Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



A few years back, I summarized the state of the authorship debate within Pale Fire; some of Carolyn Kunin's insights have since been consolidated by DeRewel & Roth [pdf] in the 2009 Nabokov Online Journal, though I continue to stand behind my own take on it, and the contention that emphasis on internal authorship has eclipsed more important and interesting questions.

That's not to say it isn't an important or interesting question, or that its answer doesn't have consequences, such as recasting L213-4: "A syllogism: other men die; but I / Am not another; therefore I'll not die", if Kinbote is Shade's post-stroke other (ergo, a broken minor premise). Fortunately, at least insofar as Botkin is a third-party candidate, prior art can shed some light. In Pale Fire, Professor Pnin makes a cameo appearance, and Hurricane Lolita is mentioned. But I'll go back to a device from a still earlier book, also involving the loss of a child: his first American novel, Bend Sinister. Nabokov advised readers to "caress the details"; I'm going to rub them the wrong way.

First, a speculative take on Hamlet (Nabokov often embedded his best lit-crit in his fiction), in protagonist Adam Krug's colloquy with academic colleague Ember, in Chapter 7: "... Krug suggests tampering with Hamlet's name too. Take 'Telemachos', he says, which means 'fighting from afar'—which again was Hamlet's idea of warfare. Prune it, remove the unnecessary letters, all of them secondary additions, and you get the ancient 'Telmah'. Now read it backwards. Thus does a fanciful pen elope with a lewd idea and Hamlet in reverse gear becomes the son of Ulysses slaying his mother's lovers."

Backing up to Chapter 3, Ember again: "At first I was struck by the unpardonable thought that he was delivering himself of a monstrous joke like the time he read backwards from end to beginning that lecture on space to find out whether his students would react in any manner. They did not ..."

A bit further on, or back, we have Krug stopped for a pass at a bridge by illiterate soldiers in Chapter 2: "'Let me read you what this little paper is meant to convey,' said Krug, stretching out a helpful hand. / 'Read on while I hold it,' said the thin one, holding it upside down. / 'Inversion,' said Krug, 'does not trouble me, but I need my glasses.'" Having to return for a signature, the pass is marked with the fat soldier's name, which turns out to be Gurk. Krug backwards, as Nabokov notes in his introduction: "The Russian circumference, krug, turns into a Teutonic cucumber, gurk, with an additional allusion to Krug's reversing his journey across the bridge." As with many of his mischievous hints, he doesn't quite spell it out: Throw in adam backwards into GURK: maG / dURaK: in Russian, the first word carries the same meaning as the English mage (magician, person of superior learning and wisdom), the second, durak, means fool. As the maxim goes, Many are the fools who believe they have attained wisdom, but few are the sages who know they have achieved folly.

Returning to Pale Fire, we have obvious reversible names in the half-brothers Odon and Nodo, and Jakob Gradus reflects mirror-maker Sudarg of Bokay. Botkin seems to stand behind Kinbote, but who stands behind Botkin? The device used in Bend Sinister, suitably configured, provides an answer. It's figurated in C803, on misprints: "There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case, where not only two, but three words were involved. The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper's account of a Russian tsar's coronation had, instead of korona (crown), the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically 'corrected', it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet."

Kinbote becomes Botkin by eliminating a letter and reversing syllables. Botkin, in turn, when reversed and a letter dropped, becomes nikto, Russian for 'nobody'. In other words, there is no man behind the man behind the curtain. Nabokov redacted a playful hint in his introduction to Speak, Memory * when he revised the envoi, but Boyd recovered the original draft as supporting the Shadean theory in the biography (VNAY 445):
"As John Shade says somewhere:
Nobody will heed my index, I suppose,
But through it a gentle wind ex Ponto blows."
... 'ex ponto' being Latin for 'from the bridge', putting us back with Krug and Gurk. (Or with Ovid's letters, posted from exile, post-Metamorphoses.) Ember may be marginally invoked in the commentary: "After line 174 there is a false start in the draft: I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost 'man' / In Spanish . . ." And, returning to the final line of the poem, I'll point out that "empty barrow" might Anglosaxonically connote a cenotaph, a tomb within which there is no body.

As far as internal authorship goes, does Nabokov write himself into his novels, or out of them? Bend Sinister ends with one of the most marked authorial intrusions of all time, when the narrator bestows upon Krug the blessing of "a sudden moonburst of madness"; such madness may set alight the wondrous strange pale fireworks, with further reference to Hamlet, putting a twist in "when he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin." But Nabokov's last, unfinished novel concerns a writer's self-effacement. And in another instance of Nabokov citing nobody, responding to a question about the pronunciation of his name, Nabokov says, "Every author whose name is fairly often mentioned in periodicals develops a bird-watcher's or caterpillar-picker's knack when scanning an article. But in my case I always get caught by the word 'nobody' when capitalized at the beginning of a sentence."

* Another item from the introduction to Speak, Memory, on the chess problem included there: "My most amusing invention, however, is a 'White-retracts-move' problem which I dedicated to E.A. Znosko-Borovski, who published it, in the nineteen-thirties (1934?), in the émigré daily Poslednie Novosti, Paris." Once again, moving backwards to move forward. And, as it happens, with an anagrammatic solution: White retracts PxN=R and plays PxR=N mate.