Nabokov’s Pale Ghost: A Scholar Retracts

Something rare and beautiful happened the other evening at the Nabokov celebration at Town Hall. Actually, the whole evening was quite lovely for word lovers, a commemoration of the centenary of Nabokov’s birth (sponsored by PEN, The New Yorker and Vintage Books) with remarks by admirers such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Martin Amis and David Remnick, by Nabokov’s son Dmitri, and commentary by scholars such as Alfred Appel and Brian Boyd.

But the beautiful moment–actually, for those Nabokov aficionados who caught its significance, a stunning, world-altering moment–was a remark toward the close of the program by Mr. Boyd, the author of the monumental two-volume literary biography of Nabokov. He was speaking of Pale Fire , which he called Nabokov’s “most perfect book,” and of Zembla, the imaginary Northern Kingdom apparently invented by the ostensible narrator of much of Pale Fire , Charles Kinbote, who claimed to have been King of Zembla before ending up a sad, mad dream-haunted exile in an American college town.

Mr. Boyd was speaking of “Kinbote’s beautiful Zembla” and the 999-line poem that opens Pale Fire , a poem by a murdered poet, John Shade, whose final manuscript Kinbote has stolen. He was speaking of “the exhilarating discoveries” one makes in rereading Pale Fire , “as we gradually detect a dozen concealed patterns … each pattern with its far-reaching implications that have nothing to do with what I wrongly proposed in the biography–that Shade invents Kinbote .”

Wait a minute here! Stop the presses! This was the rare and beautiful moment: A scholar has had the courage and humility to admit he was wrong. Wrong not about a detail, but about a fundamental conjecture he made, in this case a conjecture at the heart of his vision of Pale Fire . A conjecture which has had a profound influence in the past decade on the way subsequent scholars, critics and readers have looked at that radiant and luminescent novel–one that is, I would argue, not only his “most perfect,” as Mr. Boyd has it, but his most seductive, mesmerizing and maddening, one that can become, as it has for me, the pleasurable obsession of a lifetime. A conjecture that, on the evening of April 15, Mr. Boyd simply pulled the rug out from under.

Town Hall was packed that evening, packed to the rafters with Nabokov admirers, but I’m not sure how many caught the stunning significance of Mr. Boyd’s retraction, which he didn’t elaborate upon. But I was surprised there weren’t some audible gasps from the audience. I, for one, couldn’t believe my ears until I replayed the tape I’d made. It was a dreamlike moment, indeed almost a dream come true for me, since I’d written several columns in these pages disputing the conjecture about Pale Fire Mr. Boyd had just, like a bolt from the blue, retracted. [See, for instance, "Homage to V. Botkin (and Mary McCarthy)," June 24, 1996.]

It’s not a mere academic question, the narrator enigma in Pale Fire , it’s not a quibble. It goes to the heart of the mystery within the fathomlessly refractive mirror-world of the novel, a question about the nature of its design, of the design of creation itself.

And there’s more to the story of Mr. Boyd’s retraction, as I discovered the next morning when I reached Mr. Boyd at his room at the Algonquin and he disclosed to me in an absolutely fascinating conversation the remarkable new conjecture he’d devised to replace the one he’d retracted. A new conjecture that involves revisiting the issue of the Afterlife in Pale Fire , one that invokes communication from the dead, from the pale ghost of the girl who haunts Pale Fire .

But before getting into the new solution Mr. Boyd proposes for the most deeply divisive controversy over Pale Fire , a solution whose outlines are disclosed in print here for what I believe is the first time, one that Mr. Boyd will elaborate upon in a new book on Pale Fire due out from Princeton University Press next fall, let’s review the evolution of the Pale Fire narrator enigma: Who wrote the commentary? The novel opens (following a brief forward) with a 999-line poem in rhymed heroic couplets, a poem called “Pale Fire,” a poem that, in the discursive, digressive style of Pope’s Essay on Man , circles around a personal tragedy, the drowning-suicide of the poet John Shade’s daughter Hazel.

The poem is followed by some 250 pages of commentary, keyed by line numbers to passages in the poem, commentary (followed by an index) which makes up the bulk of the novel. The writer of the commentary identifies himself as one Charles Kinbote, as an exile from a kingdom called Zembla in which he was, until deposed, the reigning monarch Charles Xavier Vseslav. An exile who escapes and takes up residence incognito in a small Appalachian college town where he teaches languages and befriends a famous American poet, John Shade, who is also his next-door neighbor.

When Shade is murdered, in a case of mistaken identity, the man calling himself Kinbote makes off with the manuscript of his last work, the poem “Pale Fire,” and flees across America to a motel cabin in the West, where he writes his commentary while growing ever more mad. A commentary in which he attempts to prove that the poem, which on the surface bears no evidence of his existence, was–when properly deciphered– really inspired by and secretly about him . About his lost kingdom, his flight and the assassin sent by the new regime to seek him out and murder him (and who, he claims, mistakenly murders Shade with a bullet meant for him).

This summary in no way comes close to capturing what makes Pale Fire such a unique literary entity. It falsely suggests that what makes Pale Fire so obsessively intriguing, in a league with Lolita on a level above, I believe, all other Nabokov works, is some intricate, self-reflective, cold and glittering literary game. To the contrary, in certain ways Pale Fire is Nabokov’s most tender, earnest, readable and humorous book.

The controversy over the commentary began almost as soon as the 1962 publication of Pale Fire , with a now-famous New Republic essay by Mary McCarthy about the novel (an essay entitled “A Bolt From the Blue”) which called it “one of the very great works of art of the 20th century,” and which advanced a strikingly ingenious conjecture about the identity of the mad commentator, Charles Kinbote: “The real, real story” of Pale Fire , she argued, is that Kinbote and his Zemblan Kingdom are both the invention of a barely mentioned figure in the novel, a fellow faculty member of Kinbote and Shade, a fellow identified in the commentary only as “V. Botkin.” Although V. Botkin is referred to only briefly, he occupies a disproportionate amount of space in the index “Kinbote” has appended to his commentary. And from clues in the index and elsewhere, Mary McCarthy argued that Kinbote was a fictive persona created anagrammatically by V. Botkin (a name enclasped, I’ve just noticed, by the initials V.N.).

It was a brilliant conjecture which was adopted by most readers and critics for nearly three decades until Brian Boyd sought to overturn it. It was a conjecture which Mr. Boyd’s own research in the Nabokov archives seemed to confirm. According to a footnote in Mr. Boyd’s second volume of his Nabokov biography, “At the end of his 1962 diary, Nabokov drafted some phrases for possible interviews: ‘I wonder if any reader will notice the following details: 1) that the nasty commentator is not an ex-King and not even Dr. Kinbote but Prof. Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman …’”

There is a detail in that diary entry which Mr. Boyd doesn’t pick up on, and which Mary McCarthy could not have known: Vseslav, the first name of V. Botkin does not occur, as far as I can see, in the text of Pale Fire , not as applied to V. Botkin himself. But it does occur in the index, as the surname of the King of Zembla: Charles Xavier Vseslav . For this and other reasons I’ve always thought Mary McCarthy’s conjecture was a strong one, a delightful one, one that didn’t close off speculation about the reflective properties of the novel but further opened them up.

And so there the matter and the consensus stood until 29 years later, when Mr. Boyd, a professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, published Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years , the second volume of his deservedly acclaimed biography. Mr. Boyd claimed to have discovered in Nabokov’s papers a suggestive clue that overturned Mary McCarthy’s V. Botkin conjecture: “Four years after Pale Fire , when he drafted the foreword to the revised Speak, Memory , Nabokov concluded with a comment on the new index to his autobiography. He added an envoi:

As John Shade says somewhere:

Nobody will heed my index,

I suppose,

But through it a gentle wind ex

Ponto blows.

In other words, in Mr. Boyd’s interpretation of this passage (which Nabokov decided not to include in the revision of Speak, Memory ), Shade is claiming authorship of the index to Pale Fire , an index supposedly written (after Shade’s death) by the commentator who claims to be Kinbote. Therefore Shade equals Kinbote, Shade wrote Kinbote’s commentary.

Mr. Boyd claims this “piece of evidence proves conclusively that Nabokov had John Shade in mind as the author of Foreword, poem, commentary and index” in Pale Fire . It’s a conjecture that reduces the number of fictive voices in the novel from three: Shade, “Kinbote” and Botkin, to one, Shade and Shade alone, a poet who wrote a poem and then invented a mad Russian commentator on it (and faked, or fantasized his own murder in the commentary).

Mr. Boyd’s theory has become the critical and scholarly consensus in the past eight years. No less a personage than Princeton’s Michael Wood, author of the best recent book on Nabokov, The Magician’s Doubts , says he finds Mr. Boyd’s Shade-created-Kinbote conjecture “persuasive,” insofar as it may “represent Nabokov’s own secret sense of his novel, or of his novel’s secret” (although Mr. Wood goes on to say that he thinks the novel is better not reduced to a single “authorized”–by the author–conjecture).

But Mr. Boyd’s insistence that he has “conclusive evidence” ignores a couple of problems which rendered it, to my mind, inconclusive long before Mr. Boyd retracted it. What do we make of Nabokov’s far less ambiguous diary entry in which he appears unequivocally to identify Kinbote as a creation of V. Botkin? And why did Nabokov reject publication of the lines in which John Shade seems to claim authorship of Kinbote’s index and Kinbote. Could V.N. have considered publishing these lines merely to pull the rug out from under Mary McCarthy because her pre-emptive “Bolt from the Blue” essay had denied him the pleasure of disclosing “to interviewers” one of the novel’s most ingenious secrets (as I speculated in one of my essays on the question)? A rug-pulling he considered but rejected because it would involve the sacrifice of V. Botkin?

And if the evidence was so “conclusive,” what suddenly caused Mr. Boyd to conclude that he was wrong, as he announced to the Town Hall audience that night? When I reached Mr. Boyd the next morning at the Algonquin he spoke of a kind of epiphany which resulted in a six-week frenzy in which he poured forth a book-length revision of his vision of Pale Fire , centering around a brand-new conjecture for the creator of Zembla: Shade’s dead daughter Hazel. Here’s how it came about: For the past two years, Mr. Boyd told me, he’d abandoned Nabokov studies to focus on a biography of Karl Popper, the great logician. But he found himself lured back to the Kinbote question by a debate over it on an Internet discussion list of Nabokov scholars. He was asked to prepare a response for the list to questions raised about his Shade-Kinbote conjecture, and in the process of plunging once again into the reflecting pool that is Pale Fire , he plucked from beneath the surface the drowned body of Hazel Shade, the poet’s daughter.

While at first I’d hoped that Mr. Boyd had abandoned his Kinbote-Shade conjecture to return to, and resurrect V. Botkin as Kinbote’s creator (my position, and I believe V.N.’s) I found myself spellbound, listening to Mr. Boyd’s even more elaborate Hazel Shade conjecture, admiring his ecstatic imaginative engagement with the novel, a sustained ecstasy I share, having reread it perhaps 10 times since it came out.

Hazel Shade is an unfortunate ugly duckling who never grows into a swan. Whose anger at the casual cruelties of her looks-obsessed young peers appears to manifest itself in a psychokinetic fashion, including destructive poltergeist phenomena. One night, after she’s abandoned by a blind date, she stumbles into a half-frozen lake and drowns herself, shattering John Shade’s world. Mr. Boyd’s new conjecture argues that her father’s poem “Pale Fire” is, in effect, the ugly duckling’s swan song. That Hazel has, from beyond the grave, inspired in Charles Kinbote a grandiose fantasy that he is the exiled ruler of the land of Zembla. A beautiful but demented fantasy which he imparts to the poet John Shade, causing Shade to write the poem entitled “Pale Fire.” Hazel then is the pale ghost writer of “Pale Fire,” a poem she inspires in part to warn her father of the murderous fate that awaits him, but more, I think Mr. Boyd is saying, as a kind of muselike gift from the Great Beyond.

Mr. Boyd pointed out to me that an earlier Nabokov story, “The Vane Sisters,” climaxed with an instance of communication from beyond the grave inserted into a manuscript. But it’s also true that in a note appended to a volume in which “The Vane Sisters” was published, Nabokov remarked that “in this story the narrator is supposed to be unaware that his last paragraph has been used acrostically by two dead girls to assert their mysterious participation in the story. This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction.” (I suppose this remark could be a bit of disinformation, but I doubt it.)

Still, farfetched as Mr. Boyd’s new conjecture might seem at first, he says that when he adumbrated it at length to other skeptics they professed themselves won over. And so I will reserve judgment in the space remaining this week (though I plan to return to a fuller discussion of it in a subsequent column) on the arguments for and against it. I’ll close instead by paying tribute to Mr. Boyd for having the courage and humility to retract an earlier conjecture and the imaginative daring to come up with one as provocative and potentially fruitful as this one. As Mr. Boyd put it to me at the close of our phone conversation, he was inspired by the spirit of Karl Popper to risk reinventing his vision of Pale Fire , by Popper’s belief that knowledge is advanced only by the venturing of “falsifiable” propositions, hypotheses coherent enough to be disproved. Whether Mr. Boyd’s conjecture is in fact “falsifiable” in theory or practice remains to be seen. But I would like to add one detail he may already have adduced although he didn’t mention it in our conversation, one detail I can’t believe someone else hasn’t noticed, but one I’d be delighted to get credit for noticing first: The ghost within the name “Hazel,” the ghost of Lolita .

It occurred to me as I was staring at the Hazel passages in Pale Fire (which also makes sly reference to a fictive “Hurricane Lolita”) that one could repunctuate the name Hazel, as Haze, L . And if one did, then one would find oneself staring at Lolita’s name: Lolita Haze, daughter of Charlotte Haze (yes, I know the official given name is Dolores). Coincidence? I don’t think so. More likely the product of the “plexed artistry,” the “web of sense” John Shade refers to in “Pale Fire,” “some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind of correlated pattern in the game.” In fact, in truth, a correlated pattern in the brain, in the mind of V.N., a mind which describes itself in the poem “Pale Fire” as “making ornaments of accidents and possibilities.” Brian Boyd has once again made himself an ornament of the accidents and possibilities of Nabokov scholarship and although I may continue to disagree with him (and still believe V. Botkin deserves resurrection) I salute him for it.