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.)
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."
This permanent uncertainty will not do, I would suggest.
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,
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.
Thorny questions abound: Is it Botkin with whom Shade is friendly, Botkin who flees to Utana with the manuscript of "Pale Fire"?
Would that mean that all of Shade's and "Kinbote"'s give-and-take about Zembla recounted in the commentary is false?
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 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.
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
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
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.
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