Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Realighting on Pale Fire

Attention conservation notice: Need I say more? Apparently ...

My ex-forum-mates from the NYTimes bookchat remind me that Pale Fire turns golden on 28 May; 50 years of puzzling over the pun-riddled text has yielded no clear answers, as evidenced by the current Nabokov Online Journal, whether to questions clearly posed ("where are the crown jewels? [1]", despite Nabokov's clear answer) or inferred (internal authorship [2]) (or should that be interred / infernal?). A great deal of ingenuity has been expended on treating such questions as the key to the problem, supposing that the problem so framed is the lock behind which all subsidiary questions will be resolved. A tough nut to crack, with little to show for it "except the broken bits of a nutshell"; one of the many problems with such framing is that it subordinates all of the other problems embedded in Pale Fire, the crown jewels strewn through the text; as I've complained before (see "Nabokov's Theme, below); Pale Fire is not designed to be one overarching problem, but many interlocking ones. But underarching the oeuvre are a watermarked concern with an otherworld (potustoronnost', an orbit overlapping the afterlife ... [I tend towards eccentric usage of ellipses]), per Véra, and an unflagging dedication of the work to Véra herself (howevermuch he strayed outside the text).

Which brings me first to Kobaltana ("not in the text", per the Index; where the crown jewels are, per Nabokov, pace [1]). While I missed the first iterations of Pale Fire discussion on the NYTimes BookForum, I had the good fortune to arrive just before consideration of Brian Boyd's Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery commenced, which in turn drew him (anagrammatically as brainbody) into the colloquy, alerted by Kurt Johnson (Nabokov's Blues). Both subsequently cited the bookchat in follow-ups in Nabokov Studies #6, but the cites are longlost from the old gray lady's site. In Boyd's case, "Azure Afterimages: Reflections on Nabokov's Pale Fire" (for those with muse access), some of my comments are preserved, but further speculations were aliced all lost down the memory hole, which I'll recover after my own extraction from his article:
At the outset of the New York Times Book Forum discussion of NPF, David Haan (nnyhav, posting #3540, 1 July 2000) pointed to the Webster's Third [but not Second!] definition of "cobalt": "2. the azure of the cloudless sky," adding that this heightens the aptness of the relationship between Kobaltana and Cedarn, Utana. To spell that out: both Kobaltana and Cedarn, Utana are in the mountains, are deserted resorts, have names ending in "-tana", and are associated with the opening couplet of "Pale Fire,", Kobaltana through the "azure" echo, and Cedarn via the waxwing [...]
"Kobaltana" in the Zemblan mountains also resonates powerfully with the Goethe-Erlking-"elfin"-alderwood motif associated so strongly with Charles II's crossing of Zembla's dividing range. The word "cobalt" derives, according to Webster's Third [& 2nd], from German
Kobold, meaning "cobalt" or "kobold," the latter of which it defines as "1. a gnome held esp. in German folklore to inhabit underground places [...] 2. a domestic spirit often held in German folklore to be mischievous.
That "Erlking"-elfin-elfinwood connection (see the "elfinwood" as Charles II crosses the mountain, in C.149) recurs also in Cedarn. For a fortnight Kinbote anticipates the mountain resort eagerly in imagination: "I had my demons fill my goetic mirror to overflow with those pink and mauve cliffs" (C.287); as David Haan notes, "goetic mirror" nicely evokes Goethe by a kind of false etymology." [...]

Boyd selects that which supports and elaborates his thesis, but elides the further coloration I gave to these points in my speculations: dropping just the -ana, I take cobalt and cedarnut (pale yellow, esp. evident in its oil) in the context of color opponency and chromatic adaptation, which combine to affect color perception; the canonical example is the "flag illusion" in which staring fixedly at the green, black and yellow creates an afterimage of the red, white and blue [detailed explainer here]. The opponency between red and green in Pale Fire has been widely discussed, but that between (pale) blue and yellow (instantiated even in the initial couplet, "false azure" the undoing of yellowish bird) unremarked. Goethe is relevant here as well, in his color "theory", now taken as more perceptual than physical (though he contends "the highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory."; his theory posits blue and yellow pure colors, shade and light refracted through a medium). As a synesthete (see Chapter 2 of Speak, Memory), color perception was among Nabokov's abiding interests. But I'll admit the full ramifications are beyond my ken, perhaps inenubilable; still, somehow I think it peeks through the title of Boyd's article.

But, aside from reunioning chatbuddies, this post was prompted by postings on NABOKV-L (synchrondipitous with [2]) that I caught out of the corner of my eye. Anamorphosis is, I suppose, a matter of perspective, but taking on Nabokov from a fresh angle oft rewards with new insights. The topic "Distortions and slanting views" adds a pendent to my (I thought speculative) rumination on proper names (see "Waxwing philosophical", below), with Mikhail Epstein on the proper naming of Nabokovians:
The Russian name Nabokov means "leaning sideways" or "on one's side" (perhaps the closest English approximation would be "Sideman"). It seems that this name itself contains the formula of his style and conveys the magic of this bending, this slanting movement of all things: not straight but skewed on its side like a ray of light at sunset.
Or through a prismatic bezel (for which I find Google's top hit oddly apposite.)

Addendum 24.3: speaking of proper names, thanks to Matt Roth, I find both my own middle names [my alternate handle drjhaan] stitched in to one of Quilty's aliases in Lolita: “'Johnny Randall' is an Americanized version of the old ballad 'Lord Randal,' ... a common enough name that any reference to the ballad would seem tenuous were it not for the following, taken from Louise Strong Pound’s essay on 'Oral Literature,' which appeared in several different publications ... including The Cambridge History of American Literature (1921): 'Lord Randal . . . appears as Johnny Randall in Colorado, Jimmy Randall in Illinois, Jimmy Ransing in Indiana, Johnny Ramble in Ohio, and Jimmy Randolph in North Carolina.'

[1] James Ramey has a lot of fun decoding typographical variants, what is and isn't italicised in the Index, but doesn't account for or mention all of them (as such a decoding must, eg line refs 1000 for Charles II, 681 for Uran the Last). On the chess, he has 'ferz' as Russian for pawn where Alladaye has it as Russian for queen, so maybe it promoted ... but I know fers as an archaic chess piece sometimes used in fairy chess, along with alfil (cf Chas II's dad), both limited diagonal movers. Still, a fun ride, if a bit longer than need be ...
Along these lines, something else dredged up from my posts to the old NYTimes bookchat, a web of sense? a typo-graphical connect-the-dotty map of cross-references within the Commentary:
Commentary making reference to other Lines: C[L]
231[501]; 431[440]; 475[312];
835-838[915,923-924,925-930]; 181-182[1-4,131,236-244]
Commentary citing other commentary: Ca=>Cb same as Cb<=Ca "Ca says see Cb"; both ways Ca<=>Cb
109=>634; 189=>627; 270<=>993-995; 584=>664[662]; 1-4[181-182]=>998<=470
Multiple connections (more than 2) shown by repeated references in bold:
90-93<=230[90-98, 5-12] =>347<=293 =>230
101=>549[517] & 169 =>549<=49<=768
Gitten fancy:
619 =>502=>550=>12=>39-40=>962<=12=>894<=376-377=>Foreword[735]=>991<=417-21
& 991=>47-48=>691<=62<=>47-48
Gitten rapt around the axle:
209 =>181 & 120-121=>181<= 167 & 408<=181=>286
& 98=>802[803]<=238[243-244]=>181<= 119 =>1000[1]<=71(-72)<= 61
& 71-72=>130<=>681=>747[741]
& 130<=80=>275=>433-434[261-267]<=80 & 433-434=> 240
& 275=>247 & 79<=42=>130=>149<=70<=42
& 70=>171<=949/2 & 171=>17,29<=596 & 17,29<=131-132
NB: C61 refers to C71-72 where only C71 is present. 802[803] is a notational glitch, C98 says "For other vivid misprints see note to line 802" but it is C803 that deals with "a misprint".

[2] René Alladaye proposes yet another internal author or two; I'm waiting for someone to propose Professor Pnin. Tyro error in footnote 32: word golf restricts to substitution without rearrangement; more generally, far too much might makes right, however interesting the perspective provided by anamorphosis may be (or is it tother way round?), and that bound far too tightly to Holbein's The Ambassadors. For "reigniting an old debate" this is a damp squib on an overlong fuse.

Appended, an index of posts primarily Nabokovian to date (* marks Pale Fire-related)
Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya
Nabokov's Theme the chess problem analogy
Pale Fire: A Primer* and who wrote it from the inside
The Garden*
From Marvell to Pushkin* Shade's titles, poet-critics
The Antinomy of Criticism* Maud Bodkin
Toveraish* Véra, vira
Eternal Return* Platonov connection?
Knowing the Score: Prokofiev connections
Taking Readings on Exegetes of our Vladimir Nabokov Studies #10
The Original of Laura
Waxwing philosophical: a hermeneutic interpretation* on names
The Original of Laura Reprise
Lives of the Poet* I left Samuel Johnson off the list of poet-critics
Reversification * Bend Sinister rebent
When the prose turns weird, the weird get going Karshan and the Art of Play


wearing a sou'wester in a nor'easter

struck from behind
walking the wrong way
on a one-way street
both because and despite
his past caught up with him
didn't see it coming
never knew what hit him
angel of history

cf 13 ways of looking both ways and the conceptual turn (IX)