's not the king.

I'm moving your questions here to answer them according to the above:

Thorny questions abound: Is it Botkin with whom Shade is friendly, Botkin who flees to Utana with the manuscript of "Pale Fire"?
It's Botkin believing himself to be the king of Zembla living incognito.
Would that mean that all of Shade's and "Kinbote"'s give-and-take about Zembla recounted in the commentary is false?

I don't see why.
Has Botkin translated whatever actual relationship he had with Shade into a fictional version? Are we to understand that Botkin urged Shade to write a poem about Russia? That he wished to show him a photograph of the Royal Palace in Moscow? et cetera.

I don't think so.

However, the reader who wants to reconstruct all of the real story does confront some thorny questions: When does Botkin turn into Kinbote?  Is Botkin straight or gay?  Is the conversion permanent, or do the personalities alternate?  Do they teach or have they taught in the same department?  How long has Botkin been at Wordsmith?  Are events before Kinbote meets Shade (such as his parachuting into the U.S.) "real", or do they correspond to anything "real"? What do other people in New Wye know or believe about him?  That he's insane, certainly, but just because he changed his name and seems to be denying that he's Russian, or because he thinks he's the king?  These aren't very important to my enjoyment of the novel, though.

I do not see much to choose from, frankly, among any of these alternatives. None of them makes a great deal of sense (though the fifth has the virtue of simplicity). All of them require tedious confabulation on the part of Botkin. They require a radical suspension of belief in the entire ground-situation of the book.

I'd say Kinbote's Zemblan delusions already require that.

To put it another way: Botkin and Kinbote are mutually exclusive personalities, in any believable "world." You can't have the Great Beaver in all his double-ping-pong-tabled glory, and at the same time maintain that, in some unspecifiable way, he "is" Vseslav Botkin. This can only happen on paper, not in any plausibly real world

Delusions of grandeur and even the rare multiple-personality disorder are well known.  Nabokov enjoyed a science-fictional version of the latter in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, I'm told, based The Eye on a similar disorder.

Kinbote's sporadic awareness that he's somehow connected to Botkin may be psychologically strange, but I think it's fine for fiction. 

However, the question of what "happens on paper" is precisely the fascinating question in Pale Fire, and Kinbote-as-Botkin is perfectly plausible if we see the entire work as Shade's--a work that indeed "happens on paper" and nowhere else. The reduction of Kinbote to Botkin is one more mirror in Shade's funhouse of self-reflections. It is also a most revealing one: Shade does not re-imagine himself solely as a Zemblan with a "magical radiance" contained within his mind. In addition, he creates an entirely pathetic, and pitiable, alternative: an anguished Russian exile who invents not only his monarchy, but Zembla itself. This distinction between a magical nostalgia and pure invention is central to Shade's grief. He fears that his dreams of immortality for himself and Hazel may more closely resemble those of a Botkin than a Kinbote

I don't see how there can be a Kinbote without a Botkin.  If he's inventing Zembla, then he has to be inventing himself, and there has to be a reality that he is not (or only rarely) thinking about.  Or did you mean the commentator could have told his own real story as he sees it?

Leaving aside the Shadean controversy, I hope these reflections on Botkin's status in the novel may help shape an interesting discussion -- and thanks to Ron Rosenbaum for initiating it.


Jerry Friedman
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